Friday, April 8
Matthew 23:23-28: Much of the material in this section corresponds to Luke 11:37-52, though it is differently structured.
The seven (or eight) “woes” in this, the Lord’s last discourse in Matthew, are to be contrasted with the seven (or eight) “blesseds” with which the first discourse began (5:3-12).
The scribes and Pharisees are censured for neglecting the weightier matters of the Torah while concentrating on small particulars of lesser moment (verse 23). The comparison of the camel and the gnat (verse 24) is reminiscent of the camel and the needle’s eye (19:24).
The burden of the Lord’s judgment falls on the failure of these hypocrites to go deeper than the mere surface letter of observance—deeper in the Torah, deeper into their own hearts, where all is corruption and death (verse 27). They clean the outside, but the neglected inside is in sorry shape (verse 25). They stay away from an interior transformation that would render valuable the observance of the Torah: judgment, mercy, and faith. This criticism, with its accent on interiority, is an echo and summary of what Israel’s prophets taught over the centuries.
Hence, these leaders deserve the same “woe” the prophets spoke against earlier infidelities (just to limit ourselves to the 8th century, cf. Amos 5:18-20; 6:1-7; Isaiah, 5 passim; 19:1-3; 28:1-4,15; 30:1-3; 31:1-4; Micah 2:1-4).
Zechariah 5: In this chapter, which also uses dialogue to interpret what is seen, there are two visions: In the first (verses 1-4), the prophet sees a flying scroll considerably larger than one would expect; indeed, it is the same size as the portico in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:3). This scroll contains the curses attendant on those who violate the terms of God’s covenant (cf. Deuteronomy 29:18-20). This scroll represents a permanent warning of the dangers of infidelity.
In the second vision (verses 5-11), the prophet sees “Wickedness” portrayed as a woman carried in a basket. Unlike the very large scroll in the first vision, the present vision gives us a very small basket. It holds only an ephah, yet this woman can fit into it. She must be a pretty insignificant woman—this Wickedness—and the angelic figures contemptuously shove her down into the basket and enclose it with a leaden lid. Representing the power of Babylon, which the Bible holds in contempt, the woman and her basket are deposited in the Babylonian plain (verse 11; cf. Genesis 11:2). This is the same woman, by the way, who looks so much larger and more impressive in Revelation 17.
Saturday, April 9
Philippians 1:19-30: In his earlier epistles, it appears, Paul expected still to be alive on this earth when the Lord returned (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:15,17). Now however, for what appears to be the first time in his letters, he refers to the possibility of his death (verse 20). Things look pretty dangerous at Ephesus (1 Corinthians 15:32).
The doctrine most clearly taught in these verses is that of an immediate “afterlife” of the believer with Christ, and this is the source of Paul’s own comfort and strength as he faces the possible prospect of death at Ephesus. We may contrast this perspective with that of Paul’s earliest epistle, First Thessalonians (4:13-18), where the source of Christian comfort is not an immediate afterlife but rather the final resurrection.
This is not to say that in Philippians Paul is no longer concerned with the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead. On the contrary, he explicitly speaks of it (1:6; 2:16; 3:20). There is no sense in which we can say that Paul, in Philippians, discards the doctrine of the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead.
Here in Philippians, however, the expression “with Christ”—syn Christo (verse 23)— refers to an immediate afterlife, whereas in 1 Thessalonians 4:14,17 it had referred to the time of the final resurrection. The emphasis is on union with Christ in the here and now (verse 21; 3:7-12). The believer is already united with Christ, a truth that Paul will also stress in his next epistle, Galatians (2:20; 3:27; 4:19).
Paul’s hope for an immediate afterlife with Christ, therefore, is based on the experience of his union with Christ already in this world.
Because Christ is already his life, death will be for Paul an advantage, a step forward, a kerdos. “For Paul to live is Christ, and this is a life which by death will be set in full communion with the One who lives in him,” writes one commentator (in TDNT 9.547). There are similar sentiments throughout early Christian literature, especially in the context of martyrdom (cf. Ignatius of Antioch, Romans 5.3; 6.1-2; 7.2). In Christ Paul is possessed of a life that he cannot lose by death (cf. Romans 6:11; Colossians 3:3; John 11:23-26; Ignatius of Antioch, Ephesians 3.2; Magnesians 1.2).
Unlike the Platonic tradition, Paul does not call death a “release” or “escape,” but a “gain.”
When he wrote Philippians, then, Paul had come to the persuasion that an immediate afterlife with Christ follows the death of those who have died in Christ.
It is important, however, that we do not misinterpret this observation. Individual union with Christ after death never becomes the goal of Paul’s ultimate striving. Jesus dies to save the whole man, not just man’s soul. Until the body itself is raised in Christ, the Christian hope remains unfulfilled. Paul never wavers in this affirmation, not even in the present epistle (3:10,11,21; cf. Romans 8:11,23; 1 Corinthians 15:51-55). Death in Christ, then, is not our goal; it is only a step towards that goal, a “gain.”
Zechariah 6: This chapter contains both a vision and an oracle. In the vision (verses 1-8) the prophet sees four chariots drawn by horses, which are also four “winds” or “spirits,” as it were (verse 5). He saw them earlier (1:7-11). Like the “four winds” of common parlance, these horses go in four directions: the black northbound, the white westbound, the dappled southbound, and the red eastbound. They represent God’s providential “patrol,” as it were, of the whole universe. God is keeping an eye on things, Zechariah is reminded, even things that don’t seem to be going very well.
Although Babylon lies east of Jerusalem, one journeys there by leaving Jerusalem in a northerly direction and then following the contour of the Fertile Crescent. (If one journeyed straight east, he would simply have to pass through the Arabian Desert, an area best avoided.) Consequently, there is a special significance in the northbound horses in this vision, for they go to Babylon, where, God assures His prophet, He has everything under control (verse 8). This vision is related, then, to the woman in the basket in the previous chapter. The “Spirit” that guides world history, including geopolitical history, is the same Spirit proclaimed to Zerubbabel in 4:6.
The oracle in this chapter (verses 9-15), like the vision of the two olive trees in 4:11-14, pertains to the Lord’s two “sons of oil,” Zerubbabel and Jeshua, the priest and the governor, the religious and civil authority. Both are anointed by God and must work in common endeavor for the Lord (verse 13). The “branch” in verse 12, as in 3:8, refers to Zerubbabel, whose Akkadian name means “the branch of Babylon.” He is both a foreshadowing and a forefather (Matthew 1:12-13) of the One who combines in Himself the twin dignities of King and Priest.
Sunday, April 10
Philippians 2:12-18: Paul now returns to the theme of Christian obedience, the very theme that had prompted him to quote the hymn recorded in 5:5-11. He wants the Philippians (“Therefore”) to be obedient according to the model of Christ Himself (verse 12).
However, having just recalled that hymn about salvation, Paul’s mind is full of this latter theme as well. In just two verses (12-13), then, he goes from speaking about obedience to speaking about salvation.
In verses 12-18 we discern a ringing resemblance to the farewell discourse of Moses in Deuteronomy 31—32. In that passage, where Moses reprimanded the Chosen People for their disobedience, we note an emphasis on “rebellion” (erethismon in the Septuagint of Deuteronomy 31:27), an idea very close to Paul’s warnings against “partisanship” (eritheia; cf. 1:17; 2:3).
Moses feared for what those Israelites would do in his absence (for he was about to die), since they had been so consistently disobedient while he was present. Paul, by contrast, does not worry about the Philippians will do in his absence (verse 12). Moses, likewise, had called the Israelites “wicked children . . . a crooked and perverse generation” (Deuteronomy 32:5), whereas Paul calls the Philippians “blameless and harmless children of God . . . in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation” (verse 15).
It is possible that Paul, as he waited in prison for a death that seemed perhaps imminent (1:20-23), perceived some parallel between himself and Moses as the latter awaited death east of the Jordan. Both were, it appeared, taking leave of the people they had pastured. Whereas Moses, however, was filled with misgivings about those whom he was leaving, Paul felt nothing but confidence in his Philippians.
These latter, after all, had always been obedient (verse 12), and Paul believed that obedience was an essential component of the Christian life (cf. Romans 1:5; 6:16; 16:18; 16:19,26; 2 Corinthians 7:17; 10:5-6; 2 Thessalonians 1:8). Such obedience was a quality of Christ in the accomplishing of our redemption (verse 8).
In obedience the Philippians are together to work out their salvation. The verb is plural and denotes a common effort. Clearly Paul has in mind here more than the salvation of the individual; he is concerned, rather, with the salvation of the whole congregation. This salvation is “worked out” in the Church, as the Church “works out” its problems. This is why Paul warns the Philippians against rivalries and squabbling. Those things in which salvation consists—freedom from sin and communion with God—are matters of joint and shared striving.
Zechariah 7: This chapter has two parts. In the first (verses 1-7), the prophet addresses a specific question about fasting. Since the fall of Jerusalem and its temple in 586, the Jews had adopted special fasting seasons during the year to commemorate their national disaster. Now that the temple in Jerusalem was being rebuilt, nearly seventy years later, should they keep those fasting seasons any longer? Certain villagers in the Holy Land want to know, and the prophet answers them with a specific oracle from the Lord.
The second part of this chapter (verses 8-14) is probably situated here because it refers to the earlier prophets (verse 12), whom Zechariah had just mentioned (verse 7). The prophet reminds his contemporaries that their recent defeat and scattering had been foretold by the former prophets as a result of the sins of the nation. The specific precepts that Zechariah cites (verse 9-10) seem to indicate the social prophets of two centuries earlier: Amos, Micah, and Isaiah.
Monday, April 11
Matthew 24:15-28: This section of Matthew, about the Abomination of Desolation and the Great Tribulation, is shared with Mark (13:14-20) and Luke (21:20-24). Jesus first alludes to a past event. In going to the remembered past in order to prophesy about the near future, Jesus follows a pattern of historical interpretation common to the Old Testament prophets.
In verse 15 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.
We observe that Matthew, unlike Mark and Luke, explicitly sends the reader to Daniel in order to explain this reference to the Abomination of Desolation. In Daniel 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.”
Matthew repeats Mark’s 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 Mark and Matthew had in mind.
Luke (21:20), on the other hand, appears to use this term to describe the Roman armies surrounding Jerusalem in A.D. 70 All of this, and worse, says Jesus, will fall on the Holy City very shortly. For Luke this dominical prophecy was directed to the Jewish Civil War against the Romans, which would climax in the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 (cf. Josephus, The Jewish Wars 5.10).
This diversity among the gospels should tell us of a certain fluidity of understanding of prophetic discourses of this sort. It should warn us of the exegetical perils of trying to pin down this kind of prophecy with scientific precision. As we see in the present instance, even the infallible gospel writers recognized this fluid quality of eschatological prophecy. The very images of the prophecy render it open to more than one interpretation.
After all, the function of such prophecy is not to convey information, but to encourage vigilance.
The first particular of the exhortation is flight to the mountains (verse 16), which is exactly what the Maccabees did during the crisis of 167 B.C. Their flight, we recall, was not a surrender. It provided, rather, the opportunity to organize and consolidate their resistance to the enemy. Likewise, all Christian flight is intended as a means of carrying on the battle. Sometimes, in order to be victorious, there is a need for a strategic withdrawal for the purpose of achieving later advantage.
As when a house is on fire, the necessary thing is immediate flight, so the person on the roof must descend by the exterior stairs and not go into the house to retrieve anything (verse 17). He must not, like Mrs. Lot, look back. The Great Tribulation requires leaving behind a great deal. It is a time for decision, not dilly-dally. Such a requirement was illustrated in the vocations of the Apostles, who immediately left everything at the summons of Jesus.
The same abnegation is enjoined on those working in the fields. They must not come back to retrieve their possessions, particularly the cloak that they left beside the field while they worked (verse 18). They must not turn around (opiso). For obvious reasons the flight will be especially hard on pregnant and nursing mothers, who are among the most vulnerable members of any society (verse 19).
If the flight comes in winter, it will naturally be harder, both because of the loss of one’s cloak and because of the more severe weather, including the rising of the waters during rainy season (verse 20).
Jesus also alluded to that Maccabean persecution when He warned, "And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath." During the Maccabean persecution, many Jews were slaughtered on the Sabbath, a day on which they were reluctant to fight back (1 Maccabees 2:29-41). In addition, a flight on the Sabbath day, if one kept the Sabbath day strictly, would not extend very far. It would hardly be a flight at all.
This period is what Matthew calls the Great Tribulation, thlipsis megaleI (verse 21; cf. verse 29). It is history’s ultimate trial. The description of this period seems to be drawn from the Greek text of Daniel 12:1, which introduces the victory and the resurrection of God’s righteous ones.
That Great Tribulation will be shortened, says our Lord, for the sake of the elect (verse 22). As everywhere in the New Testament, this reference is to the Christians, who have become God’s Chosen People.
What is the Great Tribulation? In principle it is all the time prior to the return of the Lord (verse 30). Some periods of history, however, seem more especially to embody the characteristics of the Tribulation. The church at Thessaloniki in Macedonia experienced this thlipsis almost immediately after its founding. In the first chapter of the earliest piece of Christian literature, for example, St. Paul wrote, “And you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction (en thlipsi), with joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6).
The same was true for the church at Smyrna in Asia Minor, to whom St. John wrote, “I know your works, tribulation (thlipsin), and poverty (but you are rich); and the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation (thlipsin) ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:9-10). The word is found 45 times in the New Testament.
What is required is vigilance, prayer (verse 20), abnegation, and resolute decision. Some periods of history make these requirements especially stringent.
Jesus our Lord, describing the last days prior to the second appearance of the Son of Man, spoke of “false messiahs and false prophets” as signs of that time (Matthew 24:24). In fact, as historians are prompt to mention, false messiahs and false prophets were the signs of Jesus’ own time as well (cf. Acts 5:35-39; 21:38; Josephus, Antiquities 17.271-285).
Virtually all periods of subsequent history, likewise, provided further examples of false messiahs and false prophets, so that just about any age could feel justified in calling itself the “last days,” and in most ages some folks have done so.
Our own time is hardly an exception. False prophecy, after all, includes any ideology that attempts to interpret the future on the basis of a flawed understanding of history. Likewise, false messianism includes any movement that attempts to hasten or bring about a future based on false prophecy. Now, a simple regard for the major wars and great social disruptions of the previous century makes it abundantly evident that those dreadful trials, some of which have but recently come to an end, were mostly spawned by the false prophetic movements and false messianisms that had managed to find a sufficient political agency.
It is arguable that no age surpasses the twentieth century in the social and moral harm done by false messiahs and false prophets. No other time in history produced so much political oppression, or so much destruction by war, or so many deaths by starvation, or such massive displacements of people—an abundance of stark tragedy produced by false interpretations of history that had coalesced into stubborn political movements and institutions.
These include, for example, dialectical materialism, a political philosophy so corrosive of everything human that only with difficulty can we see it as the product of human thought. This attempt to read the future became messianic when it was adopted to form the political program of large nations, particularly Russia and China. In its name, millions were imprisoned, millions starved to death.
Such too was nationalist socialism in its several forms. Germany’s proposed “thousand year Reich”—-a demonic parody of the millennium of the saints—embodied a philosophy of political totalitarianism that was both prophetic and messianic. The mind is numbed with the thought of the human and social harm inflicted by such an ideology.
Arguably the most persistent form of false prophecy in all of history, on the other hand, is scarcely new. It comes from a man whose followers since the early seventh century have referred to him simply as El Rasul, “the Prophet.” Almost immediately that man’s prophecies assumed a militant political shape that set out to conquer much of the earth at sword point. His false prophecies are still very much with us, and in the faction that currently rules ancient Persia that movement has recently taken on a more manifestly messianic character that is outright astonishing. No great gift of prophecy is needed, I think, nor heightened sense of alarm required, to foresee and fear serious trouble from this source in the not-too-distant future.
Now what does Jesus our Lord say with respect to false messiahs and false prophets? Don’t listen to them, He says. Pay them no mind. Do not follow them. They will surely show wonders, as did the sorcerers of Pharaoh, and even the elect, He warns us, will feel the allure of their message. The word of false prophets and the programs of false messiahs will certainly be attractive, because they will address man’s spiritual and social aspirations.
That is to say, false prophets and false messiahs will mimic the Gospel itself. False prophecy will present a form of “good news” about what lies ahead in human history, and false messianism will endeavor to bring it about. This explains why desperate men will take these things seriously. This is why they can coalesce into mass gatherings and alter the contours of political geography.
It is essential that we bear in mind that all of these things were prophesied by the unique Interpreter of history, the Prophet whom we take seriously: “See, I have told you beforehand” (Matthew 24:25). Zechariah 8: Now, seventy years after God’s departure from Jerusalem had left it completely vulnerable to the attack of the Babylonians, God is about to return and make it once again His holy city. Indeed, the chapter following this one will describe His return as Israel’s anointed King seated on the foal of an ass.
Jerusalem will once again be a “city of faith” (verse 3: ‘ir ha’emeth) where God will dwell. Both sexes and all ages will dwell there securely (verses 4-5). The Lord will once again gather the scattered (verse 7) and dwell in their midst (verse 8). All of this is promised in the rebuilding of the temple (verses 9-13). The reason things have changed, says Zechariah, is that God has relented from His wrath (verses 11,14), and the prophet goes on to insist on the maintenance of those social virtues (verses 16-17) of which he had spoken in the previous chapter (7:9-10). The special seasons of fasting, about which Zechariah had been consulted earlier (7:1-7), will be turned into times of joy (verses 18-19). Jerusalem will once again become a place of pilgrimage (verses 20-22), even for the gentiles (verse 23). The whole world will be converted to the God of the Jews (cf. John 4:22).
These prophecies, only imperfectly realized with respect to Jerusalem’s second temple, are properly interpreted in their Christian fulfillment in the message of the Gospel. The salvation truly accomplished in Jerusalem is that fulfilled in the dramatic events of the last week of the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth.
Tuesday, April 12
Philippians 3:1-11: I have argued that Philippians was written relatively early in Paul’s ministry, some time during his three years (52-55) in Ephesus. This dating would put it close to the composition of Galatians.
In the present section of Philippians, in fact, the reader is much reminded of the double principal theme of Galatians, salvation by faith and freedom from the works of the Mosaic Law. For example, in Paul’s comments about his communion with Christ, one can hardly fail to observe the resemblance between verses 8 to 10 and Galatians 2:20.
There is a difference between Philippians and Galatians in this respect, however, and the difference is this: Whereas Galatians was written for a congregation that had already begun to succumb to the teachings of the Judaizers (namely, that the Gentiles were obliged to be circumcised and to observe the Mosaic Law), in Philippians this teaching is regarded as a danger only, not an immediate and critical danger. The Judaizing errors that had already reached Galatia had not yet found their way to Philippi.
Hence, there is a difference in tone between these two epistles; nor do we find in Philippians the shock and harshness of reprimand characteristic of Galatians. One thinks of Paul’s “foolish Galatians” (Galatians 3:1) in contrast to the Philippians, whom he calls “my brethren dearly beloved and longed for, my joy and my crown” (Philippians 4:1).
In discussing the Judaizers in each of these epistles, Paul waxes autobiographical, but here too there is a difference between the two works. In Galatians Paul narrates the circumstances of his conversion, particularly his relationships to the other apostles (Galatians 1:17—2:17), a motif rendered necessary by the way in which the Judaizers in Galatia claimed the authority of those apostles. It is not necessary for Paul to go into these particulars at Philippi, where he was the only apostle known to the congregation. Instead, Paul concentrates his biographical comments on a contrast of “before” and “after” his conversion. The tone is accordingly more serene in Philippians than in Galatians, though he does use some pretty tough language to describe the Judaizers themselves (verse 2).
Zechariah 10: Israel’s worst enemies, over the years, had been the kings who failed properly to shepherd the people, along with the false prophets who abetted them (verse 2-3). These were the men chiefly responsible for the scattering of God’s flock at the time of Jerusalem’s downfall. This distinction between Israel and its rulers will be important over the next two chapters. Whereas the Lord will punish the latter, He Himself will undertake to provide for the former. From them will emanate the cornerstone, the tent peg, the bow of battle—all metaphors associated with the covenanted Davidic kingship (verse 4).
This is a prophecy, of course, of Israel’s true King to come, identified with God Himself. This is the King whose entrance into Jerusalem was celebrated yesterday. He will restore the scattered (verses 8-11). In particular He will deliver them from their enemies, symbolized by the two powers traditionally governing the two ends of the Fertile Crescent, Assyria and Egypt (verse 11). In contrast to the wandering with which the chapter began (verse 2), God’s people will “walk in His name” (verse 12).
Wednesday, April 13
Philippians 3:12-21: Especially among converts from paganism (which was by and large the case at Philippi, where there was not even a synagogue), there was a great need for types and models of behavior. More than for Jews who accepted the Gospel, conversion for the gentiles was bound to entail a more radical—even dramatic—change in personal behavior. Whereas good Jews already lived lives in conformity with God’s Law, especially in the areas of sex and economics, this was often not true of gentile converts (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Hence the need for role models in this latter group.
The elaboration of a Christian lifestyle, after all, cannot be accomplished from scratch. It is largely put together by the imitation of other Christians. (Indeed, it is imperative that all Christians live in such a way as to serve as models for one another. What we do as Christians we do not do for ourselves. How we speak, how we conduct ourselves, the moral choices we make — all of these things have to do with the spiritual benefit of our brothers and sisters.) Christians learn how to be Christians by observing other Christians whom they believe to be better at it.
Paul especially plays this theme when writing to his converts in Macedonia (verse 17; 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:6-7; 2:14; 3:12; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9), though he touches it elsewhere as well (Galatians 4:12; 1 Corinthians 4:14-16; Acts 20:18-21,31-35).
Paul’s exhortation that the Philippians imitate him means more than choosing him as a model because he happens to be available. We should bear in mind that this was something Paul had taught the Philippians long before he sent them epistles (2 Thessalonians 2:17). Paul emphasized that, not only had the congregations learned from watching him, but that he had intentionally given them an example (2 Thessalonians 2:19). His example was part of the “tradition” that he had bequeathed to them (2 Thessalonians 3:6).
This is also the point here in Philippians. It is not that Paul happened to be a good Christian worthy of imitation. His role as a model is part of his authority. He is a “type” by reason of his ministry. The congregation’s imitation of him pertains to their recognition of his authority over them. The imitation is based on paternity (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:14-15). In the sense that Paul speaks of it here, Christian imitation is not simply the replication of a model; it is the enactment of obedience to a standard.
Zechariah 12: The prophecies in this chapter begin with the great catastrophe of which the epicenter is Jerusalem. Jerusalem becomes the instrument of the divine wrath (verse 2). It is at Jerusalem that the Lord defeats His enemies (verses 3-6; Psalms 45 ; 47 ; 76 ; Isaiah 17:12-14; Joel 2:1-20). Indeed, this is the very week when He defeats them. It is at Jerusalem that the House of David has its definitive triumph over its truest enemies (verse 7), being made like unto God (verse 8).
At the same time, there will be weeping in the Holy City, lamentation as though for an Only Son, who has been pierced with a spear on the Cross (verse 10). It is in His defeat that the House of David claims its defining victory over sin and death. This is the prophecy fulfilled in John 19:37 and remembered again in Revelation 1:7.
Commenting on this chapter of Zechariah in the third century, Hippolytus of Rome wrote: “For the people of the Hebrews shall see Him in human form, as He appeared to them when He came by the holy Virgin in the flesh and as they crucified Him. And He will show them the prints of the nails in His hands and His feet, and His side pierced by the spear, and His head crowned with thorns, and His honorable Cross.” This chapter thus continues the theme of the Lord’s Passion and Death.
Thursday, April 14
Philippians 4:1-9: From the beginning of this epistle we have suspected that there was some sort of problem at Philippi. Nothing in this epistle has indicated that the problem was doctrinal. In fact, when the Apostle condemned the heretics, there was nothing to suggest that they were Philippian heretics. On the contrary, Paul was obliged to tell the Philippians about those heretics (3:18).
No, we have suspected that the underlying problem at Philippi, if there was a problem, had to do with what we may call “conflicting personalities.” This would explain Paul’s emphasis on respect, humility, and mutual forbearance (2:2-4).
The present chapter proves our suspicions to have been correct, because it finally identifies the two “conflicting personalities” as Evodia and Syntyche, Philippian women who are exhorted to settle their differences and “be of one mind in the Lord.” Three things may be noted of this exhortation to Evodia and Syntyche:
First, even though the conflict between them apparently provided the impulse that prompted Paul to write this epistle, it is a fact that he left the matter aside until this closing chapter. To prepare for it, he laid the groundwork by asserting more general and universally applicable principles about humility, obedience, and mutual service, such as we have seen. That is to say, Paul did not address the particular problem directly until he established the basis on which it could be addressed and settled.
Second, it may have been the case that Paul was reluctant to name these two women in public. His explicit exhortation to them, after all, would be terribly embarrassing. Paul’s words would leave them no cover, no room for equivocation or retreat, and perhaps Paul felt reluctant to take such measures. No pastor enjoys singling people out by a public reprimand, and pastors who do so will often enough have to pay a price for it.
Third, when Paul finally does name Evodia and Syntyche in this fourth chapter, he makes clear, by example, a useful pastoral rule—namely, that public sins, such as give scandal to a congregation, are not private matters of the sort covered by Matthew 18:15-20. On the contrary, public sins are subject to public censure and may require public repentance. In the end, Paul decides to call Evodia and Syntyche to public account. They are reprimanded even as they offended—in the sight of the church. (And not just the Philippian church. For nearly two millennia now, the whole world has read about them!)
Friday, April 15
Philippians 4:10-23: Right from the beginning Paul had experienced the generosity of the Macedonian Christians (verses 15-16; 2 Corinthians 8:1-5), and now, once again, a further opportunity being provided, they have not failed him (verses 10,18).
For his part, Paul has learned to be content with whatever circumstances the Lord sees fit to provide for him (verses 11-12), confident that he can do all things in Christ who strengthens him (verse 13; 2 Corinthians 12:10; 2 Timothy 4:17; Acts 18:9-10). This is not self-sufficiency but an ongoing dependence on Christ, a difference that separates Christian contentment from Stoic contentment.
We observe that Paul employs the language of sacrifice to describe the generous gift of the Philippians (verse 18; Ephesians 5:28; Romans 12:1).
Following the doxology that could form an appropriate ending to the epistle (verse 20), there is added a series of personal salutations, which we are probably correct in suspecting to have been written in Paul’s own hand (verses 21-23). This interpretation corresponds to what we know to have been Paul’s practice (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:17; Galatians 6:11; 1 Corinthians 16:21; Philemon 9).
The reference to “Caesar’s house” (Kaisaros oikia—verse 22) means those who work for the Roman government. (The expression “house of” with the name of a king normally carries this meaning in Holy Scripture, as it does throughout the ancient literature of the Middle East.) Ephesus, as the regional capital of Asia, was the site of a great deal of Roman officialdom (Acts 19:38), and Paul’s mention of “saints” inside it shows that some Christians were already finding their place in the Roman government. This is ironical, of course, for this was the same government that was keeping Paul imprisoned. Indeed, it may have been Paul’s own example that led to the conversion of these people (1:13).
Matthew 25:31-46: The story of the Last Judgment, which closes Matthew’s fifth great discourse and comes immediately before the account of the Lord’s Passion, was chosen by the Orthodox Church to be read immediately before the start of Lent each year. This custom places the Last Judgment as the context for repentance.
This parable makes it very clear, if we needed further clarity, that "a man is justified by works, not be faith alone" and that "faith without works is dead" (James 2:24,26).
It is imperative to observe that the last activity ascribed to Christ in the Nicene Creed is that "He will come again in glory to judge." This is Matthew’s fourth straight parable about the parousia of the Son of Man for the purpose of judgment. He had introduced this theme of final judgment much earlier, among the parables of the Kingdom (13:41), and in the coming trial before the Sanhedrin in the next chapter the Lord will speak very solemnly on this subject by way of warning to Israel’s official leaders: “I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven” (26:64).
Let us also observe that the Son of Man does not return to earth alone; He is accompanied by the angels, who have a distinct function in the coming trial (verse 31; 13:41,49; 16:27; cf. Zechariah 14:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:13).
The Son of Man will sit in judgment over “all the nations”–panta ta ethne (verse 32; 24:14; 28:19). Israel is numbered among these nations. As in any trial, a verdict will be given, leading to a division, the latter symbolized by the sheep and the goats.
The Son of Man is identified as the King (verses 34;40), an image that goes back to the beginning of Matthew’s narrative (1:1,20; 2:2,13-14) and will appear again at the Lord’s trial and crucifixion (27:11,29,37,42).
The elect are addressed as the “blessed of My Father” (verse 24). The inherited Kingdom has been planned and prepared since the beginning of Creation; it had been in the divine mind all along.
Then comes the criterion of the judgment, in which we recognize the components of Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan (10:29-37).
Especially to be noted in this parable is Jesus’ association with all mankind, especially the poor, the destitute, and the neglected. To serve the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the sick, and the imprisoned is to serve Jesus, who identifies Himself with them. This is the basis for all Christian service to suffering humanity. This is not a negligible aspect of the Gospel; it pertains to the very subject matter of the final judgment. The dominant idea of this parable, in fact, is the divine judgment. God really does judge. He really does discriminate. He will not confuse a just man and an unjust man. He discerns the difference, and that difference means a great deal to Him. He does not take difference lightly. He assigns eternal destinies to men on the basis of that difference.
This is what we see in the present parable: sheep and goats are spread asunder, just as wise and unwise maidens are separated one from another, and wheat is distinguished from chaff. In this world the generous and the mean have existed side by side, but at the judgment it will be so no more.
How can we know where we stand with respect to that Judgment? In a sense, we cannot know. In a sense, it is not important that we know. We might become complacent. God will not have a Christian feel so secure that he neglects his duties in this world.
In the present parable the just are not preoccupied with themselves. They are preoccupied with the needs of the poor. Their lives are spent addressing those needs. They have neither the leisure nor the inclination to think about themselves, even about their “eternal security.” They are too busy doing God’s will with respect to their fellow men.
Thus, at the Final Judgment, they arrive unaware that they have ever served Christ at all. They imagined all along that they were taking care of the poor, simply because the poor needed to be cared for. At the judgment, then, the righteous are even surprised that they have been serving Christ all along. Their thoughts have been solely for the crying needs of their fellow men. They have had neither time nor opportunity to think about themselves.
As for the unrighteous, they are condemned to “eternal fire” (verses 41,46), this image apparently identical to the “fires of Gehenna” in 5:22. This fire, which also appears in the parables of the Kingdom (13:30,40,42,50), was not intended for human beings but was “prepared for the devil and his angels.” In this respect, heaven and hell are very different, because heaven was “prepared for you from the foundation of the earth (verse 34). It was never God’s intention that men should be damned; He predestined no soul to hell. Men choose that fate for themselves when they join themselves to “the devil and his angels.”
The condemnation of the unjust—“Depart from Me”—is the direct antithesis of the invitation offered to everyone through the Gospel: “Come to Me” (11:28).
Each of the four parables of the last judgment (24:45—25:46) ends with an emphasis on condemnation. The negligent servant is condemned after the faithful servant is rewarded (24:46-48). The five foolish maidens are condemned after the five prudent ones have been rewarded (25:10-12). The slothful steward is condemned after the industrious stewards have been rewarded (25:21-26). The goats are condemned after the sheep have been rewarded (25:40-41).
Two things are to be inferred from this sequence. First, it shows that the parables serve chiefly as warnings. The promised reward is spoken of first, in order to set up the warning. Second, it suggests that God’s punishment is an afterthought, as I have already suggested. It was not part of His original plan, so to speak. Punishment was not part of God’s original plan for mankind.
The same adjective, aionion (“eternal” or “everlasting”), is used to describe both heaven and hell. This parallel points to the confusion of those who deny the eternity of hell. One cannot logically deny the eternity of hell without denying the eternity of heaven.