Friday, November 12

2 Thessalonians 2:13—3:5: The vocabulary of call and election came naturally to Paul as a Jew, because God’s choice of the Israelites as a special and consecrated people had long been formative elements in the self-consciousness of that people. Abraham had been “called” from Ur of the Chaldees; Israel had been “called” out of Egypt.

What may at first seem surprising is that in these two earliest of Paul’s epistles, both written to predominantly Gentile Christians, he expects them to understand what he means by this vocabulary of call and election. Apparently during the three weeks of his oral instruction to them, to which he refers in these two letters, Paul had stressed election and call as central elements in the self-consciousness of the Christian Church. He had established in the minds of these Thessalonians that they too stood in a direct line of continuity with God’s Chosen People of old, with Abraham and with Moses. The Thessalonians too were called and elect.

After all, they had received “the word of God” (verse 13), a biblical expression that normally refers to a prophetic oracle. Paul sees himself as commissioned to speak this word, like the prophets before him. Thus, when Paul spoke, it was God speaking, just as He had spoken through Moses or Isaiah.

Paul feels the need to remind the Thessalonians of this. There is nothing here to suggest that the sense of being called and chosen involved an overwhelming experience not open to doubt. Otherwise it would not have been necessary for Paul to keep reminding the Thessalonians of the truth of their call and election.

It is important, furthermore, to observe that nowhere does Holy Scripture speak of call and election in a negative way, as though God deliberately chose not to call some human beings to salvation—as though some human beings were somehow outside of God’s love and care. Call and election are always spoken of in positive terms in Holy Scripture, never negative terms.

Luke 21:20-28: Comparing this text to its parallels in Mark and Matthew, we observe that Luke’s description of the siege and fall of Jerusalem is portrayed simply an historical event that is to come. It seems to be the case that Luke (unlike Mark) was written after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. The end of the world, however, had not accompanied that event.

Consequently, in Luke the Lord’s prophecy of this event is plainly spoken, and simply as a matter of fact. It is not loaded with eschatological significance, not regarded as an immediate harbinger of the final times. ?We note in particular Luke’s omission of the Abomination of Desolation (cf. Mark 13:14; Daniel 9:27; 12:11; 1 Maccabees 1:57).

When the invading Roman legions arrive to besiege the city, flight is the only rational response, because Jerusalem will offer no protection to those who remain there (verses 21-22).

As a point of history, before the siege was established, the Christians in Jerusalem fled eastward across the Jordan to Pella (Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History 3.5.3). Warned by Jesus’ prophecy of the city’s fall, they did not stay around to defend it. Indeed, they felt no special loyalty to the very city that had rejected the Messiah, certainly not a level of loyalty that would prompt them to stay and defend the place against a doom they knew to be inevitable.

That decision of the Jerusalem Christians, which separated them from so many of their countrymen, doubtless contributed to the further alienation of Christians and Jews.

How much time will elapse between the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world? Only God knows, and Holy Scripture discourages believers from speculating on the point. However long this period endures, the time must be spent in evangelizing the world, “until the times of the nations has been fulfilled.”

Saturday, November 13

2 Thessalonians 3:6-18: Verse 11 has a play on words impossible to translate literally without losing the force of the expression: meden ergazomenous alla periergazomenous, which may be paraphrased, “not working but working around,” or “not busy but busybodies.”

This letter was written partly in reply to those who took the “last times” so seriously as to affect their duties and responsibilities in this world, with the result that they lived off of the generosity of other Christians. Paul very seriously insisted that such people should not be helped: “If someone is unwilling (ou thelei) to work, neither let him eat.”

This seems harsh. Jesus has said nothing like this in the Sermon on the Mount or in His Last Judgment parable in Matthew 25. Paul, however, is not teaching an ideal of charity here; he is very practically trying to come to grips with a very practical problem. The resources of the Christian community are always going to be limited. Every effort must be made to assist the poor and helpless, but there is no room in the Church for drones and loafers.

With respect to loafers and drones in the Church, Paul criticizes more than their laziness. Worse, they spend badly the time that they have on their hands as a result of their inactivity. Later on he was obliged to deal with this problem of inactivity among the widows at Ephesus, those ladies who used their retirement to no good purpose, spending their time in idle curiosities and rumor-mongering (1 Timothy 5:13). Paul, the heir of rabbinic wisdom on this point, believed that a proper and useful occupation of one’s mind, energy, and time was good for the soul as well as the pocket book.

Sunday, November 14

Revelation 1:1-8: From the start this most interesting book describes itself as a written prophecy (verse 3; cf. 19:10; 22:7,10,18,19).

In the early Church prophetic utterance played a major role in the determination of practical matters, such as the proper direction to be taken by missionaries (Acts 16:6-7) and the choice of men to be ordained (1 Timothy 4:14). Indeed, the prophets in the New Testament are mentioned with the apostles (1 Corinthians 12:27-29; 14:1-5; Ephesians 2:20), and we even know the names of some of them (Acts 11:27-30; 15:32). The present book contains seven references to these prophets (10:7; 11:8; 16:6; 18:2024; 22:6,9).

As a written prophecy, this book was intended to be read aloud to the congregation at worship (verse 3). In Holy Scripture, prophecy is conceived in terms of insight more than foresight (and, truth to tell, some of the biblical prophets foretold very little), but insight does often lead to foresight, so the present book also contains predictions. Such predictions were clearly intended to refer to matters soon to occur (verse 1), and John, it must be stressed, was writing for his own time. Consequently, a correct understanding of what John wrote must be based on the understanding of his first hearers and readers, the very people he had in mind when he wrote this book.

Therefore, any modern interpretation of Revelation that by-passes or ignores the understanding of John’s earliest audience runs the risk of becoming pure fantasy. A good rule of thumb for the interpretation of this book, then, is the simple question, "Is such and such an understanding of this or that verse of Revelation one that would have been in the mind of those who first read it?" This rule of thumb will eliminate those interpretations of Revelation that find in it all sorts of purely contemporary interests, such as the current State of Israel, the fall of the Soviet Union, the invention of helicopters, and so on. (Yes, I have read authors who found all of these things in the Book of Revelation, and much more.)

The book itself was addressed to seven particular churches found in Asia Minor (verse 4). It contains visions, that is, "all things that he saw" (verse 2), an expression found fifty-four times in this book. Nonetheless, Revelation begins like an epistle, "grace to you and peace" (verse 4), exactly like the epistles of Paul.

Monday, November 15

Revelation 1:9-20: John’s vision comes "on the Lord’s Day" (verse 10), Sunday (1 Corinthians 16:2), the very day when the seven churches of Asia Minor were celebrating the Lord’s Supper, "the breaking of the Bread." This service of worship normally began on the night when the Sabbath came to a close and Sunday began; it lasted through the night and ended on Sunday morning (Acts 20:7,11).

John describes himself as being "in the Spirit," a technical term referring to prophetic inspiration (Numbers 11:25; 2 Samuel 23:2; Ezekiel 2:2; 3:24; Matthew 22:43). Like Ezekiel, John "fell as one dead" (verse 17), a description of the biblical phenomenon known as being "slain in the Spirit." Such was John’s response to this inaugural vision (comparable to the inaugural visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel) of Christ in glory, standing in the midst of the Menorah (verse 12), clothed as the High Priest (verse 13; Exodus 28:4; 39:29; Sirach 50:5-12). The versatile "right hand" of the Lord can simultaneously hold the Pleiades (verse 16) and still be laid gently on the downfallen John (verse 17).

In this vision Christ is otherwise frightening, with His white hair (verse 14; Daniel 7:9), the sword of the Word issuing from His mouth (verse 16; cf. 2:12,16; 19:15; Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12), His feet like refined brass (verse 15; Ezekiel 1:7). Here He is twice called "the First and the Last" (verses 11,17), an expression that will also appear in 2:8 and 22:13. Drawn from the Book of Isaiah (41:44; 44:6), this expression corresponds to "Alpha and Omega" (verses 8,11), the first and final letters of the Greek alphabet. Christ is, then, the beginning and end of language, the defining content of all intelligible meaning. He is, in short, the Word. He died and rose again and lives forever (verse 18; Romans 6:9). Hence, He holds the keys of death and the underworld (verse 18; cf. 9:1; 20:1).

Luke 22:9-20: In spite of their manifest shortcomings in discipleship, the Twelve obey Jesus, making the necessary preparations for the Seder, as they had earlier prepared for His triumphal entry in Jerusalem.

In this brief dialogue we observe that the Passover and the Unleavened Bread are fused together, as they were in practice. On the day of the Seder (Thursday of Holy Week), all leavened bread was thrown out, so that only unleavened bread would be in the house that evening.

Tuesday, November 16

Revelation 2:1-7: Among the early Christian churches, that of Ephesus was particularly renowned for the strictness of its doctrinal purity. This was a book-burning congregation (Acts 19:19), which brooked no heresy. The apostle Paul, who had labored at Ephesus for three years, stressed the importance of doctrinal orthodoxy to all who ministered and taught there (Acts 20:29-31; 1 Timothy 1:3-7,18-20; 4:1-3; 5:17; 6:3-5,20; 2 Timothy 1:13-15; 2:14-18; 3:13; 4:2-5). In contrast to all of Paul’s other epistles, he mentioned no heresies in his Epistle to the Ephesians. Well into the second century, we know the reputation of the church at Ephesus for its doctrinal purity (cf. Ignatius of Antioch, To the Ephesians 6,2; 9.1; Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 1.26.3).

Here in Revelation 2 the church at Ephesus is commended for dealing with certain heretics called the Nicolaitans (verse 6), who apparently taught sexual immorality (2:14-15). The church was also obliged to deal with false apostles (verse 2), concerning whom the apostle Paul had earlier given warning to the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20:29; cf. 2 Corinthians 11:13-15; Didache 11).

The problem at Ephesus, then, was not a lack of orthodoxy, but a lack of charity; they had forgotten their first agape (verse 4). At one time they had known fervent love (Acts 20:36-38), but now it had grown cold. John’s words to them here stand forever as a warning to those whose zeal for doctrinal purity obscures in their minds the need for true charity. Even though the Ephesian Christians are here commended for their "works," labor," and "patience" (verse 2; cf. exactly these three words in 1 Thessalonians 1:3), they have somehow fallen away from their "first works" (verse 5), as they have from their "first love."

The paradisiacal imagery of verse 7 comes from Genesis, of course, and will appear again in the final chapter of Revelation. The first of these seven letters to the Asian churches, then, makes it clear that the most serious dangers facing those churches did not come from external threat and persecution, but from spiritual problems within.

Wednesday, November 17

Revelation 2:8-11: Smyrna, the modern Turkish city of Izmir, was a seaport rivaling and then surpassing Ephesus. The Book of Revelation is our earliest historical witness to the presence of a Christian church at Smyrna, but it does not indicate when or by whom the place was evangelized.

A second century bishop of that church, the martyr Polycarp, one of the most revered men in early Christian history, personally knew the apostle John at one end of his ministry, and, at the other end, was the friend of Irenaeus of Lyons in Gaul, who lived to the dawn of the third century. Polycarp thus became the very embodiment of primitive Christian tradition, and because of him Smyrna’s status among the early churches rivaled that of Ephesus.

At Smyrna there seems to have been considerable conflict between the Christians and the local Jews, who are here referred to as "a synagogue of Satan," not even worthy to be called real Jews (verse 9). Even in the mid-second century the Jews of Smyrna took steps to prevent the Christians from recovering the body of the martyred Polycarp (The Martyrdom of Polycarp 18.1).

The four verses here under consideration indicate that, unlike the situations in Ephesus, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, and Laodicea, in Smyrna the problems faced by the church came largely from without. Thus, unlike the Ephesians (2:5), the believers at Smyrna were not told to repent. John did warn the congregation, however, that they would soon be severely tested (verse 10). How many Christians perished in that testing? It is very difficult to say, but we do know that Polycarp, who was martyred in A.D. 155, was the twelfth name on the list of martyrs at Smyrna (The Martyrdom of Polycarp 19.1).

Those martyrs, in any case, were promised the "crown of life," an athletic image indicating their victory in Christ (Philippians 3:14; 2 Timothy 2:5; James 1:12; 1 Peter 5:4). The "second death" in verse 11 refers to eternal damnation (cf. 20:6.14.15; 21:8).

Luke 22:24-40: The traditions behind the four gospels attach several stories to the narrative of the Last Supper. These include the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, a saying of Jesus relative to His coming betrayal, a prophecy of Peter’s threefold denial, various exhortations and admonitions by Jesus, and a description of the institution of the Holy Eucharist.

There are considerable differences among the four evangelists with respect to their inclusion of these components. Although only John describes the foot-washing, the admonition in Luke 22:24-30 readily fits such a context.

Thursday, November 18

Revelation 2:12-17: Pergamos is identical to the modern Turkish city of Bergama, which is about one-tenth the size it was in antiquity; it has had an unbroken history since the fifth century B.C. There is a still a small, poor congregation of Christians at Bergama, the direct descendents of that congregation to which was addressed the Book of Revelation. One may also see there the ruins of a once magnificent church dedicated to St. John by the Emperor Theodosius in the fourth century. Thanks to the excavations begun under the auspices of the Museum of Berlin in 1878, we know quite a bit about the ancient city.

The problems in the church at Pergamos seem to have been largely internal. There was a laxist group, apparently to be identified with the Nicolaitans (verse 15), who advocated sexual immorality and the eating of sacrifices made to idols (verse 14). Those internal problems were compounded, nonetheless, by external pressure in the form of occasional persecutions, during one of which there perished the martyr Antipas (verse 13), identified by Christian tradition as the first bishop of that city (with an annual feast day on April 11).

So resolute was the opposition to the Gospel in Pegamos that Satan was said to throne there, perhaps a reference to the temple of the god Asculepius, whose symbol was a staff with a coiled serpent. That image, now universally known as the symbol of the healing professions (for Asculepius was the god of healing), would have reminded the early Christians of the serpent in Genesis 3, which will reappear several more times in the Book of Revelation (cf. 12:9 and 20:2, for instance). Pergamos also boasted temples to Zeus and to Roma, the deified personification of the empire. In verse 16 Jesus says that He will come quickly, a promise repeated six more times in Revelation (3:11; 16:15; 22:7,12,17,20).

Luke 22:31-34: The prediction of Peter’s denials is placed in the context of the Lord’s Supper in all four Gospels, as an exhortation to Christians with respect to the temptations that may befall them even while partaking of the Lord’s body and blood. Satan does not boycott the Eucharist.

In contemporary English (which makes no distinction between “thou” and “ye”), it is difficult to discern all the subtlety in these verses. The “you” in verse 31 is plural. That is to say, it is not only Peter that Satan desires to sift as wheat; it is all of the Apostles. Indeed, it is all Christians. Satan has “asked,” he has sought permission, to try them, just as he had formerly asked such permission with respect to Job (Job 1:12; 2:6). In the Lord’s Passion the disciples will be tried as Job was tried, and the Lord warns them of this in His words to Peter.

The “you” in verse 32, however, is singular, not plural. That is to say, it is Peter himself for whom the Lord prays. In fact, as the story goes on to show, Peter is the one most in danger, and Jesus foresees this. He also foresees Peter’s repentance, for which He prayed. In connection with this repentance, the Lord commands him to strengthen his brethren. Indeed, the story of Peter’s fall and repentance has been strengthening his brethren down to the present day.

Friday, November 19

Revelation 2:18-29: Thyatira, the modern Akhisar, was a city more modest than the previous three. The church in that city, too, was praised for its works, love, service, faith, and patience (verse 19).

In spite of that praise, the congregation was tolerating in its midst the activities of a pseudo-charismatic woman whom John likened to the ancient Queen Jezebel of Israel, that fine Phoenician feminist responsible for so many of the ills condemned by the prophet Elijah in the ninth century B.C. (verse 20). The moral offenses of the woman at Thyatira, which included the advocacy of sexual sins and the eating of food sacrificed to demons, seem similar to those of the Nicolaitans, but in the present case John took care to single out an individual rather than to talk about a group. Against her he prophesied a dire judgment (verses 22-23). This woman seems also to have been a sort of mistress of the occult, here called "the depths of Satan" (verse 24).

But John does not condemn solely that woman; he speaks very critically, in addition, of the church that tolerated her activities (verse 20). Toleration, which today is everywhere regarded as a virtue to be cultivated, is everywhere in the New Testament regarded as a vice to be avoided (for example, Romans 1:32).

In the instance studied here, the church at Thyatira was permitting a very forceful woman, who claimed the authority of a prophetess, to bring moral havoc into the congregation. Whereas the members of the congregation were intimidated by her influence, or were simply reluctant to deal harshly with a woman, John, as we see, suffered from neither that intimidation nor that reluctance. In the present text he accomplished the moral equivalent of that robust defenestration suffered by the aging Phoenician princess of Samaria on that judgment day when Jehu came a-riding.

Luke 22:35-38: These verses are found only in Luke, who is also the only one of the Evangelists to treat of Christian evangelism in the context of the Lord’s Supper. This fact is significant, suggesting the outward thrust of the Eucharist into the Church’s mission to the world.

Comparing these verses to 10:4, we see that the terms of the Church’s engagement with the world are now changed. Those earlier restrictions, though they did not impede the ministry at the time, are now lifted, and the Church is instructed to take such measures as will prove necessary for the greater and lengthier mission. (To borrow a metaphor from Matthew 24, the Church will need to provide oil for the lamps, because time will be the trial of her success, as the return of the Bridegroom is delayed.)

According to nearly all commentators (and certainly to all those commentators that the present writer is disposed to trust), the purse, the wallet, and the sword are to be understood figuratively. They imply that the Christian mission will be costly, strenuous, and fraught with peril. The Church must be ready for anything (verse 36). ??A crisis is now about to fall. With the betrayal of Christ begins the last age of world history. What has been written must be fulfilled (to gegrammenon dei telesthenai, verse 37). The Lord refers here to His own fulfillment of the Suffering Servant prophecies from the Book of Isaiah, specifically Isaiah 53:12. This is the proper context for considering the Church’s mission in the world.

Alas, the Apostles, misunderstanding the Lord’s reference to the sword, announce that they have two swords (at least one of which will be used in the Garden that night!). To this announcement our Lord expresses a definite despondency. “Enough of that,” He sighs.