Friday, July 23
Acts 20:17-38: This discourse of Paul to the “presbyters” (elders) of Ephesus, serves at least two functions in the Lukan narrative. It is a sort of final testament in which Paul gives an account of his ministry. In this respect it may be compared with the final testaments that closed the ministries of Joshua (Joshua 24) and Samuel (1 Samuel 12). Paul sensed that this was his last time to speak to a local church that he had inaugurated (20:25), and Luke, when he recorded the sermon for posterity, knew it very well.
Second, Paul’s discourse at Miletus adds his voice to the emerging theme of the “apostolic succession,” the thesis that the ordained ministry of the Church derives its authority, not from the local congregations, but from a direct, historical, and Spirit-intended continuity with the authority of the apostles. This theme of the apostolic succession was a major motif in two of the epistles that Paul had written during the previous year, 1 Timothy and Titus. (The modern reluctance to accept either the early dating or the Pauline authorship of those epistles, or even the historicity of this sermon in Acts 20, is based, not on a careful study of the texts themselves, but on a highly questionable theory that refuses to regard the “apostolic succession” as truly apostolic. This dubious and fairly recent theory tends to dictate a serious misunderstanding of the biblical text with respect to the history of the early Church.)
The beginning of Paul’s discourse (20:17) speaks of the “elders” (presbyteroi, the root word of our English “priests”; cf. also 11:30; 14:23; 15:2,4,6,22,23; 16:4; 21:18), whereas in 20:28 Paul speaks of “overseers” (episkopoi, the root word of our English “bishops”). Our earliest interpreter of this passage, Irenaeus of Lyons, writing about 180 and himself a native of Asia Minor, believed that both groups were present (Against the Heresies 3.14.2). Some modern interpreters are reluctant to find an unmistakably hierarchical ministry so early in church history, but there it is.
These presbyters (and/or overseers) are to be shepherds; or, to use the Latin word for shepherd, “pastors” (20:28; cf. also 1 Peter 2:25; 5:1-3). The image of the priest as shepherd comes from the Old Testament (cf. Ezekiel 34:1-6; Zechariah 10:2-3). The sheep do not “employ” the shepherd; God does, and his appointment through the apostolic succession, governed by the Holy Spirit, is the channel of his authority to shepherd the Lord’s flock. He is answerable to the One whose blood was poured out to purchase that flock. Nor can the shepherd properly keep watch over the sheep, unless he keeps watch over himself (cf. 1 Timothy 4:16; 1 Corinthians 9:26-27; 1 Peter 5:1-3).
Paul’s warning about the wolves evidently made a deep impression on the Ephesian presbyters. Earlier in the story we already saw the zeal of the Ephesian church for the preservation of sound doctrine (19:19), and documents from early church history further testify to the care taken at Ephesus to preserve doctrinal purity. The Lord would tell that church, not many years in the future, “I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars” (Revelation 2:2); “But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (2:6).
Indeed, it is significant that, of all Paul’s epistles, his Epistle to the Ephesians is the only one that does not mention a single doctrinal error that needed correction. (Contrast this with the letters to Thessaloniki, Philippi, Galatia, Corinth, Colossae, and Rome.) One of the earliest pastors of the Ephesian church had earlier been warned by Paul on this very matter (cf. 1 Timothy 1:3-7,18-20; 4:1-3; 5:17; 6:3-5,20). In the year 107, Ignatius, the second bishop of Antioch, wrote a letter to the Ephesians in which he commented on their well known tradition of doctrinal orthodoxy (6.2; 9.1).
Saturday, July 24
Mark 9:38-50: This account tells how the Apostles, who were unable—twenty verses earlier (verse 18)—to drive out a demon, now want to prohibit someone else from doing so! Throughout this section of Mark, in fact, we find the Apostles quite out of step with the Master they are supposed to be following.
Chapters 8—10 of Mark are structured around three prophecies that the Lord gives of his coming suffering, death, and resurrection (8:32; 9:31; 10:33f). Then, in turn, each of these dominical prophecies is followed by some totally inappropriate response of the Apostles, who are habitually portrayed by Mark as resistant to Lord’s message of the cross (8:32; 9:32–34; 10:35–38). Then, again in each instance, the Lord goes on to say something further about the implications of the message of the cross, particularly as it affects the actual lives and attitudes of his disciples (8:34f; 9:35; 10:39–45). Their reluctance—in today’s reading—to permit someone else to drive out demons is perfectly in line with the worldly ambition they display in response to the message of the Cross.
Acts 21:1-14: Luke now carefully traces the stages of Paul’s journey southward, first noting his arrival at Cos that Sunday evening. This island, dedicated to Asklepios, the god of healing, was perhaps special to the “beloved physician” as the homeland of Hippocrates, the father of Greek medicine, who sat under the famous plane tree and instructed his medical students in the art of healing.
Paul’s company arrives at Rhodes on Monday and at Patara on Tuesday. Leaving this coastline vessel, they embark on a sea-going ship on their way to the Phoenician city of Tyre, some four-hundred nautical miles to the southeast, sailing around Cyprus. Finding Christians at Tyre (cf. 15:3), they remain for a week, and then press on to Ptolemais, twenty-five miles to the south, and then Caesarea, forty miles further (or thirty-two miles if they went by land).
One nearly gains the impression that Luke is copying out notes from a journal that he maintained on the trip, and one of the general effects of this listing of ports is to heighten the suspense of Paul’s approach to Jerusalem. Even back at Miletus he had spoken of the prophetic warnings that he was receiving with respect to this trip to Jerusalem (20:23), warnings later repeated at Tyre (21:4). Here at Caesarea, however, such forebodings are intensified by the prophecies of Agabus, whom we met earlier in 11:27, and the daughters of Philip the deacon (21:8-11).
Finally, Luke’s attention to detail, with which he narrates each step of this journey, renders all the more remarkable the omission of Antioch. After both the first (14:25) and second (18:22) missionary journeys, Paul took care to report back to the church at Antioch, but on this occasion, and with only a hint of explanation (20:16), he does not do so. Clearly, Paul is looking elsewhere now; his eyes are on Rome, as he had recently suggested in a letter to that city (Romans 15:22-28).
Sunday, July 25
First Kings 19: Understanding the story of Elijah on Mount Horeb (Sinai) presupposes familiarity with the account of Moses on that same mountain. Both men encounter the Lord in the context of a 40-day fast. Whereas the Lord had revealed Himself to Moses in wind, fire, and earthquake (cf. Hebrews 12:18), to Elijah He reveals Himself in a still, small voice. Both men veil their faces.
Both men will appear again next week in our readings for the Feast of the Lord’s Transfiguration (August 6).
Acts 21:15-25: The day after his arrival in Jerusalem, Paul goes to pay his respects to James, the Lord’s “brother,” who appears to be the chief pastor of the church in that city and the leader of its presbyters. This impression is consonant with the early preserved lists of the bishops of the churches, where James is invariably listed as Jerusalem’s first bishop (along with
Mark as Alexandria’s, Evodius as Antioch’s, Linus as Rome’s, and so on).
Unlike the earlier gathering at Jerusalem in Acts 15, this meeting does not mention the “apostles.” These latter have by now all left Jerusalem and have gone to preach the Gospel in other lands, some of which have preserved memories of earlier apostolic evangelization. There is evidence that the apostle Thomas preached in India, for example, Philip in Phrygia, Matthew in Syria and Ethiopia, and Andrew in Thrace. The apostle Peter had moved westward by this time, but the absence of his name from Paul’s letter to the Romans indicates that he had not yet reached the Empire’s capital, where he would, along with Paul, suffer martyrdom.
Meanwhile, at Jerusalem Paul’s report greatly heartens James and the presbyters (verses 19-20), but they express concern about certain misrepresentations of Paul being circulated among the Jewish Christians. Because of Paul’s frequent encounters with hostile Jews in various cities, he can hardly be surprised by such reports, and James is eager to put them to rest. Paul, desiring to be all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:19-23; Romans 7:12), acquiesces in James’s suggestion for how to go about neutralizing the rumors current among the “tens of thousands” (myriads — verse 20) of Jewish Christians. This suggestion involves the rather elaborate public fulfillment of a Nazirite vow (verses 23-24; Numbers 6:1-21).
Monday, July 26
Acts 21:26-39: On the next day Paul begins daily worship in the temple as the sponsor of the four men under vow, to provide the offering required on such occasions (verse 26). A week later he is recognized in the temple by some of the same Asian Jews with whom he has already had so many painful experiences (verse 27; 18:19; 20:19).
It is important to observe that the objections to Paul at Jerusalem do not come from the Jewish Christians living there, but from the Diaspora Jews, whose presence in Jerusalem is occasioned by the feast of Pentecost (20:6,16), a normal time for pilgrimage to the temple. On the streets of the city they had already recognized Trophimus, a Christian from Asia, who accompanied Paul to Jerusalem for the purpose of transporting the collection of money for the poor (20:4; cf. also 2 Timothy 4:20). The Jews from Ephesus accuse Paul of introducing this Gentile into the temple beyond the Court of the Gentiles.
The gravity of their accusation is indicated in the inscription, written in both Greek and Latin, which separated that court from the Court of Women (Josephus, Jewish War 5.5.2; Antiquities 15.11.5 ; cf. also Ephesians 2:14). That inscription, discovered by C. S. Clermont-Ganneau in 1871, says: “No foreigner [non-Jew] is to enter within the balustrade and the embankment that surrounds the sanctuary. If anyone is apprehended in the act, let him know that he must hold himself to blame for the penalty of death that will follow.”
After ejecting Paul from the temple, his accusers close the gates to prevent his seeking refuge therein (verse 30). Because such riots in the temple are by no means rare, particularly during pilgrimages, a Roman guard of a thousand men is stationed in the nearby Fortress Antonia, and news of the disturbance reaches the commander of this unit, Claudius Lysias (23:26), who promptly takes Paul into custody to prevent his being murdered. It was at this very place that an earlier crowd of Jews had insisted to Pilate, “Take Him away!” [Aire touton in Luke 23:18] with respect to Jesus, the same insistence now being made with respect to Paul [Aire auton in Acts 21:36].
To apprehend Paul and put a stop to the riot, the soldiers had descended a long flight of stairs that leads up to the entrance of the Fortress Antonia. Now practically carrying their prisoner, they ascend those stairs, which will effectively give Paul an elevation from which to address the crowd. Perhaps the commander of the fortress had received a bulletin to be on the lookout for a famous Jewish revolutionary from Egypt (described in considerable detail by Josephus, incidentally). In any case, he mistakes his new prisoner for that individual and is surprised when Paul speaks to him in Greek. Thus taken by surprise, he grants Paul’s request to address the mob.
Tuesday, July 27
Mark 10:23-31: Over the centuries of Old Testament history we can discern a deep transformation in Israel’s thinking about wealth. The ancient Wisdom tradition had associated the accumulation of wealth with the virtuous life, as we see in Proverbs. That earlier literature, while not unaware of the spiritual dangers associated with wealth, had spend little space expounding on those dangers. It was Israel’s prophetic voice, rather, beginning with Elijah’s denunciation of Ahab in the 9th century, that began to elaborate the theme of the dangers posed by too much preoccupation with wealth. This was a major theme, of course, in the great social prophets of the 8th century. Gradually it found its way more explicitly in the Wisdom literature as well, Sirach 31:3-5 being one of its more eloquent expressions. Jesus’ approach to the subject in the present text is of a piece with what we find in Sirach.
Jesus here tells the parable of camel and the eye of the needle in response to Peter’s bewilderment of what just transpired with the rich man. As an image of “great difficulty,” this seems an unlikely hyperbole. It strikes the reader, rather, as a simple metaphor for impossibility. Indeed, there is a clear parallel to it in rabbinical literature, which speaks of the impossibility of passing an elephant through the eye of a needle (Babylonian Talmud, Berakoth 55b). Does Jesus mean, then, “”very difficult” or “utterly inconceivable”?
Since there appear to be no circumstances in which it is humanly possible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, various fanciful interpretations have been advanced to explain away the toughness of the text. One of these, manifestly invented by someone who had no idea what he was talking about, refers to a small gate in the wall of Jerusalem. There is not the faintest evidence of such a gate.
On the other hand, since the Lord’s hyperbole contains a bit of metaphor-mixing, others have tried their hand at “correcting” Him. After all, why would anyone try to pass a camel, to say nothing of an elephant, through the eye of a needle? What purpose would it serve? You can’t sew with an elephant. It was apparently to address this difficulty that a tenth century copyist devised a very slight textual change in Luke’s version of the parable. He altered kamelos (camel) to kamilos (rope). A rope, after all, has some affinity to a thread, whereas camel obviously does not. This explanation keeps Jesus for mixing metaphors. This reading of “rope” for “camel,” first found in a manuscript penned in A.D. 949 and copied into a few other manuscripts, is rather clever, even ingenious, but it is also too late to be taken seriously. One should be very cautious about biblical interpretations, much less biblical readings, that don’t appear in the first thousand years of Christian history!
What, then, about the impossibility implied in the Lord’s saying? The subsequent verse, in fact, confirms it. Yes, says Jesus, the salvation of the rich man is humanly impossible. This does not mean, however, that there is an impossibility on God’s side. God can pass a camel through the eye of the needle (verse 27). Let the rich man take care, however. Let him reflect that he is asking God for a miracle.
This metaphor of the camel and the needle, therefore, is something of a parallel with the moving of mountains. Both parables have to do with the power of faith in the God. Salvation is ever a gift of God, not a human achievement.
Peter’s response to this teaching (verse 28) may seem somewhat to exaggerate the size of his own abnegation. Just
how successful was the fishing business that he gave up. After all, every time he catches a fish in the New Testament, the event is regarded as a miracle. “Giving up everything” in Peter’s case may not appear, at first, to involve all that much.
Looks are deceptive, however. Peter’s commitment to our Lord would eventually lead him to witness the martyrdom of his wife (cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 7.11.63) and then be crucified upside down on Vatican Hill (cf. Tertullian, Scorpiace 15.3).
Moreover, the Lord Himself honored what Peter had to say, and He promised to reward Peter’s self-sacrifice (verse 29-30). He extends this promise to all the Twelve.
Acts 21:40—22:16: Speaking to them in Aramaic, Paul is deferential in tone (“Men, brothers and fathers”) and patient in the development of his theme, which consists essentially in another narrative of his conversion. The story is told as a form of personal apologetics (apologia in verse 1). Paul insists, “I am a Jew” (verse 2). He tells of his education in Jerusalem under the tutelage of Rabbi Gamaliel, his adherence to the strictness (akribeia ) of the Torah, his zeal (literally “God’s zealot” — Theou zelotes), which zeal he compares with their own (verse 3; Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:6). Paul too once opposed the new “way” (hodos), he tells them, as zealously as they are doing today.
Wednesday, July 28
Mark 10:32-45: Mark and Matthew (20:2023) follow the Lord’s third prophecy of His coming Passion by recording the occasion on which the two sons of Zebedee, James and John, request of the Lord the privilege of sitting to his immediate right and left when he enters into his kingdom. Still worldly and without understanding, the two brothers are portrayed as resistant to the message of the Cross.
In both Gospel accounts the Lord’s response to their request is to put back to the brothers a further query about their ability to “drink the cup whereof I am to drink,” and Mark’s version contains yet another question about their being “baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized.”
Both images used by our Lord in this context, baptism and the cup, are found elsewhere in the New Testament as symbolic of the Lord’s Passion (Luke 12:50; Matthew 26:39-42). Obviously, in the context of the New Testament churches the baptism and the cup referred symbolically to two of the sacraments, and it was understood, moreover, that these two sacraments place their communicants into a special relationship with the Lord’s Passion (Romans 6:3f; Colossians 2:12; 1 Corinthians 11:26). The questions about baptism and the cup, then, were most instructive for the Christians attending divine worship where these Gospel texts were read and interpreted. These questions, raised in the context of the Sacraments, were of special importance to Mark’s Christians at Rome, whom Nero was torturing and killing in the aftermath of the fire of July in A.D. 64.
Acts 22:17-29: The ecstatic experience of Paul, which also occurs in the context of prayer (22:17), takes place in the temple. This latter detail seems most significant within the general framework of Luke’s symbolic topography. His Gospel narrative both begins and ends in the temple (Luke 1:9; 24:53), and now it is in the temple, the very center of the Jewish faith and hope, that God commissions the Apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 11:13) to take the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21; 9:15). This mention of the Gentiles, the goyim, to the crowd of already angry Jews is what brings Paul’s brief speech to a swift conclusion.
It is clear that Paul’s life is in danger (22:22; 25:24). Since he had been speaking to the crowd in Aramaic, Paul’s message was not understood by the commander of the fortress, so the latter is bewildered and troubled by the crowd’s violent reaction (verse 23). His own reaction is understandable. In due course he will be obliged to render an account of this recent disturbance to the Roman procurator of the region at Caesarea, but up to this point he has no idea just what has transpired.
Since he can make no intelligible sense of the yelling and actions of the crowd (21:34), he orders Paul to be tortured by beatings, in hope of obtaining some solid information on the matter (verse 24). Paul, however, will have none of it. When he was beaten earlier at Philippi by the governmental officials in Acts 16, he had not mentioned his Roman citizenship, the Lex Porcia, until after that event. On the present occasion, however, he speaks up ahead of time, indicating the high status that precludes his being tortured. Indeed, the commander has already gone too far by having Paul handcuffed without legal warrant (verse 29). Thus, the matter of Paul’s Roman citizenship is introduced into the narrative for the second time. In due course it will be that special legal status that permits Paul’s recourse to a court in the capital city. Paul’s Roman citizenship, then, is an important component in the dynamism of the whole account in this book, which narrates the movement of the Gospel from Jerusalem to Rome.
Thursday, July 29
Mark 10:46-52: All through chapters 8 to 10 Mark has narrated Jesus’ journey along the way (hodos) of the Cross, a story structured on the Lord’s three predictions of his coming Passion. At each stage in this journey His own disciples, the twelve Apostles, have shown nothing but resistance to the Word of the Cross. The time has now arrived for Jesus to begin the week of the Passion. He journeys through Jericho on His way to Jerusalem.
Here, along the road (hodos), sits a blind man, who calls out for mercy. As usual the disciples, endeavoring to exert their own authority, try to stifle the cries of the blind man. He cries out all the more, calling Jesus the “Son of David.” Up till this point in Mark, Jesus has resisted this messianic title, which in context was fraught with dubious political implications. This time, however, He does not forbid the man to call Him “Son of David.” The context has changed; Jesus is on the threshold of His Passion.
The curing of the blind man in this scene represents the healing of the spiritual blindness that has characterized Jesus’ disciples all through these past three chapters of Mark. For three chapters Jesus has been summoning men to follow Him along the way of the Cross. This blind man, now able to see, follows Jesus along the way (hodos–verse 52).
The memory of this blind man’s name indicates that he was a person well known among the early Christians.
Acts 22:30—23:10: Luke does not tell us if Claudius Lysias interrogated Paul further, but it is reasonable to think that he did. He would not have learned from Paul, however, any solid information that would clarify the legal situation. The fortress commander thus finds himself in a dilemma. He has arrested a prisoner on the basis of no identifiable offense. This is all quite embarrassing. How would he ever explain this serious irregularity to the authorities at Caesarea when official inquiries were made? If, on the other hand, Claudius Lysias were simply to release Paul, he may be setting free a criminal, possibly a revolutionary and subversive. Caught in this conflict, Lysias determines to consult the Sanhedrin, Judaism’s highest governing spiritual authority.
Thus, Paul must now defend himself before the Sanhedrin, and he does this masterfully. Well aware of the major theological division of that body into Sadducees and Pharisees (verse 6), Paul goes to some lengths to identify himself with the latter party. Why, after all, is he being held as a prisoner? Is it not because of his affirmation of the resurrection from the dead? And is not the coming resurrection from the dead one of the major and characteristic features of Pharisaic belief?
By this insistence, therefore, Paul succeeds in dividing his opponents (verses 7-10), th
is time not among a rioting mob but within the highest and most dignified religious body in Judaism. Lysias, frustrated that he has no more reliable information than he had before, has Paul locked up again.
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 psam.