Friday, January 31
Hebrews 13:10-25: The author of Hebrews speaks of four duties: the constant praise of God, deeds of charity, cooperative docility to the pastoral authority of the Church, and intercessory prayer. We may take these in order:
First, there is the continuous sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God (verse 15). This is specifically Christian prayer, because it is offered through (dia) Christ. We recall, in this regard, this work’s teaching on the unique mediation of Christ (8:6; 9:15; 12:24). Prayer in the name of Jesus pertains, of course, to the common teaching of both Paul and John.
In the present context it is clear that this “Jesus focus” pertains, not only to the prayer of intercession, but also to that of praise and thanksgiving. God is to be praised and thanked especially for the gift of His Son, in whom alone we have access to God.
Hebrews thinks of this prayer as audible—the fruit of our lips. His exhortation here resembles one in St. Paul: “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:18-20).
Hebrews describes this thankful prayer as a sacrifice: “the sacrifice of praise to God.”
This image of sacrificial prayer takes our author immediately to a second expression of sacrifice: Deeds of sharing and charity. “But do not forget,” he writes, “to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased” (verse 16). The same word for sacrifice, thysia, is used in both verses.
St. Paul also wrote of such sharing as a form of sacrifice: “I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things from you, a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18).
Praise and the charitable sharing of one’s resources are the two forms of daily sacrifice expected of the Christian. To speak of praise and almsgiving in this way was a custom the early Christians inherited from late Judaism, and it probably assumed a special emphasis during the Babylonian Captivity. Deprived of their temple worship during much of the 6th century before Christ, devout Jews endeavored to pray and give alms as forms of replacing the daily sacrifices. We see this effort exemplified in the Book of Tobit, for instance.
A third responsibility of the Christian moral life pertains to the believer’s relationship to the pastoral authority of the Church: “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (verse 17). This exhortation is based on a component of common sense—namely, since those who govern the Church are obliged to render to God an account of the souls entrusted to their care, it is hardly sensible to make the task more difficult for them. That is to say, it is better for that task to be done with joy rather than grief. A joyful pastor is far more likely to be spiritually effective than a pastor suffering from anxiety and spiritual disquiet.
The pastors envisioned by the Epistle to the Hebrews were those whose ministry and witness was derived from the Apostles. Our author indicated this apostolic transmission when he wrote of “so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him” (2:3). By their manner of life, these pastors had “confirmed” the salvation spoken by the Lord. The living “confirmation” of these pastors, some of whom had already died, was recalled in the present chapter, where the author wrote: “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct” (verse 7).
Fourth, our author speaks of intercessory prayer as another component of Christian moral responsibility. Concretely, he requests a remembrance in their prayers: “Pray for us; for we are confident that we have a good conscience, in all things desiring to live honorably. But I especially urge you to do this, that I may be restored to you the sooner” (verses 18-19).
This common responsibility to remember one another in prayer is a sustained motif in Christian hagiography and epistolary literature. We find it already in the first extant writing in the Church: “Brethren, pray for us” (1 Thessalonians 5:25). Paul especially requests intercessions for his work of ministry; he writes in the second earliest work of Christian literature: “Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run and be glorified” (2 Thessalonians 3:1). In both of these cases, we observe, this request for intercessory prayer is found in the final chapter of the epistles, just as it is here in Hebrews.
The Church is a communion in prayer. Mutual intercession for one another gives an essential quality to the structure of the Christian soul.
Saturday, February 1
Romans 1:1-17: In this epistle’s initial greeting we observe its emphasis on Christology, its avowal of the historical Jesus, “born of the seed of David according to the flesh,” and the Christ of faith, who was “destined [horisthentos] to be Son of God with power.” These are two descriptions of the same Jesus Christ, of course, along with the recognition that his Resurrection from the dead (verse 4) is the historical fact manifesting and demonstrating His true identity (cf. Acts 2:34-36; 1 Corinthians 15:45; Philippians 3:10).
The expression “the obedience of faith” (hyupakoe pisteos—verse 5) is an appositional genitive (“the obedience which is faith”) indicating that faith is active, not simply passive; it is a commitment and not just a reception (cf. 10:17; 16:26). It is not a mere assent of the intellect but a dedication of the heart.
For some time now, Paul has wanted to come to Rome (verses 10-13), where the local Christian congregation was already famous among Christians elsewhere (verse 8). The church at Rome seems first to have been established by Roman Jews who had been present at the original Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2:10; cf. Tacitus, Annals 15.44). Indeed, this early date for the founding of the church at Rome is supported by the funerary inscription of a Christian woman, Pomponia Graecina, in the early forties, well before the arrival of the apostles in that city.
Although these early Christian founders had been expelled from Rome in the general expulsion of the Jews in A.D. 49 (Acts 18:1; Suetonius, “Claudius” 25), it is reasonable to suppose that some of them returned there after the death of Claudius in the year 54. As to the actual composition of the church at Rome when Paul wrote this epistle four years later, we can say little that is certain. Nonetheless, on the presumption that Gentile Christians at Rome were not affected by the expulsion in 49, we may guess that there were more Gentile Christians than Jewish at Rome when Paul wrote this epistle very early in the year 58.
Paul is very conscious that his own faith is shared by the believers at Rome (verse 12), even though he had not evangelized there. This consciousness on Paul’s part is an important key to the interpretation of this epistle, because it implies that the doctrines presumed in this work pertained to the general deposit of faith common to all the early preachers of the Gospel. This shared deposit of faith formed the context within which Paul addressed the major preoccupation of this epistle, as well as the evangelism (evangelisthasthai) that he hoped to accomplish there (verse 15).
Sunday, February 2
Haggai 2:1-9: The first oracle in this chapter was given on October 5, 520 B.C. (verse 1) The twentieth day of the month Tishri was the fifth day of the week called the Feast of Tabernacles (cf. Leviticus 23:34), an autumnal harvest celebration (cf. Deuteronomy 16:13) that paralleled our own Thanksgiving Day.
In the year 520 that festival was especially significant, because God’s people had begun to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, a replacement for the temple destroyed by the Babylonians sixty-six years earlier.
As they rebuilt it, however, a very disappointing fact was becoming clear to the people—namely, that this new structure, when finally completed, was going to be pretty small, because the people had nowhere near the financial resources available to Solomon when he had constructed the first temple four centuries earlier. Like the men who were building it, this new temple would be poor (verse 3; cf. Ezra 3:12-13).
Nonetheless, said Haggai, this new house of God—the Second Temple—would be adorned, in due course, with silver and riches from around the world (verses 7-9). A literal translation of verse 7 from the Hebrew (“I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of the nations will come in”) makes perfect sense, meaning that Jews from all over the world, coming to the new temple on pilgrimage, would continue to adorn and expand it until “the glory of the latter house would outshine that of the former.”
However, the ancient Christian Latin translation of this verse (reflected, curiously, in the King James Version), reads, et veniet Desideratus cunctis gentibus, which means, “and He who is desired by the nations will come.” This translation is echoed, of course, in the final verse of the old Veni Emmanuel hymn adapted from the “O Antiphons” of Advent, “O Come, Desire of nations, bind / in one the hearts of all mankind.” That is to say, the new temple of Haggai’s era was the very Temple into which Jesus, the One desired by the nations, would enter. In accordance with the Mosaic Law, Jesus was presented in this Temple exactly forty days after his birth: February 2.
Monday, February 3
Romans 1:18-32: In order to assess the “power” (dynamis) of the Gospel, Paul now describes the human state without the Gospel. Neither Judaism nor classical paganism, the Apostle argues, whatever their other accomplishments, have been able to attain or preserve moral integrity. If the Jew, enlightened by God’s Law, has been unable to do this (as Paul will argue in chapter 2), much less could the Greek or Roman.
Paul begins with these pagans, providing a stunning description of the depravity of his age. This description is colored by Paul’s perception as a Jew (indeed, we note his interjection of a standard Jewish doxology in verse 25), because his comments coincide with the assessment that other Jews of antiquity rendered with respect to paganism. In these lines of the epistle, we hear the voice of the Maccabees two and a half centuries earlier. Paul, like most Jews of his time, regarded the pagan world as “abandoned,” “handed over,” “forsaken” by God (verses 24,26,28).
The moral depravity of the age was a revelation (apokalyptetai) of the divine wrath against idolatry (verse 18; Isaiah 30:27-33). Following the argument in the Book of Wisdom (Wisdom of Solomon) 13:1-9, Paul insists that “something” about God is knowable in the works of Creation (verses 19-20). Indeed, this something is not only knowable, it is also “known” (to gnoston), so that man is inexcusable in not recognizing it.
Paul is not talking here about a personal knowledge of God, which requires faith (cf. Hebrews 11:3,5-6; 1 Corinthians 1:21), but a factual knowledge of God’s existence and a certain perception of His predicates (verse 20; Acts 14:15-17). Such factual knowledge about God is ineluctable, he says, except to those who have completely blinded their hearts (verse 21; Ephesians 4:17). These latter refuse to acknowledge what they cannot help knowing.
Therefore, they decline to praise God or to thank Him, turning instead to false gods (verse 23; Psalms 106 :20; Deuteronomy 4:16-18). These are gods of their own making, to whom, their makers are aware, they will never have to render an account. These are non-judgmental gods.
This idolatrous darkening of the heart begins with the entertainment of deceptive thoughts (verse 21), but it soon finds expression in man’s very body. It leads directly to sexual immorality (verse 24; Wisdom 14:22-27). That is to say, the mendacity and illusions of the human mind produce mendacity and illusion in the human flesh, and this corporeal untruthfulness, this fleshly illusion, is the very essence of homosexuality. Those unable to recognize the intelligent design of nature can hardly be expected to honor the most elementary markings of the human body (verses 26-28). The homosexual sin, then, is not just one sin among others; it is symptomatic of a much deeper spiritual problem.
Thus, homosexual behavior, which is “against nature” (para physin, contra naturam—verse 26), is the social and cultural progeny of an engendering idolatry. Other sexual sins, such as fornication, at least show deference to the structure of nature. Although immoral, fornication and adultery are not sins against nature. The homosexual vice, however, is. It is physical falsehood, the very embodiment of a lie.
In addition to sexual turpitude, idolatry leads to all sorts of their sins, which the Apostle proceeds to enumerate (verses 29-31). Paul is not speculating here. Having traveled through the cities of the Greco-Roman world, having heard the confessions of his converts (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11), he is immediately familiar with these sins.
We should bear in mind that Paul, in his assessment of the world of his time, is speaking of society as a whole, not every individual within it. He is not saying that every single pagan in the world is morally depraved. He is saying, rather, that pagan society is morally depraved.
Nor, when he speaks of the sins of homosexuals, does Paul mean that in each case that person’s sins are the result of his own personal sin of idolatry. He is saying, rather, that the homosexual vice, regarded as a social phenomenon, is the symptom of a deeper, truly radical sin, the sin of idolatry. An idolatrous culture is what spawns this disposition to regard the homosexual impulse as normal and homosexual behavior as licit.
Consequently, it is precarious to use Paul’s arguments here as applying directly to individuals that may be struggling with temptations to this particular vice; this struggle does not mean that these individuals are personally guilty of idolatry. When he treats the homosexual vice as a symptom of idolatry, Paul is describing the manifest state of pagan society without the Gospel, not each individual’s state of soul.
In addition, the divine condemnation is deserved, not only by those who do these terrible things, but also by those who approve of them, those non-judgmental types who embrace the pale, flaccid I-will-not-impose-my-morality-on-others theory. Someone genuinely struggling with homosexual temptation may be a true Christian; a heterosexual person, however, who of the homosexual sin, certainly is not.
Tuesday, February 4
Romans 2:1-11: Having described the moral failings of paganism, Paul now turns to the Jews. Woe to them if they pass judgment (verse 1), because they too have failed to measure up. Jew and Greek stand before God on level ground, in fact (verses 9-10). The Jew’s possession of the Torah, in which God reveals His moral will, is no guarantee that the Jew is superior to the Greek (verses 12-16).
Here Paul twice addresses the Jew as “man,” anthropos (verses 1,3), indicating that he too is of the common clay, an heir of Adam, that first and fallen anthropos. Jewish blood is no guarantee of moral superiority over other men (cf. Matthew 3:8; John 8:39; Galatians 2:15). The Jew, too, says Paul, is called to repentance, metanoia (verse 4; Wisdom 11:23), because his own heart is just as “impenitent” (verse 5).
In this epistle, the theme of which is justification through faith, the Apostle insists that the Lord “will render to each man according to his deeds” (literally “works,” erga—verse 6; Psalms 62 :13; Proverbs 24:12), and he goes on to speak of “the patience of good work” (verse 7). Even this early in the epistle, then, Paul closes the door to any antinomian interpretation of it.
Those who do good works are said to be seeking (zetousin) “glory and honor and incorruptibility” (verse 7). This incorruptibility, aphtharsia, is to be contrasted with the corruption of death, introduced into the world by sin (5:12).
The translation of the word aphtharsia as “immortality” (as in the KJV) is misleading, because immortality suggests something immaterial and essentially spiritual (as when we speak of “the immortality of the soul”). Aphtharsia, in contrast, refers in this context to the spiritual transformation of matter itself, of which the formal and defining example is the resurrected body of Christ. “Incorruptibility” is a property of the risen flesh of the Christian (1 Corinthians 15:42,50,53,54).
Introduced into human experience by the resurrection of Christ, this incorruptibility reverses the power of death. Indeed, the resurrection of the body is the final act in man’s salvation and the great object of his hope.
To those who are seeking salvation Paul contrasts those who are only seeking themselves, searching for some kind of self-fulfillment (eritheia) outside of God’s will (verse 8).
In verse 10 Paul returns to the importance of good works (literally “working the good”—ergazomenos to agathon). Salvation through faith is not for the lazy. Grace is free, but it is not cheap.
Wednesday, February 5
Romans 2:12-29: In chapter one Paul had spoken about the revelation of God’s existence through nature. Now he writes of the revelation of God’s moral law through nature (verses 14-15). His juxtaposition of Natural Law with the Mosaic Law does not mean that every particular of the latter can be discerned in the former; he means simply that the Natural Law can be known by man’s conscience and that those who have only the Natural Law will be judged according to that law, just as the Jew will be judged according to the Mosaic Law.
With respect to this revelation of God’s moral will through nature, the third-century Christian apologist Origen wrote:
There is nothing amazing about it if the same God has implanted in the souls of all men the same truths which He taught through the Prophets and the Savior. He did this in order that every man might be without excuse at the divine judgment, having the requirement of the law written in his heart (Against Celsus 1.4).
Paul continues talking to the imaginary “man” that he earlier addressed (verses 1,3). This man calls himself a Jew (verse 17). This man, whom he had earlier reprimanded for judging others, Paul now taunts with a series of claims that were commonly made by the Jews: knowledge of the true God and His will, confidence in the Law, superior moral insight, and the consequent right to provide guidance to the rest of the world (verses 18-20).
Paul does not deny the validity of any of these claims, but they do raise in his mind a series of concomitant questions that he now puts to the Jew (verses 21-23). The latter’s behavior, after all, leaves a lot to be desired. Indeed, the bad conduct of the Jew, as Isaiah had long ago remarked, has brought reproach of the God of the Jews (verse 24; Isaiah 52:5 in LXX). Their defining sign, circumcision, has been rendered morally meaningless by their insouciance to the rest of the Torah (verse 25).
Now, asks Paul, how is the circumcised Jew who disobeys the Law of Moses morally superior to the uncircumcised Gentile who observes the Natural Law, written in his heart (verses 26-27)?
Throughout this diatribe the Apostle is continuing the very argument that the Old Testament prophets had directed to the Chosen People ever since Amos and Isaiah eight hundred years before—namely, that a strict adherence to the prescribed rituals is no adequate substitute for the moral renewal of the heart and a blameless life pleasing to God. Far from rejecting the Old Testament here, Paul is appealing to one of its clearest themes (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Micah 6:6-8; Jeremiah 4:4; 9:24-25; Ezekiel 44:9).
The true circumcision is internal. This is the “secret” (krypton) that the Lord sees (verse 16). It is the heart that must be circumcised (verses 29-30; Acts 7:51). The true moral renewal of man, then, is not the fruit of a greater and more intense moral effort; it comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit in the circumcised heart.
In his contrast of two circumcisions, Paul invokes the distinction between letter and Spirit that he had used a year earlier to describe the difference between the Old Testament dispensation and the Christian Gospel (2 Corinthians 3:6). The circumcision, or pruning, of the human heart places that heart under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whose grace causes the human being to become a child of God (8:15; Galatians 4:6). The Gospel, then, is not simply a source of new moral information; it is the internal principle of a new mode of life.
Paul’s distinction between a Jew in the flesh and a Jew in the Spirit puts us in mind of Jesus’ insistence, in the Sermon on the Mount, that a believer’s existence is defined, not by his external observance of a religious code, but by his internal relationship to the heavenly Father (Matthew 6:1,4,6,8,14,18). Indeed, the same expression “secret” (krypton) is used in both places (verses 16,29; Matthew 6:4,6).
In spite of the historical advantage that God has given the Jew over the Gentile (verses 9-10; 1:16), they are both called by the Gospel to the same repentance.
Thursday, February 6
Romans 3:1-8: To say (as Paul has been saying) that both the Gentile and the Jew are called to repentance is not to deny the historical advantage of the Jews, because “to them were committed the oracles of God” (verse 2). Later in this same epistle (11:11-23) Paul will argue at greater length that God still keeps His eye on the Jews; they will still have their important role to play in the outcome of history. The Jews’ current displacement from their native root (which is Christ, we perhaps need to insist, and not real estate in the land of Palestine) is only temporary, “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (11:25).
Meanwhile, in fact, only “some” of the Jews have failed (verse 3), only “some of the branches have been broken off” (11:17). In these assertions Paul seems to have in mind not only his contemporary situation but all of Jewish history. That is to say, the Old Testament itself testifies that there have always been both faithful and unfaithful Jews. Those very “oracles of God,” which were committed to the Jews, also bear witness to the failure of some Jews to take God’s word seriously. No matter, says Paul, because God Himself is faithful, even to an unfaithful people (verses 3-4).
The divine fidelity also is recorded in the “oracles of God.” This expression, ta logia tou Theou (Psalms 107 :11; Numbers 24:4,16), includes the whole corpus of Sacred Scripture, not simply the prophetic utterances (Hebrews 5:12; 1 Peter 4:11). The whole Old Testament testifies to God’s fidelity in the face of man’s infidelity (3:26; Exodus 34:6; Numbers 23:19; Isaiah 55:11; Hosea 3:26).
Paul’s quotation from Psalm 51 (50):6 in verse 4 is based on the Septuagint, not the Hebrew text, and its entire context, which is one of repentance, is worth considering here. David himself, to whom this psalm is attributed, had been unfaithful to God through the sins of adultery and murder, but his own unfaithfulness did not eliminate the faithfulness of God. Indeed, with an oath God swore that He would never be false to David (Psalms 89 :35). This divine “oracle” bears witness to the very point that Paul is making—the fidelity of God to His pledged word.
On the other hand, when God manifests His wrath (orge, a word that appears in Romans twelve times—more often than in any other book of the New Testament), He can hardly be called evil for doing so (verse 5). In other words, God’s use of man’s sin as an occasion of manifesting the divine mercy cannot be thrown back at God as an excuse for continuing to sin.
It is most instructive to observe that even during Paul’s own lifetime, some Christians have already accused Paul of saying just that. In this text we learn that the Apostle’s earlier statements about justification by grace through faith (especially in Galatians, it would seem) were already being misinterpreted. His affirmation of the freedom of Christians from the precepts of the Mosaic Law was already being interpreted as a declaration of freedom from all law, all moral responsibility, all personal effort in the process of their salvation. Paul here bears witness to this distortion of his teaching by those who claimed him as their authority.
It was, arguably, to refute this misinterpretation of Paul that James insisted that “a man is justified by works, not by faith only,” and that “faith without works is dead” (James 1:22,26).
Peter, likewise, even as he referred to Paul’s epistles as “Scriptures,” remarked that in those epistles “are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16).
Evidently Paul himself agreed with the negative assessment of those who distorted his teaching to their own destruction. He had earlier written of the inadequacy of sola fides, remarking that “though I have all faith, so that I could move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2).
Friday, February 7
Romans 3:9-20: After the diatribe that begins this chapter (verses 3-8), Paul returns to the theme introduced in chapter two, the alleged moral advantage of the Jew over the Gentile. Even though God’s fidelity to the Jews, in spite of their infidelities to Him, does ironically manifest the privileged position of the Jews in salvation history, from a moral perspective this fact hardly warrants any boasting on the part of the Jews. Indeed, it shows them up rather badly. In short, Paul is arguing, “we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin” (verse 9).
This is, in truth, man’s concrete position before God—he is “under sin” (hyph’ hamartian). Such is Paul’s repeated contention in Romans (verse 23; 5:5:12). Let us note he uses the word “sin” here for the first time in this epistle.
In support of his thesis about man’s subjection to sin, Paul quotes (along with other sources) the Book of Psalms 14 (13):1-3; 53 (52):1-3. These two psalms both begin with the fool’s assertion that “there is no God.” In citing these psalms, therefore, Paul is once again taking up, from chapter one, the denial of God by the “fools” (1:22), whose “foolish hearts were darkened” (1:21). The “fools” in these psalms, Paul is suggesting, are not simply Gentiles, because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (verse 23).
The totality, the completeness, of man’s sinful condition is indicated here by Paul’s scriptural references to the various body parts that contribute to the sin: throat, tongue, lips, mouth, feet, eyes (verses 13-5). Man is, in short, sinful—sinful in all his parts.
What “man” in this context? Well, the Old Testament passages cited by Paul seem to refer to the Jews, after all (verse 19), so the Jew can claim no moral superiority over the Gentile. In verses 19-20 the totality of man’s sinful state is accented by the triple use of the word “all” or “every” (pas).
In short, man is not justified before God by the works of the Law, because “by the Law is the knowledge of sin” (verse 20). This expression, “works of the Law,” does not refer to good works generally; it refers, rather, to those commandments (including, ironically, a certain abstention from “work” on the Sabbath) laid down in the Law of Moses. Paul is not contrasting faith with works; he is contrasting the Gospel with the Law of Moses. The latter, he says, does not justify man; it gives man, rather, the knowledge or consciousness (epignosis) of sin.
Here again the apostle cites the Book of Psalms (143 :1-2), where the inspired psalmist insists that “all flesh ” (pasa sarxs) fails to be justified (dikaiothesetai) before God. How, then, is a man to be justified, to be rendered righteous? The psalmist himself answers, “In Your faithfulness hear me, in Your righteousness.” That is to say, even according to the Old Testament, it is God who justifies; it is God who makes righteous.
Paul thus introduces a theme that will be developed at greater length in chapter seven, namely, man’s consciousness of sin made more manifest by the Law. The function of the Law, in this context, is to prove to man just how rebellious, how depraved, how immoral he is (4:5; 5:13). If in this sense the Law makes sinners of us all, surely this is even more the case for the Jew, after all, to whom the Law was given.