Friday, December 30
Revelation 21:1-27: We now come to the final two chapters of John’s book of prophetic visions. Now we see no more battles, no more bloodshed, no more persecution. John sees, rather, the holy city—New Jerusalem—as the ultimate reality that gives meaning to all that preceded it.
In this final vision, which lasts two chapters, John is aware that seven things are gone forever: the sea, death, grief, crying, pain, the curse, and the night (21:1,4; 22:3,5). Here we are dealing with the definitive abolition of conflict, the end of chaos. The first symbol of this chaos is the sea, which has only such shape as it is given from outside of itself. The sea represents the nothingness out of which God creates all things, conferring meaning upon them. This chaos is both metaphysical and moral. It represents a nothingness replaced by the lake of fire, the second death. The sea is the hiding place of the monster and the setting where the scarlet woman sits. This sea disappears at the coming of the new heaven and the new earth.
If we take the earth to represent man’s empirical and categorical experience, and heaven to represent man’s experience of transcendence, then the appearance of the new heaven and the new earth means the transformation of all of man’s experience. All of it is made new. The grace of God in Christ does not sanctify just a part of man’s existence, but his whole being. Man is not a partially redeemed creature. Both his heaven and his earth are made new.
Both heaven and earth are part of God’s final gift to man—the New Jerusalem, the “dwelling of God with man.” This dwelling, skene in Greek and mishkan in Hebrew (both, if one looks closely, having the same triliteral root, skn), was originally a tent made of “skins,” as the same etymological root is expressed in English. During the desert wandering after the Exodus, this tent of skins was the abode of God’s presence with His people. Indeed, sometimes the word was simply the metaphor for the divine presence (verse 3). For instance, in Leviticus 26:11 we read, “I will set My mishkan among you . . . . I will walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people.”
All of history is symbolized in two women, who are two cities (verses14-27). We have already considered the scarlet woman who is Babylon/Rome. The other woman is the Bride, the New Jerusalem, whose proper place is heaven, but who also flees to the desert, where she does battle with Satan (Chapter 12). Now that battle is over, however, and she appears here in her glory. That other city was seated, as we saw, on seven hills, but this New Jerusalem also sits on a very high mountain, which all John’s first readers understood to be symbolized in Mount Zion (cf. Ezekiel 40:1-2). John’s vision of the gates on the city is reminiscent of Ezekiel 48.
John’s vision here, especially in verses 19-21, is also related to Ezekiel 28:12-15, where we find joined the themes of the mountain and the precious stones, for this city is also the Garden of Eden, where those stones first grew (cf. Genesis 2:10-12).
The symbolic number here is twelve, which we have already considered in Chapter 12, where it was the number of the stars around the head of the heavenly woman. The identification of twelve stars with twelve stones is obvious in our own custom of using birthstones to represent zodiacal signs. The symbol is not only astrological, however, but also historical, because it is the number of the patriarchs and the apostles. Here, in fact, the twelve gates bear the names of the twelve tribes, who are the seed of the twelve patriarchs, while the twelve foundation stones of the city are identified as the twelve apostles.
We recall that the one hundred and forty-four thousand—the number of the righteous—partly involves the squaring of the number twelve. In the present chapter John stresses that the plane geometry of the holy city is square, as in Ezekiel 45 and 48. John goes beyond Ezekiel, however, in viewing the New Jerusalem as a cube, as in the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:20).
Saturday, December 31, 2011
Revelation 22:1-20: The biblical story begins and ends in paradise. Thus, in John’s vision of the river of paradise we remember the four-branched river of paradise in Genesis 2. Both here and in Ezekiel 47:1-12 there are monthly fruits growing on the banks of the river, twelve in number, obviously. Just as Adam’s curse drove the whole human race out of paradise, so the leaves of the paradisiacal tree of life are for the healing of all the nations.
Heaven, portrayed here as vision and worship with the angels (verses 8-9), is for all those whose foreheads are sealed with the mark of the living God. This sealing, of course, stands in contrast to the mark of beast. (It is curious to note that, outside of the Book of Revelation [7:2-3; 9:3-4; 13:16-18; 14:1.9; 17:5; 20:4], the word “forehead” does not appear in the New Testament.) The literary background of John’s sealing is apparently Ezekiel 9:1-4.
The urgency of John’s message is indicated by the command that he not seal it up for future generations. The Lord’s coming, in fact, will be soon, and it is imperative for John’s readers to “get out” the message. John’s visions are not sealed, concealed, esoteric codes to be deciphered by future generations. John clearly expects his own contemporaries to understand what he is writing. These things “must shortly take place” (verse 6); it will all happen “soon” (1:1,3). John is warning his contemporaries that a special moment of judgment and grace is upon them and that they had better prepare themselves for it, because it is later than they think.
This final chapter of Revelation resembles in several particulars the first chapter of the book, one of which is that in both places Jesus speaks to John directly. In both chapters He is called the Alpha and the Omega (verse 12; 1:8). As in that first chapter, likewise, the references to Jesus’ swift return (verse 7, for instance) do not pertain solely to His coming at the end of time; He is saying, rather, that in the hour of their trial those who belong to Jesus will find that He is there waiting for them. The blessing in verse 7, therefore, resembles the blessing in 1:3.
In this book a great deal has been said about the worship in the heavenly sanctuary. Now we learn that Christians already share in the worship that the angels give to God (verses 8-9).
Verse 11 indicates a definite cut-off point in history, which is the final coming of Christ. Verse 12, which quotes Isaiah 40:10, promises the reward, which is access to the Holy City, eternal beatitude—the fullness of communion with God. In preparation for that reward, verses 14-16 are something of an altar call, an appeal for repentance, based on all that this book has said.
In referring to those “outside” the City, John is relying on an ancient Eucharistic discipline of the Church, called “excommunication,” which literally excluded the person from receiving Holy Communion (cf. Didache 9.5; Justin Martyr, First Apology 66.1).
One of the major problems of the Christian Church, in any age, is that of distinguishing itself from the world, and the Christian Church, like any institution in history, finds its identity threatened if it does not maintain “lines” that separate it from the world. In early Christian literature, beginning with the New Testament, we find the Church insistent on making those lines sharp and clear. This preoccupation is what accounts for the rather pronounced “them or us” mentality that we find in the New Testament. It is an emphasis essential to maintain if the Church is to preserve her own identity down through history.
Sunday, January 1, 2012
Hebrews 3:1-6: Having contrasted Jesus to the prophets (1:1-2) and to the angels (1:5-14), the Epistle to the Hebrews proceeds to contrast Him to Moses. In all cases, God’s Son and Heir is contrasted with His mere servants. In the cases of the angels and Moses, the words used for “servant” have a religious meaning.
First, with respect to the angels the descriptive word is leitourgos (1:7), translated in the KJV as “minister.” In describing the angels further, the author resorts to an equivalent expression, leitourgika pnevmata, translated in the KJV as “ministering spirits.”
Second, with respect to Moses, the descriptive word is therapon (verse 5). Since this word is normally translated into English as simply “servant,” the reader may not suspect the religious meaning it sometimes has. The noun therapon often refers to someone who serves in a temple. This is how we should understand Moses as God’s “servant.”
The underlying Hebrew noun is ‘eved, a word used for Moses many times (Exodus 14:31; Numbers 12:7-8); Deuteronomy 34:5 (cf. 33:1), Psalm 105 :26). In the LXX of Exodus 14:31 and Numbers 12:7-8, this ‘eved is translated as therapon. This preference of the translators probably reflects the importance of Moses in the institution of Israel’s priesthood and ritual worship.
This became a designation for Moses, as we see twice in the Wisdom of Solomon (10:16; 18:21).
Now it is passing curious that in early Christian literature, the word therapon is used only for Moses. It became virtually a technical designation for Moses. Our earliest example is the present text in Hebrews, where the “house” (oichos), over which Moses is the minister, is the Church.
Moses remains a permanent minister in God’s house. This is an important assertion of the role of Moses in the Church. He is the therapon, the servant of the temple, and from the beginning this is how Moses was regarded by Christians.
Near the end of the first century, Clement of Rome wrote to the rebellious congregation at Corinth: “Envy brought down Dathan and Abiram alive to Hades, through the sedition which they excited against God’s servant Moses [pros ton theraponta tou Theou Mousen] (4.12).
Perhaps quoting our text here in Hebrews (and/or Numbers 12:7-8, Clement later speaks of “the blessed Moses, “a faithful servant in all his house”—ho makarios pistos therapon en holo to oiko Mouses (43.1). Clement uses this noun three other times to refer to Moses (51.3,5; 53.5). It refers to Moses also in Pseudo-Barnabas 14.4. Thus, we find the word used seven times in Christian literature prior to about A.D. 110, and each time it refers to Moses.
Even as the author of Hebrews contrasts Jesus and Moses, he is careful not to permit this contrast to reflect badly on Moses. He is called a “faithful minister” (pistos therapon). This expression, used also by Clement, comes directly from the LXX of Numbers 12:7.
This twofold concern of the author of Hebrews—to show proper respect for the angels and for Moses even when arguing for the preeminence of Jesus—is consistent with his attitude toward the Old Testament generally. He never permits the superiority of the New Covenant to become an occasion to denigrate the Old.
Moses is arguably the most prominent Old Testament figure to appear in the Epistle to the Hebrews. He will return to this work several more times (7:14; 8:5; 9:19; 10:28; 11:23-27; 12:21).
Monday, January 2
Hebrews 3:7-19: The author of this work begins to introduce what is arguably his major moral concern: the danger of turning away from the faith professed by the Christian at the time of his baptismal rebirth.
He refers to this baptismal profession (homologia in the first verse of this chapter: “Consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession [homologia], Christ Jesus” (3:1). Explicit references to this baptismal profession appear two other times in Hebrews: “Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession “ (4:14). And again, “Let us hold fast the confession of hope without wavering” (10:23).
Throughout this work the author several times reveals some sense of alarm that his hearers are in danger of not finishing the course undertaken in that profession. In fact, this book contains the New Testament’s clearest warnings against apostasy.
To demonstrate the possibility of a radical falling away, our author’s first example comes from the period of the Israelites’ wandering in the Sinai desert. He was much impressed that only two adults, among the 600,000 who left Egypt, actually made it to the Promised Land. The rest of the people defected in the wilderness.
The author of Hebrews makes this point by citing Psalm 95 (94) and commenting on it over the space of two chapters: “Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, In the day of trial in the wilderness, Where your fathers tested Me, tried Me, And saw My works forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, And said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, And they have not known My ways.’ So I swore in My wrath,‘They shall not enter My rest.’”
That psalm, used as an invitation to prayer (“Come, let us sing unto the Lord”), daily renewed in the mind of God’s people the terrible fate of that generation of Israelites for whom the Exodus itself came to naught. They left Egypt for nothing. They died without reaching the very purpose of the Exodus—arrival in the Promised Land. That psalm warned all Israelites that the same fate could befall them!
Our author, therefore, cites this text, and then he goes on to comment: “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God.”
Just like the Israelites who left Egypt and then died in the desert, it is possible to fail in the profession of the Christian faith. Ultimate defection is, therefore, a matter of grave concern. How concerned should Christians be on this point? Our author answers, “everyday!” He says, “but exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our conviction steadfast to the end.”
Hebrews is not the only place where the New Testament examines that period of Israel’s history in order to learn a warning. St. Paul does exactly the same thing: “I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. But with most of them God was not well pleased, for they were scattered in the wilderness. . . . Now these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition” (1 Corinthians 10:1-5,11).
It is important to learn the life in Christ, not only from the good examples, but also from the bad. Why is the story of Judas Iscariot referred to six times in the New Testament, except as a warning to Christians who may become complacent and forsake the fear of the Lord? If the Word of God is truly a lamp unto our feet, it will surely illumine for us the pitfalls along the path. In this way, it is possible to learn as much from the impatience of Saul as from the patience of Job. The study of Ahaz can be, in its own way, as profitable as the study of Isaiah.
Tuesday, January 3
Hebrews 4:1-13: In his use of the Book of Psalms in this chapter, it is clear that the author of Hebrews believed that the meaning of that text was contemporary to himself and his readers. The cited text was of more than historical interest. The dominant word indicating this persuasion is “today” (semeron), which appears twice in verse 7. The voice of God, he says, must be heard today. He expounds this principle in verses 12-13, speaking of God’s word as living and efficacious, sharper than a sword. It penetrates and divides man’s inner being, judging the reflections and thoughts of his mind.
There is no stronger affirmation of the truth that God lays bare our being by the light of His word searching our souls. When the Bible is read, whether proclaimed loudly in the worship of the Church or pondered quietly in the intimacy of our homes, God speaks. His prophetic word of judgment sears into our being laying bare the secrets of our consciences. It is a “word of judgment”—logos kritikos (verse 12). It does not lie there inert on the page open before our eyes. We search the Scriptures so that the Scriptures may search us, cutting into our being to expose what we are within. This is what makes the Bible different from all other books. Only here does God speak prophetically, in the sense of placing our whole being radically under judgment.
Thus, we do not call the Bible into question; the Bible calls us into question. We imagine that we are alive and that the Bible is inert. On the contrary, the Bible is more alive than we are. It is vibrant and efficacious, because it is the word of God. We open its pages in order to share its life. We do not, then, truly open the Bible unless we open our hearts and invite God’s word to penetrate our minds. We come to the Bible, seeking its judgment, because only in being judged by God’s all holy word may we share in the redeeming life that is offered there.
John 3:1-6: This is the first of three appearances of Nicodemus in the Fourth Gospel. On each occasion the context has to do with the Lord’s redemptive death (3:14-16; 7:45-52; 19:39-40).
Wednesday, January 4
Hebrews 4:14—5:6: The chief point our author wants to make here, with respect to the priesthood of Jesus Christ, is His compassion for sinners. He is compassionate, says Hebrews, because He suffered temptation. This theme was already introduced in Hebrews, at the end of that section dealing with the Incarnation: “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted” (2:17-18).
This author insists that this is the kind of priest we need: He must feel the same weakness the rest of us feel: “For we do not have a High Priest unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but was, like ourselves, tempted in everything.”
The temptations faced by Jesus were recorded chiefly in two blocks of narrative in the New Testament: His temptation for forty days in the wilderness, and the agony in the garden. For all that, however, we should probably not imagine that these were the only times Jesus was subject to temptation. As the religious leaders of the Jewish people started to reject Jesus and His claims—an experience that apparently grew more intense during the course of His ministry—He began to realize that He would finish his life nailed to a cross. In fact, the gospels tell us, “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed” (Mark 8:31).
It is reasonable to think that the sadness and fear of Jesus, which became critical during His agony in the garden, took hold of His soul much earlier, as He came gradually to understand how sternly His fidelity to His Father would be tested.
Jesus also knew the Scriptures. He had long ago learned the stories of Elijah, Jeremiah, and Job. He was fully aware that all those who would serve God must endure suffering. He could take personal charge of the admonition laid down by Sirach:
Son, when thou comest to the service of God . . . prepare thy soul for temptation. . . . Humble thy heart, and endure. . . . Wait on God with patience: join thyself to God, and endure . . . Take all that shall be brought upon thee: and in thy sorrow endure, and in thy humiliation keep patience. For gold and silver are tried in the fire, but acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation (Sirach 2:1-5).
This trial of Jesus’ spirit, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, made Him compassionate. Indeed, says Hebrews, compassion is a quality God requires of everyman:
For every high priest taken from among men is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also subject to weakness.
Thursday, January 5
Hebrews 5:5-10: It is possible that the earliest extant version of the Agony in the Garden seems to come, not from the Gospels, but from the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is here that we read of Jesus, “who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He were a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered” (5:7-8). In this precious text, the reference to ”vehement cries and tears” explains how the early believers knew about this event. There were witnesses to it, some of them only “a little farther” off (Matthew 26:39), “about a stone’s throw” (Luke 22:41). These disciples could hear those “vehement cries,” and they were able to see his kneeling posture (Mark 14:35). All this happened, says Hebrews, “in the days of His flesh,” an expression indicating Jesus’ condition of human weakness, willingly assumed so “that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). The object of Jesus’ “prayers and supplications,” Hebrews tells us, was deliverance from death. This feature of His prayers corresponds to the Gospel accounts in which Jesus prays that He be spared the “cup” of His coming sufferings (Matthew 26:39,42) and that “the hour might pass from Him” (Mark 14:35). It was in this hour, says Hebrews, that Jesus “learned obedience by the things which He suffered,” a parallel to the Gospel accounts in which Jesus, in His Agony, submits His own will obediently to that of His Father (Matthew 26:39,42; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42). Similarly, the Apostle Paul preserves part of a hymn that speaks of Jesus’ obedience unto death, “even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8). These prayers and supplications of Jesus were themselves sacrificial, because Hebrews says that he “offered” them (prosenegkas). They are priestly prayers. That is to say, Jesus’ sacrifice has even now begun. The Lord’s Passion is a seamless whole. Already we perceive in His prayers and supplications the true essence of sacrifice, which is the inner oblation of oneself to God. The Book of Hebrews insists, furthermore, that these “prayers and supplications” of Jesus were heard on high, precisely because of “His godly fear,” which is to say His godly piety and reverence (evlabeia; reverential in the Vulgate). Jesus’ obedient reverence is exactly what we find in the Gospel accounts of the Agony. In what sense, then, was Jesus “heard” when he offered these prayers and supplications? Properly to answer this question, it is useful to remember a principle of all godly petition: “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us” (1 John 5:14). Now Jesus prayed explicitly according to God’s will; indeed, it was the very essence of His prayer. Therefore, His prayer was heard according to God’s will. He was not delivered from death in the sense that He avoided it, but in the sense that He conquered it, that He was victorious over death, that in His own death He trampled down death forever. This is to say that Jesus’ resurrection and glorification were the Father’s response to His prayer in the Agony. It was in answer to this prayer, “Thy will be done,” that Jesus, “having been perfected, . . . became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Hebrews 5:9). This was God’s will, the will that Jesus prayed would be done. He was thus “made perfect through sufferings” (2:10). It was because Jesus became obedient unto death that “God also has highly exalted Him” (Philippians 2:9). The Paschal victory over death was the Father’s reply to the prayers and supplications offered by the true High Priest in the days of His flesh.
Friday, January 6
Matthew 2:1-12: There is an important literary correspondence between Matthew’s Christmas story of the Magi and his account of the Great Commission; namely, the theme of the Church’s universal calling. Whereas Matthew ends his story with the Apostles being sent forth with the command, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (28:19), he begins his whole account with a kind of foreshadowing of that final mission by the arrival of the Magi, those wise searchers from the East who come to adore the newborn King of Israel. These two passages, then, thus embrace Matthew’s entire story of Jesus.
The very purpose of the Great Commission is to transform the whole of humanity as the rightful heirs of the Magi. Like the stars themselves, the Apostles are sent forth to lead all nations into that path first followed by the wise men from the East.
Indeed, St. Paul compared the Apostles to those very heavens that “declare the glory of God,” quoting in their regard the Psalmist’s affirmation that “Their line has gone out through all the earth, / And their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm 18:4; Romans 10:18). The stars and the Apostles proclaim the same universal message, and that message is the Gospel.
These Magi have come to the Messiah, moreover, precisely because they are star-watchers. “For we have seen His star in the East,” they affirm, “and have come to worship [or adore] Him” (Matthew 2:2).
Likewise, the mission of the Apostles is to bring all nations even unto Bethlehem, that “house of the Bread” (for such is the meaning of “Bethlehem”), where all who eat the one loaf are one body in Christ, to join with the Magi in their eternal adoration.
This adoration takes place within the “house,” which is the Church formed by those who break and share the one Bread: “And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped [or adored] Him” (Matthew 2:11).
That is to say, when the Magi entered the house, they found what we all find portrayed on a central icon up near the altar, the mother holding and presenting the Child for the adoration of those who have followed the star into the house of the Bread.
For this reason, it was entirely proper that the Apostles, as they were being commissioned for the great work of universal evangelism, should manifest in their very posture the Christward adoration which is the final goal of that evangelism (Matthew 28:9).
Finally, while the Magi were instructed by what they read in those heavens that declared the glory of God, they did not pursue their quest among the stars but upon the earth. They found the answer to their quest, that is to say, in a particular place and at a particular time. They accepted the spatial/temporal, fleshly limitations that God Himself assumed.