Friday, August 2

Joshua 14: This chapter begins the section in which the land of Canaan is divided by allotment, in accordance with the command that Joshua received in the previous chapter (13:1,7).

We already know from Numbers 36:16-29 that Eleazar, Aaron’s son and heir in the priesthood (Numbers 3:32; Deuteronomy 10:6), is to assist Joshua in this allotment.

Prior to this allotment, however, the reader is again reminded that territory has already been set aside, east of the Jordan, for two and a half of these tribes (verse 3). The writer likewise mentions once again that special provision is to be made for the tribe of Levi (verse 4).

In addition, before any allotment to the remaining tribes can be made, provision must be made for Caleb, the other of the only two spies who had remained loyal, decades earlier, when Moses had dispatched them for an initial inventory of the Promised Land (Numbers 13—14; Deuteronomy 1:35-36). Caleb officially belonged to the tribe of Judah (Numbers 13:6; 34:19), and his inheritance will fall within that tribe.

Forty-five years have elapsed since Caleb, a mere lad of forty at the time, had received Moses’ promise that he would inherit property in the land of Canaan (verses 6-10). Except for Joshua, he was the only surviving adult of the multitude that had marched out of Egypt, so it was entirely fitting he should be the first to inherit real estate in the land that he had inspected nearly half a century earlier. Caleb stands forever in the Bible as the model of such perseverance as leads to a great reward.

Acts 19:31-41: Fearing that the situation in the amphitheater might pose some special threat for the Jews—never popular at Ephesus (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 16.6.1)—a Jew named Alexander endeavors to disassociate the Jews from the Christians (verse 33), but mobs do not readily recognize distinctions so subtle. Besides, one of the abducted Christians is a Jew (cf. Colossians 4:10-11)! The riot could have ended very badly, but the Roman insistence on common sense and good order saves the day (verses 35-41). (If, as I have earlier suggested, Paul spent some time in jail at Ephesus, this was surely the occasion.)

A single man’s ability to restore order amidst such confusion should be credited, in no small measure, to the extraordinary acoustics of that amphitheater. Some decades ago I began to read this entire account in the Ephesian amphitheater in a slightly elevated stage voice and saw, spread all throughout the place, a hundred or more tourists, only a handful of them known to me, suddenly grow quiet, sit down, and listen to the story.

Saturday, August 3

Acts 20:1-16: At the end of three years in Ephesus, Paul returned to Macedonia in late 55, his journey apparently taking in also the large region northwest of Macedonia, known as Illyricum or Dalmatia (cf. Romans 15:19). While traveling in Macedonia, Dalmatia, and Greece during the year 56, Paul wrote 2 Corinthians (perhaps from Philippi, where he received a report on the Corinthian congregation from Titus — 2 Corinthians 2:13; 76-14), 1 Timothy, and Titus. Sometime during that year he apparently journeyed with Titus to Crete as well (cf. Titus 1:5).

Although Paul planned to spend the winter of 56/57 at the Greek city of Nicopolis, a port on the Adriatic Sea (Titus 3:12), at the beginning of January he returned to Corinth, not far eastward, where he lived during the first three months of 57 (Acts 20:2-3). While there, he wrote the Epistle to the Romans.

Intending to return to the Holy Land with the money collected for the needs of the poor there (Romans 15:25-27), he journeyed north to Macedonia one last time, where he celebrated Easter (Pascha) with his beloved Philippians (Acts 20:6). Luke, who had been pastoring that congregation since the year 49, now joined Paul’s company for the trip to the Holy Land. (Luke will be with Paul for the rest of the latter’s recorded life. We will find Luke with him during the two years’ imprisonment at Caesarea [Acts 24:27; Colossians 4:14; Philemon 24] and during Paul’s house-arrest in Rome [Acts 28:30; 2 Timothy 4:11].)

Traveling in two separate companies over to Troas, Paul needed several extra companions to carry and protect the money collected for Jerusalem. Their names are enshrined forever in Acts 20:4. Paul’s trip from Macedonia to Troas required five days (Acts 20:6). His company remained at Troas an entire week in order to share in the Sunday Eucharistic worship (20:7). Perhaps Paul had intended to be present for that worship on the previous Sunday but had simply not arrived early enough. In any case, we suddenly find him pressed for time.

When Paul finally left for Troas that Sunday morning, after losing a night’s sleep for the all-night vigil of worship, he decided to walk overland to the port of Assos while the others sailed around the small cape from Troas (20:13). It was a warm April day, and Paul, tired, preoccupied, and in a bit of a hurry, inadvertently left his heavy winter cloak at Carpus’s house in Troas, along with some other items (2 Timothy 4:23). Anxious to be in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost, fifty days after Easter (20:16), he met his companions at Assos on Monday, landing on the island of Lesbos on Tuesday (20:14), rounding the island of Chios on Wednesday, reaching Samos on Thursday, and landing at Miletus (the modern Balat) on Friday. Messengers were immediately dispatched to Ephesus, thirty miles inland, so that the presbyters of that church could come to Miletus to worship with Paul on Sunday (20:17). Paul will give his last sermon in Asia Minor.

Sunday, August 4

Acts 20:17-38: This discourse of Paul to the “presbyters” (elders) of Ephesus, serves at least two functions in the Lukan narrative. It is a sort of final testament in which Paul gives an account of his ministry. In this respect it may be compared with the final testaments that closed the ministries of Joshua (Joshua 24) and Samuel (1 Samuel 12). Paul sensed that this was his last time to speak to a local church that he had inaugurated (20:25), and Luke, when he recorded the sermon for posterity, knew it very well.

Second, Paul’s discourse at Miletus adds his voice to the emerging theme of the “apostolic succession,” the thesis that the ordained ministry of the Church derives its authority, not from the local congregations, but from a direct, historical, and Spirit-intended continuity with the authority of the apostles. This theme of the apostolic succession was a major motif in two of the epistles Paul had written during the previous year, 1 Timothy and Titus. (The modern reluctance to accept either the early dating or the Pauline authorship of those epistles, or even the historicity of this sermon in Acts 20, is based, not on a careful study of the texts themselves, but on a highly questionable theory that refuses to regard the “apostolic succession” as truly apostolic. This dubious and fairly recent theory tends to dictate a serious misunderstanding of the biblical text with respect to the history of the early Church.)

The beginning of Paul’s discourse (20:17) speaks of the “elders” (presbyteroi, the root word of our English “priests”; cf. also 11:30; 14:23; 15:2,4,6,22,23; 16:4; 21:18), whereas in 20:28 Paul speaks of “overseers” (episkopoi, the root word of our English “bishops”). Our earliest interpreter of this passage, Irenaeus of Lyons, writing about 180 and himself a native of Asia Minor, believed that both groups were present (Against the Heresies 3.14.2). Some modern interpreters are reluctant to find an unmistakably hierarchical ministry so early in church history, but there it is.

These presbyters (and/or overseers) are to be shepherds; or, to use the Latin word for shepherd, “pastors” (20:28; cf. also 1 Peter 2:25; 5:1-3). The image of the priest as shepherd comes from the Old Testament (cf. Ezekiel 34:1-6; Zechariah 10:2-3). The sheep do not “employ” the shepherd; God does, and his appointment through the apostolic succession, governed by the Holy Spirit, is the channel of his authority to shepherd the Lord’s flock. He is answerable to the One whose blood was poured out to purchase that flock. Nor can the shepherd properly keep watch over the sheep, unless he keeps watch over himself (cf. 1 Timothy 4:16; 1 Corinthians 9:26-27; 1 Peter 5:1-3).

Paul’s warning about the wolves evidently made a deep impression on the Ephesian presbyters. Earlier in the story we already saw the zeal of the Ephesian church for the preservation of sound doctrine (19:19), and documents from early church history further testify to the care taken at Ephesus to preserve doctrinal purity. The Lord would tell that church, not many years in the future, “I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars” (Revelation 2:2); “But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (2:6).

Indeed, it is significant that, of all Paul’s epistles, his Epistle to the Ephesians is the only one that does not mention a single doctrinal error that needed correction. (Contrast this with the letters to Thessaloniki, Philippi, Galatia, Corinth, Colossae, and Rome.) One of the earliest pastors of the Ephesian church had earlier been warned by Paul on this very matter (cf. 1 Timothy 1:3-7,18-20; 4:1-3; 5:17; 6:3-5,20). In the year 107, Ignatius, the second bishop of Antioch, wrote a letter to the Ephesians in which he commented on their well known tradition of doctrinal orthodoxy (6.2; 9.1).

Monday, August 5

2 Peter 1:1-11: In the present reading Peter speaks of Jesus as “Savior,” a term more often used in the New Testament to refer to God the Father. Nonetheless, in these three chapters Peter uses the expression five times in reference to Jesus (1:1,11; 2:20; 3:2,18). In each case, except in 1:1, the use of “Savior” is joined with “Lord.” This is very rare in early Christian literature. Christians today are so accustomed to speaking of Jesus as “Lord and Savior” that they do not realize that, were it not for 2 Peter, this expression would probably never have become so standard a part of Christian vocabulary.

Verse 4 is the only place in the New Testament that describes Christians as “partakers of the divine nature” (theias koinonoi physeos), a very bold description of divine grace. However, an identical theology of grace is expressed elsewhere in the New Testament with a different vocabulary (e.g., 1 John 1:3; 3:2,9; John 15:4; 17:22-23; Romans 8:14-17, and so on).

One also observes that this sharing in the divine nature is manifest as a particular “knowledge” (epignosis and gnosis) of God in Christ (verses 3,5,6,8). This knowledge of God, which is the substance of our call (klesis), must be made “secure” (bebaia – verse 9) by the cultivation of virtue (verses 5-8) and the avoidance of sin (verse 9).

Verse 11 identifies eternal life as “the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” an idea rare in early Christian literature (cf. Ephesians 5:5), which more often refers to the “kingdom of God.” The expression here in 2 Peter forms the biblical basis for that line of the Nicene Creed that says of Jesus, “of whose kingdom there shall be no end.”

Mark 13:14-27: In going to the remembered past in order to prophesy about the near future, Jesus followed a pattern of historical interpretation common to the Old Testament prophets.

Thus, to describe the desolation to be visited on Jerusalem, Jesus alludes to an event in the fairly recent past, when the Seleucid king, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, violated the sanctity of the Temple in 168 B.C. by erecting there an altar to Zeus (1 Maccabees 1:54-64).

The prophet Daniel had referred to that desecration as the “abomination of desolation” (Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11; also 1 Maccabees 1:54). 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 by fellow Jews. All of this, and worse, says Jesus, will fall on the Holy City very shortly. This 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).

Jesus also alluded to that Maccabean persecution when He warned, “And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath” (verse 20). 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 go very far. It would hardly be a flight at all.

The gathering of the “eagles,” birds of prey that will come to devour the slain, bears an ironic reference to the battle standards of the Roman Legions, dominated by the figure of an eagle.

Tuesday, August 6

2 Peter 1:12-21: After they have been initially catechized, it is imperative that believers be repeatedly instructed in the foundations of the faith, considering its various aspects in their mutually interpretive connections (what is called the “analogy of faith” in Romans 12:6), and more profoundly reflecting on its implications in their lives (traditionally called the moral sense, or tropology).

In the Holy Scriptures this ongoing endeavor of the Christian experience is known as “reminding,” in the sense of a renewal of mind. It is also known as “remembering,” in the sense of “putting the members back together again,” seeing the diverse parts of the faith afresh, in relationship to the whole.

This repeated pedagogical exercise of “calling to mind” is not an optional extra in the Christian life. (The only recognized “graduation ceremony” from Sunday School in the Christian Church is called the Rite of Burial.) It is, rather, an essential exercise of loving God with the whole mind, and the Bible often speaks of such remembrance (cf. 2 Peter 3:1-2; John 2:22; 12:16; Jude 3,5,17; 1 Corinthians 11:2,24).

The present text represents such an exercise (verses 12,13,15), in order to bring Peter’s readers more consciously into what he calls “the present truth,” or, if you will, the truth as presence.

By way of pursuing this living remembrance, Peter narrates for them a story they must have heard many times, the account of the Lord’s Transfiguration (also told in Mark 9, Matthew 17, and Luke 9), and he does this to serve, as it were, as a final testimony to them before his death (literally exodus in verse 15). Peter himself, that is to say, conscious that he will be outlived by one or more generations of Christians, writes this text as a legacy.

This perspective is quite different from the earlier epistles preserved in the New Testament (Paul’s, for instance), all of them composed, not with a direct view to the future generations of the Church, but in order to address concrete questions of the hour. In this respect, the Second Epistle of Peter more closely resembles the four canonical gospels, which also bear the more explicit mark of “legacy.”

Mark 9:2-13: By way of introducing Mark’s account of the Transfiguration, I suggest that we first look at Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai, as recorded in the Book of Exodus: “Now the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day He called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud” (24:16). This reference to the six days of waiting (corresponding to the days of Creation) provides the best reason why, in Mark’s account (copied later by Matthew), the Transfiguration takes place six days after the Lord’s prophetic words, “Amen, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power” (Mark 9:1-2). That is to say, Mark’s reference to the six days’ interval begins to establish parallel lines between Mount Sinai and the mountain of Transfiguration.

Mark traces a second such line with respect to Moses’ three companions who are specifically named as climbing the mountain with him: “”Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel” (Exodus 24:1). We observe that two of these companions are brothers, which is exactly the case in the witnesses of the Lord’s Transfiguration: “Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves; and He was transfigured before them” (Mark 9:2). In this text James and John correspond to Nadab and Abihu.

Wednesday, August 7

2 Peter 2:1-11: Like the apostle Paul taking leave of the Asian churches for the last time (Acts 20:29-30), part of Peter’s final legacy here consists in a warning against false teachers who will arise from within the congregation after his departure. These will carry on the deceptive work of the false prophets, begun in Old Testament times and frequently spoken of in Holy Writ (for example, Deuteronomy 13, Jeremiah 28).

Peter proceeds to provide biblical illustrations of this road to perdition. He cites, first of all, the fallen angels, those original tempters of our race (verse 4; Jude 6), and then goes on to speak of the destruction of sinners in the Deluge and the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah. Just as God spared Noah in the former instance, He spared Lot in the latter. Peter’s picture of Noah as a “preacher of righteousness” is paralleled in his contemporary, Josephus (Antiquities 1.3.1), and in Clement of Rome’s letter to the Corinthians a generation later (7.6). Likewise, Peter’s very positive attitude toward Lot, which contrasts somewhat with the less flattering image in Genesis 19, reflects the picture of Lot in Wisdom 10:6 (“When the ungodly perished, [Wisdom] delivered the righteous man, who fled from the fire which fell down on the five cities”) and will likewise appear again in Clement of Rome (11.1).

The false teachers, by way of contrast, are said to introduce “heresies of damnation” (haireseis apoleias — verse 1), driven by fleshly lust (verses 2,10,13,14,18) and rebellion (verses 1,10). Peter appreciates the moral “underground” of heresy. It is not simply false and unsound teaching, but a teaching prompted by lust and sustained by rebellion. If a person “loses the faith,” he has usually lost something else first, such as chastity, or patience, or sobriety. Heresy, that is to say, is normally a cover for some deeper vice. This is one of the reasons that the Bible takes such a dim view of false teachers.

Mark 13:28-37: There have always been Christians persuaded that they can discern, from a close reading of biblical prophecy, the various stages of world history and even the specific events attendant on the end of history. In the present reading, however, Jesus warns against such speculation, saying that no one knows of that day and hour except the Father (verse 32).

These prophecies of the last times, whether in the present chapter of Mark or elsewhere in Holy Scripture, are too general to disclose such particulars of time. They serve, rather, as warnings for all times, exhortations of vigilance to the Church in every age. They instruct us less about God’s schedule than about our responsibilities.

In this final section of Mark 13, Jesus takes up the question with which the chapter began: When will these things happen and what will be the signs thereof? That question, we recall, was raised by the Apostles in response to the Lord’s prediction of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. All through this chapter the Lord has described, in dramatic imagery, the complex events that will culminate in that catastrophe. He could truly assert, therefore, “I have told you all things beforehand” (verse 23). Jesus has clearly prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem within a generation, destruction so complete that it could foreshadow the end of the world itself.

And what are Christians to do in the face of these impending disasters? They are to remain vigilant, to watch and to pray and to trust in God.

Thursday, August 8

Joshua 20: It is likely that most people today, if they are at all familiar with the notion of political or judicial “sanctuary,” owe that familiarity to a literary source, such as Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Indeed, the notion is central to Hugo’s imagery and essential to his plot.

The institution of political and judicial sanctuary, however, goes back much further than the period treated by Hugo. Though differing widely among themselves in their particular applications of it, many peoples of antiquity embraced some form of this institution, establishing certain of their religious shrines as politically or judicially “off-limits,” exempt from the usual application of vindictive justice. They were places where the accused could flee for refuge. Among the Syrians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans, there were numerous consecrated precincts, to which could come all manner of folk being hunted down: the debtors, the indicted, the fugitive slave, and so on. Thus, early in Israel’s monarchy and before the construction of the Temple, some Israelites considered the Lord’s altar in Jerusalem as such a haven (cf. (1 Kings 1:50–53; 2:28–34).

Israel also knew another and older form of this institution, the established “cities of refuge,” six priestly, or Levitical, cities designated to serve as asylums for those guilty of unintentional homicide (cf. Exodus 21:12–14; Numbers 35:9–34; Deuteronomy 19:1–13; Joshua 20:1–9). These cities afforded safety for those individuals hotly pursued by someone that the Bible calls the go’el haddam, “the avenger of blood.”

These cities served two discrete purposes: first, to guarantee that no retributive action would be taken against an accused killer until a fair trial could determine whether or not his offense was intentional; and second, to provide a haven for such a one, after the trial, against those still disposed to take vengeance on him anyway. In both cases, the function of the “city of refuge” was to place rational and political restraints on the exercise of revenge.

While the more obvious category involved in the institution of sanctuary is spatial (that is, the setting apart of a measured precinct), it has another dimension that might be called “temporal” (that is, the setting apart of a measured time). The institution implies an “until.” Thus, the accused could not be harmed until he was properly tried (Numbers 35:12). Granted further asylum by that trial, he was safe until the death of the high priest (Joshua 20:6). In regard to the heat of avenging passion, the biblical text shows here a conspicuous respect for the therapeutic influence of time. It recognizes that time is not on the side of passion but of reason.

These “cities of refuge,” beyond the political and judicial significance conveyed in their literal and historical sense, are also possessed of a moral and ascetical meaning. As institutions of restraint, they represent a healthy distrust of impetuosity. They stand for the rational mind’s control over the passions, especially an avenging anger that feels itself to be righteous. This institution embodies the truth that “the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).

Experience indicates that the passions, if not deliberately fueled and stoked, are marked by a native entropy. They resemble, in this respect, the flames often used to describe them. Left to themselves, the passions tend to diminish over time. Thus, wrath must act quickly, as it were, because it knows that its time is short (Revelation 12:12). Generally speaking, time is no friend to the passions.

Time is on the side, rather, of reason. Reason, therefore, unlike the passions, knows how to wait. Reason is the realm of thought, and thought, unlike passion, requires the discipline of time. Consequently, properly cultivated reason is “slow to anger” (Proverbs 16:32; James 1:19).

Furthermore, reason is a bulwark of assured self-possession. Indeed, reason is slow precisely because it is confident. Reason can “take its time,” because, unlike the passions, reason deliberately invests in time. Time is one of reason’s most interest-bearing endowments, its long-term investment. The true “city of refuge,” then, is the mind godly cultivated in the art of patience, cautious of the impromptu, wary of impulse, and suspicious of “quick returns.” Its manner is slow, deliberate. As a result, no blood is shed within its precincts; the avenger is restrained and sternly reprimanded at its gates.

Friday, August 9

2 Peter 3:1-9: Peter begins this chapter with an oblique reference to his earlier epistle. In verse 2, read “your apostles” instead of “us apostles.” The singular significance of this verse is its juxtaposition of the New Testament apostles with the Old Testament prophets, an important step in recognizing the apostolic writings as inspired Holy Scripture. In 3:16, indeed, Peter does give such recognition to the letters of the apostle Paul. Both groups of men, Peter says, are disregarded by those who scoff at the doctrine of the Lord’s return (verse 4).

Since so many of the earliest Christians were of the opinion that the Lord would return during their own lifetime, His not doing so became for some an excuse for unbelief. It was only an excuse, however, not a justification, and Peter judged such unbelief to be prompted, not by what are called “sincere intellectual difficulties,” but by the lustful desires of those who wanted an excuse for unbelief (verse 3). Later in the century, Clement of Rome would address that same problem when he wrote to the Corinthians (23.3).

That heresy, which asserted that the “integrity” of the natural order precluded its being invaded from without by divine influences, rather curiously resembles the modern ideology of Naturalism, with which contemporary apologists must contend.

Such a misinterpretation of the world, Peter wrote, is willful (verse 5); it is deliberately chosen, not on the basis of evidence, but in order to loose those who hold it from accounting to a final judgment by God. That misinterpretation was also based, Peter went on to say, on a misunderstanding of what is meant by “last times.” This designation “last” is qualitative, not quantitative. It is not concerned with “how much,” but “of what sort.” The “last times” are not quantified; their limit is not known to us, but that limit is irrelevant to their quality. The last times are always the last times, no matter how long they last. Since the first coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are always within the eleventh hour, and this designation means only that it is the hour before the twelfth; it can last as long as God intends it to.

Mark 14:12-21: The Synoptic Gospels explicitly identify the original supper as the Passover meal, the Seder. At that supper, all the evangelists agree, Jesus quietly confronted his betrayer, who then left the supper and went out to make arrangements for the betrayal. John, arguably, described it best: “Having received the piece of bread, he then went out immediately. And it was night” (John 13:30).