Friday, August 6
Second Peter 1:12-21: Our Lord’s Transfiguration, notably portrayed in the Synoptic Gospels, 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).
Saturday, August 7
John 1:1-18: It has sometimes caused surprise that St. John, though a witness to the Lord’s Transfiguration, does not narrate that scene, as did Matthew, Mark, and Luke. More than one student of his gospel, however, has explained the absence of the Transfiguration in John by remarking that Jesus is always transfigured in what John wrote.
There is much merit in this observation. If the Transfiguration is the manifestation of the glory of God in Christ, who spoke more often on this theme than John? This apostle, who saw the transfigured Lord and heard the Father’s voice claiming Him as His Son, is the very one who wrote, “we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father” (1:14).
The Jesus presented in John’s Gospel appears as the eternal Word, in whom “was life, and the life was the light of men” (1:4). Becoming flesh and dwelling among us (1:14), He is the living revelation of God’s glory on this earth. Even though “no one has seen God at any time,” John says, “the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (1:18).
The divine glory manifest in Christ is not only a theme in John’s gospel; it also serves as a structural component in the narrative. John records exactly seven miracles of Jesus, which he calls “signs.” Seven—the mystic number of these signs—symbolizes the fullness of the revelation of the divine glory.
Leading in each case to the commitment of faith, these signs do not reveal the divine glory as static, so to speak, but as active. Who Jesus is, is revealed in what Jesus does. Each of these signs is enacted; it has motion.
The signs commence with the transformation of the water into wine at the wedding feast, concerning which John tells us, “This beginning (arche), of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him” (2:11, emphasis added).
John’s second sign enacted by Jesus is the curing of the nobleman’s son (4:46–54); as in the case of the miracle of Cana, the man himself “believed, and his whole household” (4:53). Next comes the restoration of the paralytic at the pool (5:1–15), followed by the miracle of the bread (6:1–14), the walking on the water (6:15–21), and the healing of the man born blind (9:1–41). The final sign in John is the raising of Lazarus from the dead (11:1–44). It was of this culminating sign that Jesus told Martha, “Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?" (11:40, emphasis added).
These Johannine signs are also accompanied by theological comments on their significance, either in the detailed conversations of the narrative itself (as in the raising of Lazarus and the healing of the blind man) or by the Lord’s own subsequent elaboration (as in the Bread of Life discourse).
Thus, each of these events is itself a transfiguration, a revelation of God’s glory in the activity of Jesus. In His life and ministry each sign becomes a window through which believers contemplate the divine glory, and Jesus is transfigured with light throughout John’s whole narrative.
In the midst of these seven signs, moreover, John inserts two lengthy conversations, one with Nicodemus (3:1–21) and the other with the Samaritan woman (4:5–42). These pursue the same theme of revelation that John elaborates in the stories of the signs.
At the end of the seven signs, John summarizes the tragedy of the unbelief with which the enemies of Jesus responded to His revelation (12:37–41). This summary appeals to the prophet Isaiah, who had foret
old the hardness of heart of those who refused to believe. According to John, “These things Isaiah said when he saw His glory and spoke of Him” (12:41, emphasis added). This transfigured Christ, that is to say, was already contained in the Old Testament Scriptures. Christ, as gloriously revealed in these signs, was the object of prophetic vision. Even Moses had spoken of Him (1:45; 5:46). For John, then, as for Luke, Peter, and Paul, the revelation of the divine glory in Christ is the key to the understanding of biblical prophecy.
The final unbelief leads directly to the Lord's Passion. This is introduced by the great Last Supper discourse, which speaks also of the divine glory of Christ (13:31,32; 14:13; 17:5,22,24). In every scene of this gospel, then, from the Lord's appearance at John's baptismal site all the way through the Lord's death and Resurrection (7:39; 12:16,23,28), the divine light appears among men. John records all these things that we readers too may "believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God" (20:31).
Sunday, August 8
Second Kings 11: One of the bloodiest, most distressing stories in the Bible records how Athaliah, the gebirah or queen mother of the slain King Ahaziah, seized the throne of Judah in 841 B.C. and promptly ordered the murder of her own grandchildren in order to guarantee her hold on that throne (2 Kings 11; 2 Chronicles 22). Holy Scripture simply records the event, without accounting for Athaliah’s motive in this singular atrocity.
Although such savagery from a daughter of Jezebel might not be surprising, Athaliah’s action was puzzling from a political perspective, nonetheless, and this in two respects. First, as the story’s final outcome would prove, her dreadful deed rendered Athaliah extremely unpopular in the realm, and her possession of the crown, therefore, more precarious. Second, had she preserved the lives of her grandchildren, instead of killing them, Athaliah’s real power in the kingdom would likely have been enhanced in due course, not lessened. As the gebirah, she might have remained the de facto ruler of Judah unto ripe old age. Just what, then, did the lady have in mind?
The historian Josephus, the first to speculate on this question, ascribed Athaliah’s action to an inherited hatred of the Davidic house. It was her wish, said he, “that none of the house of David should be left alive, but that the entire family should be exterminated, that no king might arise from it later” (Antiquities 9.7.1).
The playwright Racine developed this very plausible explanation in his Athalie, where the evil queen exclaims, David m’est en horreur, et les fils de ce Roi/ Quoique nés de mon sang, sont étrangers pour moi—“David I abhor, and the sons of this king, though born of my blood, are strangers to me” (2.7.729-730).
Following Racine, this interpretation was taken up in Felix Mendelssohn’s opera Athaliah, which asserts that the vicious woman acted in order that keine Hand ihr nach der Krone greifen,/ Kein König aus dem Stamme Davids fürder/ Den Dienst Jehovas wieder schützen könne—“that no hand could reach out for her crown, nor king henceforth from David’s line preserve again the service of Jehovah” (First Declamation).
Racine also ascribed to Athaliah a second motive; namely, her sense of duty (j’ai cru le devoir faire) to protect the realm from the various enemies that surrounded it. Indeed, she boasts that her success in this effort was evidence of heaven’s blessing on it (2.5.465-484). However, since it is unclear how the slaughter of her grandchildren contributed to the regional peace that Athaliah claimed as the fruit of her wisdom (Je jouissais en paix du fruit de ma sagesse), this explanation is not so plausible as the first.
The third motive ascribed by Racine seems more reasonable and is certainly more interesting—namely, that Athaliah acted out of vengeance for the recent killing of her mother and the rest of her own family. Deranged by wrath and loathing, she imagined that the slaughter of her posterity avenged the slaughter of her predecessors: Oui, ma juste fureur, et j’en fais vanité, / A vengé mes Parents sur ma posterité—“Yes, my just wrath, of which I am proud, has avenged my parents on my offspring” (2.7.709-710).
This explanation, which I believe to be correct, makes no rational sense, however, except on the supposition that Athaliah blamed Israel’s God for what befell her own family. In attacking David’s house, she thought to attack David’s God, whom she accuses of l’implacable vengeance (2.7.727).
In this respect, the third motive of Racine’s Athaliah is the goal of the first. That is to say, the hateful queen seeks to destroy David’s house in order to render void God’s promises given through the prophets, especially the promise of the Messiah who would come from David’s line, ce Roi promis aux Nations, / Cet Enfant de David, votre espoir, votre attente—“that King promised to the nations, that Child of David, your hope, your expectation.”
The queen’s vengeance, which later appears in Handel’s oratorio Athalia, correctly indicates the Christian meaning, the sensus plenior, of the Old Testament story. Waging war on great David’s greater Son, Athaliah foreshadowed yet another usurper of the Davidic throne, hateful King Herod, who likewise ordered a large massacre of little boys in a vain effort to retain the crown that did not belong to him.
Monday, August 9
Second Peter 3:1-9: Peter begins this chapter with an oblique reference to his earlier epistle. In verse 2, read “your apostles” instead of “us apostles.” The singular significance of this verse is its juxtaposition of the New Testament apostles with the Old Testament prophets, an important step in recognizing the apostolic writings as inspired Holy Scripture. In 3:16, indeed, Peter does give such recognition to the letters of the apostle Paul. Both groups of men, Peter says, are being disregarded by those who scoff at the doctrine of the Lord’s return (verse 4).
Since so many of the earliest Christians were of the opinion that the Lord would return during their own lifetime, His not doing so became for some an excuse for unbelief. It was only an excuse, however, not a justification, and Peter judged such unbelief to be prompted, not by what are called “sincere intellectual difficulties,” but by the lustful desires of those who wanted an excuse for unbelief (verse 3). Later in the century, Clement of Rome would address that same problem when he wrote to the Corinthians (23.3).
That heresy, which asserted that the “integrity” of the natural order precluded its being invaded from without by divine influences, rather curiously resembles the modern ideology of Naturalism, with which contemporary apologists must contend.
Such a misinterpretation of the world, Peter wrote, is willful (verse 5); it is deliberately chosen, not on the basis of evidence, but in order to loose those who hold it from accounting to a final judgment by God. That misinterpretation was also based, Peter went on to say, on a misunderstanding of what is meant by “last times.” This designation “last” is qualitative, not quantitative. It is not concerned with “how much,” but “of what sort.” The “last times” are not quantified; their limit is not known to us, but that limit is irrelevant to their quality. The last times are always the last times, no matter how long they last. Since the first coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are always within the eleventh hour, and this designation means only that it is the hour before the twelfth; it can last as long as God intends it to.
Psalm 89 (Greek and Latin 88): This psalm is composed of three parts. The first has to do with God’s activity in the creation of the heavens and the earth,
the second with His covenant and promise with respect to the house of David, and the third with certain crises of history that threaten that covenant and put its promise at peril. All three themes are organically connected.
The first part of our psalm, taking up the theme of this divine imposition of form over chaos, emphasizes the structural constancy of the universe, but already this cosmic theme is introduced in a setting best described as messianic. That is to say, already anticipating the psalm’s second part, the permanence of the Davidic throne is related to the unvarying dependability of the heavenly bodies, for both things are given shape by God’s holy word and sworn resolve: “For You declared: ‘Mercy shall be built up forever.’ Your truth is prepared in the heavens: ‘A covenant have I formed with my chosen ones; to David my servant I swore an oath: Forever will I provide for your seed; I shall establish your throne unto all generations.’ The heavens will confess Your wonders, O Lord, and Your truth in the church of Your saints.”
Now, as Christians, we know that God’s solemn promise to David, with respect to the everlasting stability of his throne, is fulfilled in the kingship of Christ, for the Son of David now sits forever enthroned at God’s right hand, executing both prophecy and promise. Only in Christ do we find the key to the mystery of this psalm: “Once I swore by My holiness, nor would I ever lie to David. His seed shall abide forever, and his throne as the sun in My sight, and like the moon forever established, a faithful witness in heaven.”
The theological bond, then, joining the creation to David, is Christ: “God . . . has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds. . . . But to the Son He says: ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.’ . . . And: ‘You, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, / And the heavens are the work of Your hands’” (Heb. 1:1, 2, 8, 10). The regal, messianic covenant of sonship is related to the fixed structure of the very world, because both realities are rooted in Christ. As font and inner form, He is their common warrant.
In fact, nonetheless, both things—God’s creation and His covenant—appear ever under threat throughout history, which theme brings us to the third part of our psalm. In this section we pray repeatedly for God’s vindication of the messianic covenant, which man in his rebellion endeavors ever to overthrow. Indeed, in our own times this struggle seems to have intensified and entered a new phase. After deism, rejecting God’s messianic covenant with us in Christ, strove to content us solely with the rational structure of creation, it was only a short time before creation itself came under siege. Now we live in a world where even the clearest manifestations of intelligent order are routinely dismissed as chaos, so grievously has the human spirit lost the use of reason.
Tuesday, August 10
2 Peter 3:10-18: Since only God knows the length of the eleventh hour, the Lord’s return will confound all human calculations of its timing. The simile of the thief in the night, for instance, must not be taken literally, because it is never nighttime everywhere at the same time, and the Bible contains no hint that the Lord will return to the earth by following the sequence of its appointed time zones!
This comparison with the thief’s nocturnal entrance was doubtless common among the early Christians (Matthew 24:43; Luke 12:39; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; Revelation 3:3; 16:5). It will all happen with a “rush,” this onomatopoeia corresponding to the Greek verb rhoizedon in verse 10. Watchfulness, therefore, and a holy life are the proper responses to our true situation in this world (verse 11; Matthew 24:42-51; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11). Both heaven and earth will be renewed (verse 13; Isaiah 65:17; 66:22; Revelation 21:1; cf. Romans 8:19-22).
The expression “without spot and without blame” in verse 14 (aspiloi kai amometoi) contains the negative forms of the adjectives describing the false teachers in 2: 13 (spiloi kai momoi). Peter’s reference to Paul indicates his familiarity with more than one Pauline epistle and probably suggests that Paul’s letters were already being gathered into collections and copied. Peter likewise testifies to the difficulties attendant on the understanding of Paul’s message. Christian history bears a similar witness, alas, in the modern divisions that have arisen among Christians over their differing interpretations of Paul. Paul himself was aware, even then, that some Christians were distorting his thought (Romans 3:8).
Psalm 100 (Greek and Latin 99): This psalm falls into a class of canticles traditionally known as the “invitatory,” a summons to come into God’s presence with confession and praise: “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness, and come into His presence with exultation. Know that the Lord Himself is our God. He it is that made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people and the sheep of His pasture. Enter His gates with confession, and His courts with hymns. Confess Him! Give praise to His name! For the Lord is gracious; His mercy is everlasting, and His truth stands fast to all generations.”
The correct praise of God in this psalm, as truly in all of Holy Scripture, is inseparable from our relationship to Him in covenant. He is “our God,” as distinct from simply “God.” And we are “His people,” as distinct from just a bunch of folks. This mutual belonging to one another is the whole business of the covenant. “I will be their God, and they shall be My people,” the Lord says through Jeremiah (31:33) in a passage later quoted by Hebrews (8:10). This, one may take it, is the source of the joy in our psalm.
Wednesday, August 11
Mark 12:35-40: Since the Lord’s enemies, completely foiled by His answers, dared not ask Him any more questions (verse 34), Jesus turns the tables by putting to them a question of His own. Indeed, this question, which touches His true identity, evokes the theological problem at the heart of this whole chapter: Just who is Jesus? Jesus has been picking at that point in several of His confrontation with these enemies: the matter of his “authority” (11:27,33), His sonship with respect to God (12:6,10), and His oblique claim to divine honor (12:17).
Since the Messianic hope in Israel expected that the coming Messiah would be of the lineage of King David, how comes it that David referred to the Messiah as his “Lord”? The answer to this question, as Mark well knew, was obvious to his Christian readers, who understood the word “Lord” in its full confessional significance (cf. Acts 2:29-34; 13:23-39; Hebrews 1:5-13). To the enemies of Jesus, however, His question was provocative beyond measure, because they sensed what the Questioner was driving at without overtly claiming to be the Messiah.
Our Lord’s citation from this Psalm, in a context dealing with His own identity, laid the foundation for the Christological praying of the Psalms. Indeed, William Lane (in his commentary on Mark ad hoc) remarks, “Jesus’ use of Psalm 110:1 led to its free citation in the early church. Within the NT there are more references or allusions to this verse than to any other OT passage.”
Acts 25:1-12: At the end of the two years, Felix is succeeded by Portius Festus, who inherits Paul as a bit of unfinished business. This new procurator, a conscientious man chiefly remembered for his efforts to stamp out the terrorism prevalent in the Middle East during that time (cf. Josephus, Jewish War 2.14.1 [271-272]; Antiquities 2.8.9-10 [182,185]), must deal with Paul as the first chore of his two years in office (59-61/62). He does so in less than a fortnight. The authorities in Jerusalem, of course, want Paul to be tried there, all along pl
anning that Paul would never reach the city for his trial. The times are treacherous.
The substance of Paul’s defense (apologoumenou) in this section is that he has violated no law, whether of the Jewish religion or of the Roman Empire (25:8). His accusers, moreover, have not met their burden of proof (25:7). Festus, however, unwilling to offend the Jewish leadership so early in his administration, proposes a compromise: a trial at Jerusalem, over which the governor himself would preside (25:9).
Paul will have none of this compromise. He already stands before an imperial court as a Roman citizen; why should he forego that privilege in order to expose himself to a Jewish lynch mob? Therefore, he appeals his case to Rome. It is worth noting, in verse 11, Paul’s explicit recognition of the state’s proper authority to use the death penalty, the “right of the sword” (jus gladii), on certain classes of criminals. This position is identical to the one earlier espoused by Paul in Romans 13:1-4.
Accordingly, the Christian Church, even when discouraging recourse to capital punishment in practice (in the Byzantine Empire, for instance), has always recognized, as a matter of clear principle, the state’s God-given, biblically affirmed authority to put certain criminals to death.
The response of Festus, taken with counsel, accedes to Paul’s legal appeal to a higher court (25:12).
Thursday, August 12
Mark 13:1-13: Here begins the Olivet Discourse, the longest uninterrupted dominical discourse in Mark after the Parables of the Kingdom in Chapter 4. This discourse, which is private in the sense that it was not preached to the crowds (verses 1-2), forms a bridge between the controversy stories of chapters 11–12 and the subsequent Passion narrative of chapters 14—15. Thus, it is framed in the drama of the Lord’s last days.
Consequently, the Lord’s teaching on the fall of Jerusalem and the coming destruction of the Temple is conveyed in the immediate context of His own suffering and death. Jesus intimately joins these two things together.
It is useful to recall that, if the traditional dating of Mark (A.D.65-66) is correct, Jerusalem had not yet fallen when these words were written down for the Church at Rome.
This chapter contains more than a prediction, however. It is especially an exhortation to the Church, an instruction on how believers are to behave in the terrible trials to come. Mark evidently regards the sufferings of the Church following the Neronic persecution (A.D. 64-68) as a preamble to the end of the ancient life of Israel. This is why there are so many verses in this section that point most readily to the end of the world. What Mark and his Christians were witnessing was certainly the end of the world as they knew it. The Olivet Discourse begins, then, with the foreseen destruction of Jerusalem (verse 2).
Acts 25:13-27: After this decision of Festus there follows another scene, Paul’s somewhat unofficial hearing before King Agrippa II and his sister/mistress Berenice. The purpose of this hearing is to help Festus identify the charges for which Paul will be sent to Rome for trial. Thus, Paul, having been tried before a synagogue and a governor, will now appear before a king (cf. Luke 21:12).
There is a sense in which the present speech of Paul is the high point of Luke’s account of his ministry. Containing the third narrative of Paul’s conversion, it will represent a fulfillment of a prophecy contained in the first narrative (9:15), namely, he will now appear before a king. Paul’s apologetics (apologeito in verse 1, apoplogeisthai in verse 2) in this speech is consonant with his legal defense hitherto, but he becomes more explicit about his faith and his conversion.
Friday, August 13
Mark 13:14-27: This section of Mark, about the Abomination of Desolation and the Great Tribulation, is shared with Matthew (Matthew 24:15-28) and Luke (21:20-24). Jesus alludes to a remembered past event in order to prophesy about the near future. In doing so, He follows a pattern of historical interpretation common to the Old Testament prophets.
In verse 14 the bdelygma tou eremoseos—literally “the Abomination of Desolation”—is a translation of a Hebrew expression found three times in the prophet Daniel (9:27; 11:31; 12:11; cf. 1 Maccabees 1:54), to refer to the idol erected to Zeus in the Second Temple by the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (1 Maccabees 1:54-64).
The desecration, which had occurred in 167 B.C, only two centuries earlier, was still a vivid memory to the Jews, who understandably regarded it as a low point in their history and a source of profound shock and outrage. At that time the Temple itself was stripped of its adornments; other pagan altars were erected, and unclean animals were sacrificed upon them (Josephus, Antiquities 12.54). This had been a time of great persecution of the righteous Jews by the unrighteous, not only by pagans but also by fellow Jews.
In Daniel’s text the Hebrew expression for Abomination of Desolation is hashuqqus meshomem, appears to be a parody of the name that refers to Zeus, ba‘al shamayim, “lord of heaven.”
Mark (followed by Matthew) uses a parenthetical note, “let the reader understand.” This exhortation, which clearly comes from the evangelists and not from Jesus, perhaps calls attention to the plan of the Roman emperor Caligula to erect a statue of himself in the Temple in A.D. 40. This proposed desecration of the holy place would have repeated what had occurred two centuries earlier under Antiochus IV Epiphanes. This seems to be what both evangelists had in mind.