Friday, January 7

Genesis 7: Noah not only lived in righteousness; he also preached righteousness to his contemporaries. The Apostle Peter referred to Noah as “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5), and late in the first century Clement of Rome wrote that “Noah preached repentance, and those who heeded him were saved” (Epistle to the Corinthians 7.6). Evidently, however, their number included only members of his own family. There are times when a man may consider himself fortunate if he can bring about the conversion even of his children!

Unlike Noah’s contemporaries, we ourselves hearken to his preaching. That is to say, we submit to this new baptismal flood because we repent at the witness of Noah. Baptism presupposes and requires this repentance of our sins, this conversion of our hearts to the apostolic word of Noah. In repentance we plunge ourselves into the deeper mystery of Noah’s flood, which is the death and Resurrection of Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:3; Colossians 2:12).

Matthew 3:1-12: Unlike the gospels of Mark and Luke, Matthew portrays John the Baptist as proclaiming the proximity of the Kingdom (3:2). In thus regarding the preaching of John as the beginning of the Gospel (cf. 11:13), Matthew’s perspective matches that of the earliest apostolic proclamation (cf. Acts 1:22; 10:37). Even though the Sadducees and Pharisees were two distinct groups, often hostile to one another, Matthew here lumps them together (verse 7) for the first of five times. They are mentioned together because of their common opposition to Jesus. In this text, John is giving them an initial warning to repent.

The tense and mode used in this warning to repent are the aorist imperative, which means “repent” in the sense, not of continuing action, but of decisive action: “Do it!” It is the decisive conversion John has in mind, rather than the maintenance of an attitude or habit.

Even as an act of decision, however, the grace of repentance is not necessarily a once-saved-always-saved sort of thing. This truth is especially borne out in Revelation, where in all four instances the command "Repent!" is spoken to believers themselves, specifically the Christians in the churches at Ephesus, Pergamos, Sardis, and Laodicea (2:5,16; 3:3,19). When Christians start to think and act like unbelievers they, too, must be summoned to repentance, and exactly the same form of the command covers both cases.

As a matter of fact, the theme of repentance appears more frequently in Revelation's letters to the seven churches than anywhere else. Of the 34 times that the New Testament has the verb metanoiein, eight are found in Chapters 2-3 of Revelation, all of them in reference to Christian believers. This is easily the highest concentration of the verb in the New Testament. That is to say, Christians themselves are more often called to repentance than anyone else!

Saturday, January 8

Genesis 8: The dove sent out by Noah is also rich in symbolism. Since baptism is the fulfillment of that mystery of which the Flood was a type, we should rather expect the dove to appear in the New Testament descriptions of baptism, and indeed it does. At the baptism of our Lord, the Holy Spirit assumes that form in order to confirm the testimony of the Father, who proclaims Jesus His beloved Son.

We may summarize the Christian teaching on the story of the Flood with these words of John Chrysostom in the second half of the fourth century:

“The narrative of the Flood is a mystery, and its details are a type of things to come. The ark is the Church; Noah is Christ; the dove, the Holy Spirit; the olive branch, the divine goodness. As in the midst of the sea, the ark protected those who were within it, so the Church saves those who are saved” (Homily on Lazarus 6).

First Peter 3:13-22: To be baptized into Christ is to be associated with His sufferings. As Christ was victorious over death by His Resurrection, so will be those who belong to Him. Baptism, because it unites believers with the Resurrection of Christ, is a pledge and promise of their own victory over death.

In verses 18-22 Peter speaks of Christ’s descent into hell, which took on so pronounced an emphasis in Christian faith and worship that it became an article in the Nicene Creed. Peter says that Christ “went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Matthew 3:13-17: Matthew’s literary structure combines this scene, at the beginning of His public ministry, with the Great Commission scene, at the end of it. Both scenes speak of Baptism, and both contain the mystery of the Holy Trinity. In today’s reading: The voice of the Father testifies to His Son, and the Holy Spirit, appearing in the form of a dove, confirms the truth of that witness.

Jesus’ baptism by John was understood among the early Christians as being the inauguration of His ministry in this world (cf. Acts 1:22; 10:37f; 13:23-25), the ministry that closes in Matthew in the Great Commission to baptize all nations in the name of the Holy Trinity (28:19).

Sunday, January 9

Genesis 9: In the covenant with Noah, the function of the rainbow as a “sign” is to cause God to “remember” His covenant (9:15–16). The covenant sign serves as a “reminder,” as it were, a “memorial,” a zikkaron in Hebrew, an anamnesis in Greek.

This theme will be taken up later on in Holy Scripture, when Jesus describes God’s definitive covenant with the Church in terms of an anamnesis (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24–25). The Lord’s Supper, that is to say, is not simply an occasion for Christians to remember Jesus and His saving work on our behalf; as a “sign of the covenant,” the rite of breaking the bread and sharing the cup is even more the ineffable ’oth berith to God Himself, in which He is called upon to “remember” the redemption that He has definitively given and established with us in the Lord Jesus. This is why the Church’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper is the defining act of her existence.

John 2:1-12: As Mary approached her son at Cana, her sole concern was the welfare of those who sponsored the wedding feast. She does not seem to have had anything more specific in mind. This impression is conveyed, I believe, in what she eventually says to the waiters: “Do whatever He tells you.” This “whatever” (Greek ho ti) perfectly sums up Mary’s concern. She does not request a miracle; she simply wants the problem dealt with, and she trusts Jesus to do it. Jesus has done nothing in His ministry, so far, that would prompt Mary to expect a miraculous response to her solicitous comment, “They have no wine.”

In Jesus’ response it is important to eliminate a hint of harshness conveyed in our various translations—to wit, in English it is not usually considered polite to address someone as “Woman.” However, the underlying idiom, the Aramaic word used by Jesus—’anot’a—is a formal and even decorous manner of address. Indeed, this is how Jesus habitually speaks to women in the gospels, including a Canaanite petitioner (Matthew 15:28), a crippled woman in the synagogue (Luke 13:12), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:21), the woman accused of adultery (8:10), and Mary Magdalene at the tomb (20:13). It is especially noteworthy that in John’s Gospel Jesus addresses His mother this way as He is dying (19:26). In this gospel, Cana and Calvary are the only places where Mary’s son speaks to her, and the same word is used both times. Perhaps our English “ma’am” comes closest to the sense of the Aramaic idiom.

Monday, January 10

Genesis 10: This chapter describes the fortunes of Noah’s three sons, with a view to the later stories of the Exodus and the conquest of the Promised Land. The Egyptians and Canaanites, after all, are the descendants of Ham, while the Israelites are the descendents of Shem.

The present list of the nations, however, seems more preoccupied with geography than ethnicity. We note that the descendants of Shem (still called Semites) mainly inhabit the Fertile Crescent, while the offspring of Ham inhabit areas to the south and southwest of the Fertile Crescent, and the children of Japheth live to the northwest, in the area of the Turkish peninsula and the Aegean Sea. That is to say, this list covers roughly the three landmasses that contain the Mediterranean Basin: southern Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa.

About seventy nations are listed. We remember, in this respect, that Jesus sent out exactly that number of apostles (Luke 10:1), a number indicating the universality of their mission to “make disciples of all nations.”

Matthew 5:21-30: The first of Matthew’s five contrasts has to do with the Lord’s understanding of the Torah’s prohibition, “Thou shalt do no murder” (verse 21). Here, as in the next examples, Jesus responds, “but I say to you,” a formula indicating that His own understanding of the Law is superior even to that of Moses.

There is an irreducible claim in these sustained assertions—namely, that Jesus, being the very Lawgiver of Mount Sinai, has the authority to speak for the Law’s intention. This claim is based on the standard legal principle: “the meaning of a law is determined by the intention of the lawgiver.” Moses, after all, was only the promulgator of the Torah, not its author. Jesus implicitly makes the latter claim for Himself, which is the reason He is speaking from the mountain (verse 1).

Thus, Jesus understands the prohibition against murder not simply as an injunction against taking someone’s life, but as an interdiction excluding all acts of anger and violence, including speech and even thought (verse 22). This teaching is given in detail and at some length, as Matthew portrays Jesus as the Teacher of the Church. He teaches with authority (7:29).

In the present case—dealing with anger—the teaching of Jesus is consistent with standard Old Testament moral doctrine, especially in the Wisdom literature (Proverbs 6:14, 34; 14:17, 29; 15:1, 18; 16:14, 32; 19:19; 27:4; cf. James 1:19–20).

The context of this prohibition against anger and violence is the Christian Church, a point indicated by the references to the “brother” (verses 22, 23, 24).

Reconciliation must be made “quickly” (verse 25), so that the conflict does not grow out of hand. The “imprisonment” in this section refers to the divine judgment, as it does in the parable of the unforgiving servant (18:34–35).

The teaching of these verses implicitly contrasts contention with love. For Jesus and the New Testament, love is the true fulfillment of the Torah (22:40). For this reason, it is important to understand what is meant by love and not to be confused by its counterfeits. This consideration forms the sequence to the next contrast.

The second contrast (verses 27-30) between Gospel righteousness and that of the scribes and Pharisees takes up the subject of adultery, which is treated in four logia, or sayings, of Jesus.

Following the antithesis about murder, this contrast about adultery preserves the sequence of the Decalogue. It contains two parts, each devoted to a particular way in which Gospel righteousness, as it pertains to adultery, “exceeds” the earlier scribal reading of the Torah.

In the first part the prohibition of adultery is extended to include sins of the eyes, mind, and heart (verse 28). The mention of lust of the eyes invites the addition of the dominical logion about the eye becoming the occasion of sin (verse 29). To this latter saying of the Lord is logically attached the warning about the hand’s becoming an occasion of sin (verse 30). Thus, these three sayings of the Lord constitute a powerful admonition about the gravity of sexual sins and the radical nature of the Christian commitment to sexual morality.

Tuesday, January 11

Genesis 11: The construction of Babel, the second city to be founded in the Bible, prompts us to recall the moral ambiguity of the first city, founded by the world’s first fratricide (4:17). Babel, like that first city, represents the development of technology (v. 3; 4:22). The tower of Babel symbolizes man’s arrogance and his rebellion against the authority of God. Not trusting God’s promise never again to destroy the world by flood (9:15), the men of Babel decide to build this tower as a sort of insurance policy against God’s punishment. Its construction, therefore, is of a piece with all the earlier rebellions against God, starting in chapter 3.

Matthew 5:31-37: In this third contrast between Gospel righteousness and that of the scribe and Pharisee, the subject is the taking of oaths. Whereas the Mosaic Law prohibits perjury—an imprecation in testimony to a lie (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11)—Gospel righteousness forbids oaths in testimony to the truth.

The examples given in these verses, particularly that related to one’s own head (verse 36), contain some measure of disguise or subterfuge, to avoid using God’s name explicitly (“heaven,” “earth,” “Jerusalem”—verse 34; cf. 23:16-22). This suggests an “unofficial” context for the prohibition. In solemn and more formal settings, after all, such as a courtroom, there would be no such disguising of the references to God’s holy name.

In fact, this is how the ethical tradition of the Church has interpreted the prohibition of oaths—that is, as pertaining to ordinary conversation, not a more solemn setting in which an oath is reasonable and expected. Thus, we observe the Apostle Paul’s complete lack of scruple in this matter (cf. Romans 1:9; 2 Corinthians 1:23; Philippians 1:8; 1 Thessalonians 2:5). The Church has followed suit, not understanding this prohibition in the same strict sense as the prohibition against divorce.

The point of the prohibition is to avoid frivolous, unnecessary, and irreverent appeals to God, no matter how such appeals may be disguised. Invocations of this sort encroach on the realm of the divine, and the biblical Lord would be treated with the same nonchalance that pagans felt toward the Homeric gods. Oaths of this kind are irreverent to the divine presence, much like the uncovered head of a woman in prayer. Such oaths—frivolous invocations to the divine truth as guarantor of human claims—demean the divine majesty by forcing God to participate in a merely human conversation. Gospel righteousness recognizes the insult implied in such behavior and such an attitude.

The Lord’s prohibition of oaths extends and perfects the Mosaic proscription against taking the Lord’s name “in vain” (that is, on behalf of a false assertion) and strengthens the Old Testament’s care to reverence the holiness of God’s name (Leviticus 19:12). In this sense Jesus’ prohibition goes to the root of the divine intention in the Torah, much as His prohibition of divorce and adulterous thoughts more profoundly asserts what the Old Testament says of the sanctity of marriage.

Wednesday, January 12

Genesis 12: The genealogy in the previous chapter introduced other aspects of the later story. It told us, for instance, of the barrenness of Abram’s wife (11:30), which is a detail crucial to the later narrative. Likewise, it introduced Lot, Abram’s nephew, who will appear at significant points in the story later on. Similarly, it told of those relatives who were left behind; these, too, will be important in later aspects of the story.

The first migration goes from Ur up to Haran, at the very top and center of the Fertile Crescent (11:31), and from there Abram’s company proceeds to migrate south and west (vv. 5, 9). Passing through Canaan, also known in the Bible as Palestine (the Roman name for Philistia), Abram arrives in Egypt, the southwestern extremity of the Fertile Crescent. All of this migration is in obedience to God’s call (cf. Acts 7:1–5; Hebrews11:8–10). Nor was Abram a young man at this point; he was already seventy-five years old (v. 4).

Abram’s brief sojourn in Egypt (vv. 10–20) prefigures Israel’s later experience of that country. First, he and Sarah are driven into Egypt by famine (12:10), exactly as famine will later be the cause of Israel’s sojourn there, which sets the scene for the Exodus (45:6–11).

Second, when they arrive in Egypt they encounter the high-handed, arbitrary, and menacing behavior of a Pharaoh (12:11–15), just as Moses will.

Third, Abram deceives and outwits Pharaoh with double-talk (12:12–16), which is what Moses will do as well (Exodus 3:18; 7:16; 8:1, 20, 25–28).

Fourth, Abram’s encounter with Pharaoh leads to plagues inflicted on Egypt (Genesis 12:17). This same word, “plagues” (nega‘im), will be used in the Book of Exodus to portray the punishments endured by Egypt because of Pharaoh’s hardness of heart (Exodus 11:1).

Finally, like Moses and the Israelites (Exodus 3:20–22; 11:1–3; 12:35–36), Abraham is enriched with the spoils of Egypt when he leaves the place (Genesis 12:16, 20).

In summary, the various elements of Abraham’s brief sojourn in Egypt prefigure the drama of the Exodus: the famine, the arrogance of Pharaoh, the superior wisdom of the prophet, God’s intervention by sending the plagues, the vindication of the Chosen People, and their departure from Egypt, enriched with its spoils. Abraham thus foreshadows Moses, who will be born in Egypt. Matthew 2:13-15: By way of prophetic type in the Book of Genesis, it was the dreaming of a man named Joseph that originally brought the Chosen People into Egypt. That prophetic type is fulfilled in today’s Gospel reading, when another Joseph has a dream that results in his taking the Chosen People back to Egypt.

Thursday, January 13

Genesis 13: Now Abram and Lot find that the sheer size of their flocks requires them to live apart (vv. 1–7). The story of their separation (vv. 8–13) demonstrates Abram’s humility in giving his younger relative the choice of the land (v. 9), while he himself takes what is left.

This humble action of Abram illustrates the meaning of the Lord’s declaration that the meek shall inherit the earth. Abraham’s descendants—not Lot’s—will inherit all this land. In this story we discern the non-assertive quality of Abram’s faith. He is not only meek; he is also a peacemaker. Meekness and peacemaking are qualities of the man of faith.

Lot serves in this story as a kind of foil to Abram: The meek and peaceful Abram takes what is left, whereas Lot, obviously having failed to do a proper survey of the neighborhood, chooses to live in Sodom. It was Lot’s lot to make what would prove to be one of the worst real estate choices in history.

Matthew 5:38-48: Revenge and resistance form the theme of the fourth contrast between Gospel righteousness and that of the scribes and Pharisees.

In the Old Testament, strict limits on revenge, based on a kind of qualitative equity (quid pro quo), caused it to assume a form resembling commutative justice (verse 38). This Mosaic arrangement placed on Israelite society a measurable restraint that could be enforced. It could rather easily be assimilated into a system of justice and appropriate retribution.

Gospel righteousness, however, is not satisfied with creating a society governed by commutative justice. It wants to eliminate from the heart all forms of revenge or coercive resistance to an evildoer (verse 39).

A blow on the right cheek, presumably struck by a right-handed man, must be delivered backhand. To hit a man in this way is chiefly a gesture of insult. The one who suffers such a blow may not experience much physical injury, but the loss of personal dignity can be immense. It is this loss of personal dignity and respect that the believer must be prepared to sustain.

These admonitions of Jesus fulfill and perfect the Mosaic Law by strengthening and extending the restraint taught in that Law, a restraint sought by the divine intent of the Law. The measured concession to vengeance in the Torah was analogous to the concession made to divorce. In both cases the command of Jesus goes to the deeper purpose sought by the Torah. This profound purpose of the Torah had about it a prophetic quality that the Gospel brings to fulfillment.

It is the implied claim of Jesus to discern the divine purpose even better than Moses did.

The antithesis dealing with revenge and violence leads logically to the next, which deals with the love of enemies (verses 43-48). This fifth and final contrast between Gospel righteousness and that of the scribes and Pharisees has to do with the love of one’s enemies. The Old Testament does not actually prescribe hatred on one’s enemies, of course; that part is a sort of hyperbole. Nonetheless, the prescribed love of one’s neighbor (22:39; Leviticus 19:18) certainly prompted some question about who, exactly, was included in this list (Luke 10:29). Jesus extended the Mosaic commandment on this point by expanding the word “neighbor” to include “enemy.” This truly was a new idea in Israel’s experience.

Friday, January 14

Genesis 14: The Old Testament provides a genealogy, at least in brief, for most of its dramatis personae. The clear exception is Melchizedek, who suddenly enters the biblical story in this chapter of Genesis and just as abruptly leaves it. Nothing whatever is said of his ancestry, the rest of his life, or his death. Melchizedek simply appears “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life.”

Hebrews 7:11-28: Some eight centuries after Melchizedek, David became his successor on the throne of Jerusalem. David certainly did have begats, and much was written of his ancestry, as well as his death.

David knew, however, that an eternal promise was attached to the throne on which he sat. God had sworn with an oath that the royal house of David would last forever. The Lord had promised that, as long as the sun and moon endure, so long would last the throne of David. In a way that David himself could not understand, David’s Son would be the Son of God: I will be to Him a Father,? and He shall be to Me a Son” (2 Samuel 7:14; Hebrews 1:5).

Thus, in the hymn used for the enthronement of the Davidic kings, reference was made to Melchizedek, that everlasting king who had neither beginning of days nor end of life: “The Lord has sworn / And will not repent, / “You are a priest forever / According to the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110 [109]:4; Hebrews 5:6; 7:17,21).

In an argument with the scholars of Holy Scripture, Jesus cited this psalm to indicate the greater depth of its meaning: “Then Jesus answered and said, while He taught in the temple, ‘How is it that the scribes say that the Christ is the Son of David? For David himself said by the Holy Spirit: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, / Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.” Therefore David himself calls Him “Lord”; how is He then his Son?’” (Mark 12:35-37). This exegetical question, which was quite lost on those to whom Jesus addressed it, prompted Christians to examine that psalm in the full light of Christ’s self-revelation. As they grasped the point of the question, this psalm became ever more important in the development of early Christology (cf. Mark 16:19; Acts 2:34-35; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 10:12).

The Christian understanding of this psalm is of a piece with the Christian understanding of Genesis 14: As the Son of David, Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy conveyed in the historical appearance of Melchizedek. He is eternally the king and high priest, God’s very Son, seated at His right hand and living forever. He is the real Melchizedek, not a figure from the past but the everlasting Mediator between God and man.