Friday, December 27

John 1:1-18: We will be reading only the first two chapters of John during the Christmas season. The rest of this Gospel will be read in the Spring, the season in which John’s Gospel traditionally dominates. Our brief comments today speak of John wholly in the context of Christmas.

The Jesus presented in John’s Gospel appears as the eternal Word, in whom “was life, and the life was the light of men” (1:4). Becoming flesh and dwelling among us (1:14), He is the living revelation of God’s glory on this earth. Even though “no one has seen God at any time,” John says, “the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (1:18).

1 John 1:1-7: In the opening of this epistle we observe several parallels with the beginning of John’s Gospel. For instance, the “beginning” in verse 1 matches the same word in John 1:1. The Word’s presence with the Father in verse 2 find its correspondence in John 1:1-2: “the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” The “Word of life” in verse 4 matches John 1:4—“in him was life.”

When the word appears in each of the first five verses, it always means “we” as distinct from “you.” In fact, in each instance it refers to the authority of the apostolic witness. In the verses John’s “we” signifies the apostles who were eyewitnesses of everything that happened during “all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us” (Acts 1:21). John’s “we” in these verses is identical to Luke’s “us” in this text from Acts. Thus, John writes,

. . . we have heard . . . we have seen . . . we have looked upon, and our hands have handled . . . we have seen, and bear witness . . . was manifested to us . . . that which we have seen and heard we declare to you . . . these things we write . . . we have heard from Him and declare to you.

Thus, the “we” of these verses indicates the authority of the apostolic witness itself, the genuine transmission off the divine revelation that took place in Jesus Christ. The identical use of this “we” is found also near the beginning of John’s Gospel: “ . . . we beheld His glory . . .” (1:14).

According to John, this authoritative witness involves the various senses by which the Apostles discerned God’s manifestation in the flesh—hearing, seeing, even touching: “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled.”

Saturday, December 28

Hebrews 2:11-18: The mediation of Christ, which is a major theme of this book, requires His solidarity with the rest of the human race. To save us from our sins, He must be one of us. Such is the burden of this section, which speaks of Jesus in terms of brotherhood: “He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: ‘I will declare Your name to My brethren’ . . . 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.” Before a priest can be a father, he must be a brother; that is to say, he must be “taken from among men” (5:1).

Thus, when Jesus sent Mary Magdalene to proclaim His Resurrection to the Church, He instructed her, “Go and tell My brethren” (John 20:17). More particularly, Jesus claims brotherhood with all mankind in the context of history’s final judgment, where we learn, “inasmuch as you did it to the least of My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40). Jesus’ proclaimed solidarity of brotherhood with the whole human race means that the proper destiny of that race is a true community, founded and centered on the Incarnation.

Here in Hebrews this solidarity with the rest of human beings especially pertains to death: God’s Son assumed our humanity in order to die as a human being. Some chapters later, our author will repeat this thesis, citing the Book of Psalms: “Therefore, when He came into the world, He said: ‘Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, / But a body You have prepared for Me. / In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin / You had no pleasure. / Then I said, / Behold, I have come/ —In the volume of the book it is written of Me— / To do Your will, O God’”(10:5-7). That is to say, the obedience of Christ was to fulfill and replace the various sacrifices of the Mosaic Law, and for this task the Son obviously required a body.

In the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons commented on this theme in Hebrews: “So the Word was made flesh in order that sin, destroyed by means of that same flesh through which it had gained mastery and taken hold and lorded it, should no longer be in us,” and “that so He might join battle on behalf of our forefathers and vanquish through Adam what had stricken us through Adam” (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 31).

Sunday, December 29

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 [104]: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 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, December 30

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 frequently should Christians be concerned 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, unless 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, December 31

Matthew 25:31-46: On this last day of the year it is profitable to reflect what will happen on the last day of history. It is the parable of the Final Judgment.

In this parable Jesus describes Himself in three ways: as judge, as brother, and as teacher. We may take these in order.

First, Jesus appears in this parable as the final judge of the whole human race: “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats.”

We should pause to reflect on the extraordinary nature of this claim—the claim to be the final arbiter of universal history. Clearly, the early Christians appreciated the uniqueness of that claim. St. Paul announced to the Athenians that God “has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained” (Acts 17:31). He was equally clear on the point when he wrote to the Corinthians: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

The world can hear this claim of universal judgment only with skepticism and ridicule. They hear it with skepticism, because those who adhere to the world find it impossible imagine they are going to be judged at all, for the simple reason that there are no universal moral standards by which to judge them. Indeed, it is taken as axiomatic that no one can judge anyone else. And they hear this claim with ridicule, at the thought that they will be judged by someone they don’t believe in.

Second, in this parable Jesus appears as our brother. Indeed, His brotherhood with other human beings is the very basis of His judgment: “Amen, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me. . . . Amen, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.”

Christian emphasis on the “common” quality of the Lord’s humanity indicated more than an ethical preference on Christ’s part. His complete solidarity with the rest of the human race was a condition, rather, of His ability to redeem the human race. Such was the force of the reference to Jesus as “born of a woman” in Paul’s account of the Son’s coming “to redeem those under the Law” (Galatians 4:4-5).

Jesus is especially our brother in dying for us. Thus, in today’s epistle Paul speaks of “the weak brother for whom Christ died.” And he goes on to assert, “But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ” (1 Cor 8:11-12). We treat human beings as our brothers and sisters, because that is how Christ regards them.

In the immortal affirmation of C. Herbert Woolston, “Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight.” These awesome words were first heard here in Chicago, where Woolston wrote them just before the Civil War.

“The are precious in His sight,” because He paid the price—pretium—for them. A Christian’s assessment of human worth is not based on a sentimental response, but on a fact—the historical fact of the death of Christ—the theological fact of the value of His blood. The outpoured blood of Christ is the price tag that hangs on the human being.

Human beings, that is to say, are never “marked down”; they are “marked up.” They are marked by the sign of that Cross on which their redemption was purchased. The blood of Jesus is the reason we hold that all human beings are precious in his sight.

Third, Jesus appears today as our teacher. This story of the Last Judgment is our Lord’s final parable before the story of His Passion. It is the last word of His public ministry. In this parable, our Lord discloses to us what He most wants us to know: He has made Himself our brother, not only by assuming the conditions of our flesh, but by dying for us on the Cross. This is the thesis by which we are defined.

Each of us knows himself to be a blood-bought brother or sister of Christ, and He has left us a commandment that must guide our thinking and the entire measure of our lives: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Amos 5: To the prophetic eye of Amos the downfall of Samaria is so imminent that he speaks of it as already accomplished (verses 1-2). The impending devastation will bring about a dramatic decline in population (verse 3).
The next several lines (verses 4-6) are arranged in a chiastic structure:

A–seek Me and live (verse 4)

B–not Bethel (verse 5)

C–not Gilgal

D–not Beersheba

C’–not Gilgal

B’–not Bethel

A’–seek Me and live (verse 6)

Bethel, Gilgal, and Beersheba were all ancient cultic shrines founded by the Patriarchs (Genesis 21:33; 26:23; 28:10; 46:1-5), at which unfaithful Israel has been accustomed, says the prophet, to “seek” (darash) guidance for individual decisions (cf. Exodus 18:15). However, this seeking has not been a search for God Himself, who is found only through repentance and a “life” of communion with Him.

The poet Amos engages in paranomasion: “Gilgal shall go into exile”—Haggilgal goleh yigleh.

The “house of Joseph” (verses 6,15) is synonymous with the northern tribes, since the two largest of them, Ephraim and Manasseh, are descendents of Joseph (cf. 6:6).

An understanding of verses 10-17 should start with the awareness of the city gate (verses 10,12) as the normal place of adjudication and the administration of justice. Israel is here condemned for its perversion of justice by the oppression of the powerless. The poor and oppressed man knows better than to seek justice in such a court (verse 13).

The final part of this chapter (verses 18-27) is a second “woe” (hoy—verse 18). It contains the Bible’s earliest instance of the expression “the day of the Lord,” meaning the day of the Lord’s judgment. This is the significance of the expression in the rest of prophetic literature (Hosea, Isaiah, Zephaniah).

Like the other prophets of the eighth century, but most notably Isaiah, Amos condemns empty worship that has become a mere formality (verses 21-23), separated from the social demands of the moral life (verse 24).

Like Hosea (2:16) and Jeremiah (21:1-3), Amos looks back on the period of Israel’s wandering in the desert as the golden age of its worship (verse 25). This fact shows that Amos does not condemn ritual worship in itself, but only the moral perversion thereof.

Thursday, January 2

Amos 6: This short chapter is the prophet’s third “woe,” which foretells destruction and exile for the socially irresponsible, pleasure loving, and self-satisfied rulers of both Israel and Judah (verse 1). If they doubt Amos this point, let them consider the plight of other unjust nations (verse 2).

There is a chronological problem here, inasmuch as all three of these cities were destroyed after the lifetime of Amos (Calneh in 738, Hamath in 720, and Gath in 711), though he speaks of their destruction as something that his listeners can go and inspect for themselves. Since this latter consideration seems to exclude the possibility that Amos is simply speaking of a future event in the past tense (which, as we have seen, he sometimes does), it is likely the case that a later editor of this book may have adjusted verse 2.

The northern tribes—that is, Joseph—yet enjoy their luxurious living (verses 4-6), but not for long (verses 7-8).

The prophet’s reference to a feast conducted during “the affliction of Joseph” puts the attentive reader in mind of Genesis 37:23-25:

So it came to pass, when Joseph had come to his brothers, that they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the tunic of many colors that was on him. Then they took him and cast him into a pit. And the pit was empty; there was no water in it. And they sat down to eat a meal.

The people’s exile will be preceded by siege and famine (verses 9-11).

By his rhetorical questions (verse 12) Amos appeals to the people’s sense of what is normal, conceivable, and possible. Horses and oxen need soil—not rock—on which to walk and work. Israel is showing less sense of reason than these dumb beasts.

Friday, January 3

Amos 7: Each of the next three chapters contains at least one “vision,” in which Amos perceives various dimensions of his own vocation and the divine judgment to which the Lord has summoned him to bear witness.

The first of these is a vision of locusts, one of man most threatening natural enemies (verses 1-3). In response to the intercessions of the prophet, this plague is canceled.

The second vision is the brush fire, another formidable enemy of man (verses 4-6). Once again the people are spared by God’s mercy at the intercession of Amos.

The third vision is the plumb line (verses 7-9), an instrument designed to determine “uprightness.” This tool is a metaphor for the standard of righteousness that will guide the divine judgment. Whereas the locusts and the brush fire were images of irrational destruction, the plumb line is the symbol of objective, detached assessment. Amos here does not pray. Plumb lines, like all instruments of measure, enjoy a dispassion and objectivity that are without remorse or personal feelings.

It appears that Amos has been sharing these visions with the folks gathered at the shrine of Bethel, because now the apostate priest at that shrine complains to King Jeroboam II (786-746) about the prophet’s activities and his message (verses 10-11). This priest also reprimands Amos, telling him to head back south where he came from (verse 12-13). Amos suffers the usual accusation leveled by insecure governments: conspiracy.

By way of response the prophet tells of the rural circumstances and agricultural conditions of his calling (verses 14-15), adding a few choice words about what the accusing priest might expect in the near future (verses 16-17).