Friday, November 16

Second 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, those to the Thessalonians (as in verse 13 of today’s reading), both of them 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 speaks, it is God speaking, just as He spoke 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 chooses not to call some human beings to salvation—as though some human beings are 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: 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.

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, and certainly not a level of loyalty that would prompt them to stay and defend the place against a doom they knew to be inevitable.

Saturday, November 17

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.

Luke 21:29-38: The inclusion of the words “to stand before the Son of Man” is unique to Luke’s version of Jesus’ instruction about the Last Days (Contrast Matthew 24:45-49 and Mark 13:33-37). These words serve to tie the present discourse to the Lord’s testimony before the Sanhedrin (cf. Luke 22:69). It was this testimony—the implied claim to be the Daniel’s “Son of Man”—that prompted the Sanhedrin’s condemnation of Jesus.

The title, “Son of Man,” almost never (the apparent exception is John 12:34: “Who is this Son of Man.”) appears in the Gospels except on the lips of Jesus. It represents the earliest stage of the Christian message. It was not a title given to Jesus by the Christian Church—It does not appear in the Pauline epistles, for example—nor have Christians ever invoked Jesus by that title.

Sunday, November 18

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; 18:20,24; 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 bypasses 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 19

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 22:7-13: in the gospels Jesus manifests an extraordinary spiritual perception, a familiarity with matters far beyond the normal human ken. For instance, when he instructs the disciples to prepare for the final Passover meal, Jesus tells them, “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him into the house that he enters.”

Here the Savior knows, ahead of time, that the disciples, when they enter Jerusalem, will run into a man carrying a pitcher of water. This will be a special sign to them, because men in the Holy Land never carried water. (It was a woman’s task. This custom, by the way, has not changed much in the Middle East.)

How did Jesus know about this man who would be carrying water somewhere near the city gate? More than one explanation is possible. For instance, this assigned token may have been arranged earlier, by an agreement between Jesus and the man in question. Since the Gospel story does not seem to treat the event as miraculous, this is a perfectly rational explanation of the thing.

I suspect this to be the wrong explanation, however. In this particular instance, I am more disposed to interpret Jesus’ foreknowledge of the event as an example of prophetic clairvoyance. This phenomenon is not uncommon among the biblical prophets.

Tuesday, November 20

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 21

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 the beginning of his ministry and, at the end of it, was the friend and mentor 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, a true link between the age of the Apostles and those later Christians who were still alive into the third century. Polycarp’s prestige among the Christians of the second century caused the status of the church at Smyrna to rival that of the church at 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).

Thursday, November 22

Revelation 2:12-17: Pergamos is now the 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 Pergamos 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).

Thanksgiving Day: From the beginning, Thanksgiving has been a harvest feast. Its historical roots bind us to our forbearers, just as its theme binds us to nature. Thanksgiving celebrates man’s gratitude for the bounty of God’s fundamental covenant with human beings. This was the covenant with Noah, that primeval compact of God with “every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

This ancient arrangement of grace, described in Genesis 9:16 as berith ’olam, “a covenant forever,” has never been abrogated, nor can it be, for it rests solely on the infallible promise of a gracious God.

Using the specific technical expressions “give” (natan) and “establish” (haqim), Genesis describes this covenant as both gratuitous and permanent (cf. 9:9, 11, 12, 17).

Symbolized in that heavenly “sign” (’oth) of the rainbow, it is God’s covenant with creation itself: “While the earth remains, / Seedtime and harvest, / Cold and heat, / Winter and summer, / And day and night / Shall not cease” (Gen. 8:22). As such, it is a universal covenant, for Noah is the father of us all.

Friday, November 23

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 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 day of reckoning when Jehu came a-riding.

Psalms 102 (Greek & Latin 101): This psalm is structured on a contrast, pursued through two sequences.

The first half of the first sequence is all “I”—I am miserable, I am sad, my heart withers away like the grass in the heat, I lie awake at night, I feel like a mournful bird, I mingle my drink with tears, my days flee like the shadows of an evening, and so forth. Life being rough, a goodly number of our days are passed with such sentiments, so it is usually not difficult to pray this first part of the psalm.

The second half of the first sequence arrives with the expression, but You, O Lord, which is just as emphatic in the Hebrew (we’attah Adonai) and the Greek (sy de Kyrie). “You” is contrasted with “I.” God is not like me; God is almighty and does what He wants and does not die. God is enthroned forever, and His name endures from generation to generation. God will arise and deliver His people.

The second, and shorter, contrasting sequence repeats the first. Once again, as at the beginning, there is the sense of our human frailty, our shortened days, our strength broken at midcourse. To this is contrasted the eternity of God; His years endure unto all generations. Thus, both sequences in this psalm form contrasts between the permanence of God and the transience of everything created.