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).

Saturday, August 10

Joshua 22: After wandering in the Sinai and Negev deserts for most of a generation, the people of Israel had now arrived at a place called Shittim, just east of the Jordan River and only about ten miles from Jericho. Then came a new crisis.

It was a moral crisis, involving some Israelite men of slack discipline with certain Moabite women of relaxed virtue. Fornication was the problem, that term understood both literally and in the figurative sense of their falling prey to the idolatrous worship of the Moabite god, Baal of Peor (Numbers 25:1-3).

The seduction of these Israelites, moreover, was not a mere boy-meets-girl happenstance. It resulted, rather, from a deliberate machination on the part of the Moabites, plotting to weaken the military resolve and moral will of the Israelites. Indeed, there is reason to believe that the scheme had been concocted in the mind of the religious philosopher Balaam, who was at that time in the service of the Moabite king (cf. Revelation 2:14).

Seeing it happen, the young priest Phineas discerned the peril of the hour, for an earlier experience had taught him the hazards of moral compromise. If he was sure of anything at all, Phineas was certain that God’s punishment of sin was invariably decisive and might very well be swift.

Phineas had been hardly more than a child when he saw the divine retribution visited on two of his priestly uncles, Nadab and Abihu, for a single offense in the service of God. Nor had those been insignificant men who were thus punished. On the contrary, Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron and his heirs in the priesthood, were men of stature and respect among the people. They had accompanied Moses, their very uncle, as he began his climb of Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:1), and had partly shared in his vision of the divine glory (24:9-10). Nonetheless, Nadab and Abihu had been instantly struck dead, devoured by a fire from the divine presence for just one moral lapse (Leviticus 10:1-3). The memory of that swift retribution had seared itself into the memory of young Phineas. He knew by experience that Israel’s Lord was a morally serious God, not some feather of a deity to be brushed away at one’s convenience.

At the time of the Moabite crisis, then, the reaction of Phineas was utterly decisive and equally swift. Responding to the Lord’s decree to punish the offenders (Numbers 25:4-6), he resolutely took the matter in hand and thus put an end to the divine wrath already plaguing the people (25:7-15). For his part in averting the evil, Phineas came to enjoy great respect in Israel. Not long afterwards, for instance, he was the priest chosen to accompany the army advancing against the Midianites (Numbers 31:6). After the Conquest, Phineas inherited land among the Ephraemites (cf. Joshua 24:33) and continued to be consulted by Israel, especially in times of crisis (cf. Judges 20:28). He would be remembered throughout the rest of biblical history, furthermore, as the very model of zeal in God’s service (cf. Psalms 105 [106]:30; 1 Chronicles 9:20; Sirach 45:23).

If we knew only of Phineas’s decisive action at the time of the Moabite trouble, it might be easy to think of him solely as an energetic, resolute, executive sort of man, but this would be an incomplete perspective. Phineas was also a thoughtful person, able to consider a delicate question in its fully nuanced complexities.

This latter trait of his character was revealed in the crisis later created by the construction of an altar to the east of the Jordan River by the Israelites who lived in that region (Joshua 22:10). Regarded as a rival altar outside of the strict confines of the Holy Land, this construction proved so provocative to the rest of Israel that there arose the real danger of civil war (22:12). Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and the decision was made to establish an eleven-member committee of inquiry to investigate the matter. Phineas was the head of that committee (22:13-14).

Probing into the construction of that altar, Phineas’s committee concluded that it was not intended to be used as such, but would serve merely as a monument to remind all the Israelites of their solidarity in the worship of their one God. Civil war was thus averted, and Phineas, once so swift unto bloodshed, was thus in large measure responsible for preventing it (22:21-34).

Sunday, August 11

Acts 21:1-14: Luke now carefully traces the stages of Paul’s journey southward, first noting his arrival at Cos that Sunday evening. This island, dedicated to Asklepios, the god of healing, was perhaps special to the “beloved physician” as the homeland of Hippocrates, the father of Greek medicine, who sat under the famous plane tree and instructed his medical students in the art of healing.

Paul’s company arrives at Rhodes on Monday and at Patara on Tuesday. Leaving this coastline vessel, they embark on a sea-going ship on their way to the Phoenician city of Tyre, some four hundred nautical miles to the southeast, sailing around Cyprus. Finding Christians at Tyre (cf. 15:3), they remain for a week, and then press on to Ptolemais, twenty-five miles to the south, and then to Caesarea, forty miles further (or thirty-two miles if they went by land).

One nearly gains the impression that Luke is copying out notes from a journal that he maintained on the trip, and one of the general effects of this listing of ports is to heighten the suspense of Paul’s approach to Jerusalem. Even back at Miletus he had spoken of the prophetic warnings that he was receiving with respect to this trip to Jerusalem (20:23), warnings later repeated at Tyre (21:4). Here at Caesarea, however, such forebodings are intensified by the prophecies of Agabus, whom we met earlier in 11:27, and the daughters of Philip the deacon (21:8-11).

Finally, Luke’s attention to detail, with which he narrates each step of this journey, renders all the more remarkable the omission of Antioch. After both the first (14:25) and second (18:22) missionary journeys, Paul took care to report back to the church at Antioch, but on this occasion, and with only a hint of explanation (20:16), he does not do so. Clearly, Paul is looking elsewhere now; his eyes are on Rome, as he had recently suggested in a letter to that city (Romans 15:22-28).

Mark 14:32-42: Was Jesus, “the author and perfecter of faith,” weak in faith when He added the “Thy will be done” to the petition “Take this cup from Me”? Did He not, rather, give us in this form of His petition the very essence of true prayer? Hardly!

“If it is Thy will,” then, is not a limit on our trust, but an expansion of it. It does not denote a restriction of our confidence but an elevation of it. It is an elevation, because in such a prayer—“Thy will be done”—we grow in personal trust in the One who has deigned, in His love, to become our Father. Indeed, when Jesus makes this prayer in the Garden, the evangelists are careful to note exactly how He addressed God—namely, as “Father.” Indeed, they even preserve the more intimate Semitic form, “Abba.”

The “will of God” in which we place the trust of our petition is not a blind, arbitrary, or predetermined will. It is, rather, the will of a Father whose sole motive (if this word be allowed) in hearing our prayer is to provide loving direction and protection to His children. “According to Thy will” is spoken to a Father who loves us because in Christ we have become His children.

Monday, August 12

Acts 21:15-25: The day after his arrival in Jerusalem, Paul goes to pay his respects to James, the Lord’s “brother,” who appears to be the chief pastor of the church in that city and the leader of its presbyters. This impression is consonant with the early preserved lists of the bishops of the churches, where James is invariably listed as Jerusalem’s first bishop (along with Mark as Alexandria’s, Evodius as Antioch’s, Linus as Rome’s, and so on).

Unlike the earlier gathering at Jerusalem in Acts 15, this meeting does not mention the “apostles.” These latter have by now all left Jerusalem and have gone to preach the Gospel in other lands, some of which have preserved memories of earlier apostolic evangelization. There is evidence that the apostle Thomas preached in India, for example, Philip in Phrygia, Matthew in Syria and Ethiopia, and Andrew in Thrace. The apostle Peter had moved westward by this time, but the absence of his name from Paul’s letter to the Romans indicates that he had not yet reached the Empire’s capital, where he would, along with Paul, suffer martyrdom.

Meanwhile, at Jerusalem Paul’s report greatly heartens James and the presbyters (verses 19-20), but they express concern about certain misrepresentations of Paul being circulated among the Jewish Christians. Because of Paul’s frequent encounters with hostile Jews in various cities, he can hardly be surprised by such reports, and James is eager to put them to rest. Paul, desiring to be all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:19-23; Romans 7:12), acquiesces in James’s suggestion for how to go about neutralizing the rumors current among the “tens of thousands” (myriads — verse 20) of Jewish Christians. This suggestion involves the rather elaborate public fulfillment of a Nazirite vow (verses 23-24; Numbers 6:1-21).
Mark 14:43-52: Jesus knew, of course, exactly what had been going on during the previous several days. He was well aware that “Satan entered Judas, surnamed Iscariot, who was numbered among the twelve” (Luke 22:3). Jesus also knew that tonight was the night of the betrayal. During the Seder, just a few hours before the appearance of this band of soldiers, he had instructed Judas, “What you do, do quickly” (John 13:27). Now the betrayer arrives, “guide to those who arrested Jesus” (Acts 1:16). The giveaway sign is an easy one: Judas simply walks up to Jesus and kisses his hand, the customary greeting a disciple gave to his rabbi as a mark of affectionate respect.
Tuesday, August 13
Psalms 94: A literal translation of Psalm 94 (Greek and Latin 93) would begin: “A God of vengeances is the Lord; the God of vengeances has plainly spoken,” nor is the plural “vengeances” in this first line less striking for being somewhat clumsy. As the rest of the psalm goes on to show, what is intended here is not simply God’s general disposition for setting things straight, but the individual acts of judgment by which He does so.

God’s avenging justice with respect to the misdeeds of history, that is to say, is directed against man’s single and specified acts of injustice, some of which are enumerated: “They have humbled Your people, O Lord, and Your inheritance have they oppressed. They have slain the widow and the orphan, and the foreigner have they slaughtered. . . . They shall hunt down the soul of the righteous man, and the blood of the innocent will be condemned.”

It is common nowadays, alas, to imagine that the final divine avenging of the persecuted righteous is simply an “Old Testament idea,” whose time is now past in our New Testament dispensation of (alleged) indiscriminate love and universal non-judgmentalism. This is not true; the New Testament proposes a softening of our hearts, not our heads, nor was it an Old Testament figure who put to us the question: “And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily” (Luke 18:7, 8).

God’s resolve seems really quite unaltered from one testament to the next with respect to “vengeances.” If the Lord did, somewhere along the line, modify His views about the propriety of executing vengeance on the earth, He failed to share the news with the Apostle John, for the latter mentions a “voice from heaven” proclaiming of Babylon: “Her sins have reached to heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities. Render to her just as she rendered to you, and repay her double according to her works; in the cup which she has mixed, mix double for her” (Revelation 18:5, 6). Indeed, God “has avenged on her the blood of His servants shed by her” (19:2). So much for the alleged updating in the divine program.

Psalm 94, before going on to speak of trust in God, which is the real theme, devotes some lines to an exhortation to “fools.” This noun is understood in the sense of the Bible’s wisdom literature: men unprincipled and morally obtuse, those who recognize no objective ethical structure within the world, nor any final sanctions to avenge that structure. These moral fools are exhorted to take thought at least for probabilities: “Understand, you fools among the people, and engage your minds at last, you dolts. Does He who implanted the ear not hear? Will He who fashioned the eye not see? Shall not He reprove who instructs the nations, and who teaches men knowledge?”

The appeal here is quite marvelous in its juxtaposition of sensory and moral perception. The intricate construction of man’s ears and eyes, their irreducible complexity manifestly directed to the grasping of empirical information, is no accident, no result of cosmic happenstance. How, then, is it conceivable that man’s moral sense, as innate and inalienable to his nature as his seeing and hearing, is not also directed to a truly existing moral truth?

It is this native sense of moral truth, a truth fixed eternally in the structure of reality, that gives man a fundamental hope. It is this moral hope that tells man he is more than an animal, for an animal can no more reflect on the moral structure of the world than it can speculate on the intentionality of its eyes and ears. This innate moral sense in man’s mind remains the foundation of what Aristophanes called “the great hopes (elpidai megistai).” Pindar, for his part, said that man faces old age with the companionship of “hope, which principally governs the fickle mind of mortals.”
Among the final articles of the Nicene Creed we affirm that God is discriminating: “He will come again in glory to judge.” If this assertion were not true, the rest of the Creed would be worthless, for this assertion proclaims the vindication of our moral sense, the innate source of our hope. According to our psalm, it is this hope that God finally justifies. “The Lord has become my refuge,” we pray near the end, “and my God the helper of my hope (ho Theos mou eis boethon elpidos mou).”
Wednesday, August 14
Acts 21:26-36: On the next day Paul begins daily worship in the temple as the sponsor of the four men under vow, to provide the offering required on such occasions (verse 26). A week later he is recognized in the temple by some of the same Asian Jews with whom he has already had so many painful experiences (verse 27; 18:19; 20:19).

It is important to observe that the objections to Paul at Jerusalem do not come from the Jewish Christians living there, but from the Diaspora Jews, whose presence in Jerusalem is occasioned by the feast of Pentecost (20:6,16), a normal time for pilgrimage to the temple. On the streets of the city they had already recognized Trophimus, a Christian from Asia, who accompanied Paul to Jerusalem for the purpose of transporting the collection of money for the poor (20:4; cf. also 2 Timothy 4:20). The Jews from Ephesus accuse Paul of introducing this Gentile into the temple beyond the Court of the Gentiles.

The gravity of their accusation is indicated in the inscription, written in both Greek and Latin, which separated that court from the Court of Women (Josephus, Jewish War 5.5.2; Antiquities 15.11.5 [417]; cf. also Ephesians 2:14). That inscription, discovered by C. S. Clermont-Ganneau in 1871, says: “No foreigner [non-Jew] is to enter within the balustrade and the embankment that surrounds the sanctuary. If anyone is apprehended in the act, let him know that he must hold himself to blame for the penalty of death that will follow.”

After ejecting Paul from the temple, his accusers close the gates to prevent his seeking refuge therein (verse 30). Because such riots in the temple are by no means rare, particularly during pilgrimages, a Roman guard of a thousand men is stationed in the nearby Fortress Antonia, and news of the disturbance reaches the commander of this unit, Claudius Lysias (23:26), who promptly takes Paul into custody to prevent his being murdered. It was at this very place that an earlier crowd of Jews had insisted to Pilate, “Take Him away!” [Aire touton in Luke 23:18] with respect to Jesus, the same insistence now being made with respect to Paul [Aire auton in Acts 21:36].

Mark 14:66-72: If Simon Peter could deny Jesus, any one of us could do so. Simon, after all, had not believed himself capable of such a thing. “Even if all are made to stumble,” he boasted, “yet I will not be” (Mark 14:29). He was so utterly resolved on the matter that, when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus in the garden, Simon had attacked them with violence. Alas, he was neither the first man nor the last to confuse human excitement with divine strength, nor to mistake the pumping of adrenaline for the infusion of grace. Within a very short time we find Peter backing down embarrassed before the pointing finger of a servant girl. The Holy Spirit took particular care that Christians throughout the ages would never forget that falling away remains a real possibility for any of them. In the words of yet another converted sinner, “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).

Thursday, August 15

John 2:1-11: As Mary approached her son at Cana, her sole concern was the welfare of those who sponsored the wedding feast. She does not seem to have had anything more specific in mind. This impression is conveyed, I believe, in what she eventually says to the waiters: “Do whatever He tells you.” This “whatever” (Greek ho ti) perfectly sums up her concern. Mary does not request a miracle; she simply wants the problem dealt with, and she trusts Jesus to do it.

Indeed, as the story begins, there is nothing to suggest a miracle is about to happen. John’s account is far removed from the fabulous atmosphere of later apocryphal literature, such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which tells of various prodigies worked by the boy Jesus: breathing life into clay birds, stretching a piece of timber to help Joseph finish constructing a bed, even striking a playmate dead and blinding the child’s parents!

There is nothing of this sort in Holy Scripture, where the Cana miracle is identified as Jesus’ “beginning of signs.” This “beginning,” I believe, may be understood in two non-exclusive ways: The reference has a literary significance, meaning that the Cana miracle was the first of the specific seven “signs” narrated by John. The word “beginning” also means here an historical fact: this was the initial miracle actually performed by Jesus.

In truth, the other gospels record no miracles until Jesus’ slightly later ministry in Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28; Luke 4:23). In short, Jesus has done nothing, so far, that would prompt Mary to expect a miraculous response to her solicitous comment, “They have no wine.”

It is important to eliminate a hint of harshness conveyed in the translation—to wit, in English it is not usually considered polite to address someone as “Woman.” However, the underlying idiom, the Aramaic word used by Jesus—’anot’a—was a formal and even decorous manner of address. Indeed, this is how Jesus habitually speaks to women in the gospels, including a Canaanite petitioner (Matthew 15:28), a crippled woman in the synagogue (Luke 13:12), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:21), the woman accused of adultery (8:10), and Mary Magdalene at the tomb (20:13). Perhaps our English “ma’am” comes closest to the sense of the Aramaic idiom.

It is especially noteworthy that in John’s Gospel Jesus addresses his mother this way as he is dying (John 19:26). In this gospel, Cana and Calvary are the only places where Mary’s son speaks to her, and the same word is used both times.

Friday, August 16

Judges 4: The story of Deborah is chiefly preoccupied with two themes, soteriology and the moral life.

First, soteriology: The Deborah story is mainly an account of God’s deliverance of Israel from her oppressing enemies (“And the Lord routed Sisera” — Judges 4:15), and it stands within a lengthy series of such stories united mainly by this common theme. Indeed, if the several traditions within Judges, drawn from quite diverse local settings and tribal traditions, are joined by any element beyond mere chronology, the motif of God’s deliverance is certainly that element. The Book of Judges is essentially a detailed account of God’s repeated deliverance of His people through the agency of charismatic figures prior to the rise of the monarchy. The key to understanding Deborah, surely, is through that general consideration.

Second, the moral life: this consideration is of far less importance to the purposes of the Book of Judges. Truly, if the inculcating of moral example ranked very high among those purposes, it would be difficult to explain how some of the juicier stories in Judges ever managed to find their place at all! In the Deborah account, nonetheless, such a moral interest is certainly present, at least in a minor key, and it is to be discovered chiefly in the accented contrast between Deborah and the timid Barak.

Thus, St. Jerome observed that, if Barak had been a brave and decisive man to begin with, Deborah’s intervention in the battle with Sisera would not have been necessary. He went on to compare her to Mary Magdalene, whom the Gospels likewise show to have been a courageous woman at the time of the Lord’s death and burial, in conspicuous contrast to the intimidated, bewildered, and discouraged apostles.

It is not surprising, then, that Christian readers have always seen the Deborah story as evidence of God’s equal regard for men and women. Their comments in this respect are rooted, of course, in the particulars of the story itself. Indeed, the contrast between the forthright Deborah and the timid, reluctant Barak is one of the most obvious and entertaining examples of this literary technique in all of Holy Scripture. The robust directives of Deborah in Judges 4:6f (“Go . . . Deploy . . . Take”) are met by the poltroonish, foot-dragging of Barak in verse 8. His pathetic response is composed of two hypothetical pronouncements that leave all the initiative to Deborah: “If you go with me, I will go. If you will not go with me, I will not go.” The very sounds of the Hebrew text mimic both the bee-like, rapid-fire delivery of Deborah (lek wumashakta . . . welaqahta) and the lifeless, melancholic mumbling of Barak (’im telki ‘immi wahalakti, we’im lo’ telki ‘immi lo’elek).

This amusing contrast is further heightened by the fact that Barak’s very name means “lightning bolt.” The energetic Deborah is manifestly frustrated, trying to convince this lightning to strike! A few verses later, Deborah must sting the sluggard again: Qum—“Up!” (4:14) This sharp command, qum, is repeated in the canticle in Judges 5:12. It is not surprising, perhaps, that Christian readers have traditionally seen the Deborah story as evidence of God’s equal regard for men and women. On the other hand (if one may safely venture the remark) the woman in this contrast seems to be quite a bit more reliable than the man.