Friday, May 29
Leviticus 3: What most English translations of the Bible call the “peace offering” is, in the Hebrew text, known as the zebah shelamim, a term indicating an oblation which harmonizes or makes perfect. It is an offering in which there is some sort of communion through the shared eating of part of the victim. Hence, unlike the holocaust, the entire victim in this kind of sacrifice is not destroyed by fire; parts of it are eaten by the priests who offer it and by those individuals for whom it is offered.
The sacrificial victims offered in this sort of oblation were the ox, the sheep, and the goat; animals of both sexes were acceptable. The sacrifice of the ox is described in verses 1-5, in which special attention is given to the animal’s blood. Because blood especially symbolizes life, it could not be ingested. It had to be sprinkled on the altar, as a sign that all life belongs to God. Similarly, those internal organs more especially associated with the processes of life, such as the intestines, the liver, and the kidneys, were burned in the sacrificial fire. Much the same procedure was followed for the offering of the sheep (verses 6-11) and the goat (verses 12-17).
For reasons that are not clear, the fat of these sacrifices could not be eaten, though there are no proscriptions against eating fat outside of the sacrificial context.
Acts 4:1-12: We now come to the first arrest of Christians and their first trial before the Sanhedrin. There was surely reason for concern on the part of the Sanhedrin, because the number of Christian converts, as a result of Peter’s brief sermon, had grown dramatically (verse 4). There will ensue a mounting local persecution, leading to the dispersal of the believers at the beginning of Chapter 8.
The Sadducees, direct successors of those “sons of Zadok” that we read about in Ezekiel, are the first to be offended (verses 2,3,5,6; cf. also 5:17). Unlike the Pharisees, they did not believe in a doctrine of resurrection, so when the apostles are brought to trial, the Sadducees were careful not to mention why they had been arrested! The whole affair having begun, as we saw, in late afternoon, it is now too late for court business, so the apostles are thrown in jail for the night (verse3).
The chief leaders of the Sadducees, the priests Annas and Caiphas, had been the instigators of the trial of Jesus, and now two of His apostles will appear before the same group. As on Pentecost day, Peter is “full of the Holy Spirit” (verse 8), and his brief testimony, which includes the exegesis of a Psalm verse (cf. Luke 20:17 as well), summarizes his Pentecost sermon. It was also a Psalm verse, by the way, to which Peter would return several years later (cf. 1 Peter 2:7).
Saturday, May 30
Leviticus 4: The “sin offering” of this chapter is an expiatory sacrifice that could be made for the priest (verses 1-12), the whole congregation (verses 13-21), the leader (verses 22-26), or any individual who might need it (verse 27 to 5:23).
The Hebrew name for this sacrifice, ’attata’t, literally means “sin,” but the meaning is extended to include the consequences of sin and, hence, the sacrifice offered to expiate sin (this noun, in the priestly code, always meaning offenses against God), and thus signifying even the victim offered in that sacrifice. Here in Leviticus the normal meaning of ’attata’t is “sin offering.”
With the term understood in this specific way and special sense, we can see that when the Apostle Paul said that God made Jesus “sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21), he meant that Jesus became the victim of that expiatory sacrifice by which atonement was made for our sins. Jesus Himself became the ’attata’t, the “sin offering,” fulfilling the prophetic dimension of the sacrifices with which this chapter deals.
Here in Leviticus the verb used to “make” this sin offering is ‘asah (three times in verses 8-9), which is a normal verb connoting the performance of many sacrifices (cf. 5:10; 6:15; 8:34; 9:7,16,22; 14:19; 15:15,30; 16:9,15,24; 19:9; 22:23; 23:12,19). In the Greek text of the Septuagint this ‘asah is translated as poiein. This is the verb used by St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:21, where he says that God “made [Jesus] a sin offering” (hamartian epoiesen).
It should be further noted that these particular sacrifices, although expiatory, are not substitutionary (in contrast to the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb, which was substitutionary but not expiatory). The Bible invariably distinguishes between substitutionary and expiatory sacrifices. It is a fact that the Old Testament system of sacrifice prescribed no substitutionary mactation of a sacrificial victim to atone for a sin that deserved death. That is to say, in the sacrificial system of the Bible, no animal is ever sacrificed to atone for the sin of someone who, because of that sin, deserved to die.
With respect to the death of Jesus on the Cross, we say that He died to atone our sins. In this regard His death was an expiatory sacrifice. When we speak of His death, however, as a substitutionary sacrifice, we indicate that He acted as the true Paschal Lamb, of which those earlier lambs were but symbols and types. Thus, the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross was both expiatory and substitutionary; He fulfilled both of these sacrificial types, each in a way proper to itself. The death of this “Lamb of God” did what the substitutionary sacrifice of the ancient Paschal lambs was never intended to do — namely, take away the sins of the world.
Thus, Jesus fulfilled all of these ancient sacrifices of the Old Testament: the ‘olah, or holocaust (Chapter 1), by being a complete sacrifice; the minhah, or grain sacrifice (Chapter 2), by granting us, in the breaking of the Bread, to “proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26); the zebah shelamim, or “peace offering” (Chapter 3), by sharing with us his own communion with God; and the ’attata’t, or sin offering (the present chapter), by taking away the barrier that human sins created between God and the human race.
The sprinkling (hizzah) of the blood purifies the curtain (paroketh that covers the Holy of Holies (verses 6,17). This verb, (hizzah), is also used in Isaiah 52:15 with reference to the Suffering Servant: “So shall He sprinkle many nations,” meaning that the blood of the Servant cleanses the sins of the nations.
Sunday, May 31
Leviticus 5: For the forgiveness of sins it was necessary to “confess” what one had done (verse 5). In context this confession was made to the priest, who was then charged to offer the sacrifice specific to the offense (verses 1-4). Thus, even in the Old Testament, priests were already “father confessors.” Such confession of sins pertained to the regular liturgical worship of God’s people (Psalms 32 :5).
These sins, being confessed, were then forgiven through the Old Testament sacrament of the sin offering. The priest thus made “an atonement for him concerning his sin” (verse 6). The expression “concerning his sin” (mehatta’to was translated into the Septuagint Greek as peri hamartias. This same Greek expression is later found in Paul’s description of the sacrifice of Jesus, concerning whom he wrote, “what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin (peri hamartias): He condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3).
Thus, in Leviticus, through the rite of the sin offering God “forgives” the sins of those for whom the sacrifice is offered. There are three points to be made about this verb salah, “to forgive.”
First, it is the very purpose of this sacrifice for sin, which is offered “so that they may be forgiven” (4:20). This formula appears only in connection with the sin offering (verses 10,13; cf. 4:26,31,35; Numbers 15:25,28) and the peace offering (verses 16,18,26; cf. 19:22).
Second, in the Bible the meaning of salah is never legal, forensic, or judicial. Unlike the corresponding English verb, salah is used only of God—not of a human judge or court. The term is theological in the strict sense and means a release from punishment.
Third, in Leviticus salah is not used apart from certain liturgical, sacrificial rites. That is to say, without the shedding of blood, there is no remission. Through these sacrifices the people were restored to communion with God, thus enabled to share in the divine worship. Otherwise the worship would be defiled by their participation.
Acts of unintentional desecration of something holy or the inadvertent violation of an oath were not covered by the sin offering, but by a separate sacrifice traditionally called a “guilt offering,” ’asham (verses 15-26 in the Hebrew text, 5:15—6:7 in most English translations). Of necessity this offering was for an individual, not the congregation. It bore something of the character of a reparation or compensation, a feature that explains why the prescriptions for this sacrifice, unlike the others, take note of the value of the sacrificial victim (verses 15-16,20,24-25). Some authors prefer to translate ’asham as “reparation offering.”
With respect to the holy things covered by these prescriptions, we observe that Sacred Scripture distinguishes degrees of consecration (21:22; Numbers 18:8-19). The “most holy things,” consecrated by actual physical touch (6:18,27; Exodus 29:37; 30:29), could be handled only by the priests.
We likewise bear in mind that the desecrations covered in these laws were unintentional offenses. Deliberate sacrilege carried the death penalty (Numbers 4:19-20).
Inadvertent or unintentional perjury was also covered by the legislation in this chapter (verses 20-26; 6:1-7 in most English translations), inasmuch as it involved desecration of God’s name. Intentional perjury was covered by very different legislation (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11).
The fulfillment of the Old Testament’s ’asham is, of course, the sacrifice of the Cross, where the Suffering Servant gave his soul (nephesh) as an ’asham for our sins (Isaiah 53:11; cf. Matthew 20:28; 26:28).
Monday, June 1
Acts 5:1-11: The account of Ananias and Sapphira is arguably the most frightening story in the New Testament. We are scarcely surprised by St. Luke’s comment that “great fear came upon all the Church and upon all who heard these things.” In Luke’s bright account of the grace of the Holy Spirit in the early Church, this story is something like a sunspot. And, like a sunspot, it may escape our notice. We should study it, nonetheless, for much the same reason that astrophysicists study sunspots: Whether we study them or not, they are real and affect the atmosphere in which we live.
We may reflect on the account of Ananias and Sapphira along three lines:
The first is their resistance to the Holy Spirit. This was, in fact, the explicit concern of St. Peter, when he asked Ananias, “Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit?” Peter repeated this question to Sapphira, “How is it that you have conspired to test the Spirit of the Lord?”
In all the New Testament, this story may be our closest illustration of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, that radical state of spiritual depravity which puts the offender outside the realm of mercy (cf. Mark 3:9).
The Old Testament does not mention this sin, perhaps because blasphemy against the Holy Spirit was not yet possible. The full measure of this sin is found only in the Church. I mean this ultimate offense—the repudiation of God’s ultimate gift—is possible only when the gift has been received. Thus, the traditional sacramental discipline of the Church has always regarded the deliberate sins of Christians as more serious than the sins of pagans (Hebrews 10:26-29).
Our second line of reflection is this: the sin of Ananias and Sapphira included a self-seeking and rapacious attitude toward material things. It is instructive to observe the verb Luke uses to speak of their sin. Peter questions Ananias: “Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and misappropriate, for yourself, the price of the land?”
Luke’s Greek word for “misappropriate” is nosphizein, a verb rare in the Scriptures but used to refer to the sin of Achan in Joshua 7:1 (LXX). The scene describes how Achan violated the Lord’s command to seize no spoils from the destruction of Jericho: “But the children of Israel committed a great trespass and misappropriated [enosphizanto] the condemned things, for Achan the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took the condemned things; so the anger of the Lord burned against the children of Israel.”
The offense of Achan was the first sin of the Israelites after their entrance to the Promised Land. Employing the same verb—nosphizein—Luke likens this first sin of new Christians to that of ancient Achan. In each case there was the misappropriation of a blessing.
Our third line of reflection is this: the sin of Ananias and Sapphira was a conspiracy. Peter inquired of Sapphira, “How is it that you have conspired to test the Spirit of the Lord?” Men are bad enough when they soil their own consciences. Conspiracy is an advanced state of sin. Sin is particularly malicious when it exploits the social institutions that are proper to human existence. Sin reaches its full potential when it takes on a social and institutional form.
Among human institutions, of course, the most basic is marriage. So, if we have likened Ananias and Sapphira to Achan, we should liken them also to Adam and Eve. Our first parents did not sin simply as individuals. Their offense was conspiratorial; they formed a pact of infidelity to the Lord.
Adam and Eve bonded together in the attempt to keep God’s will out of their shared life. Right from the beginning, therefore, they polluted the institution of the family. Ananias and Sapphira repeated that conspiracy, nor were they the last couple to do so. It is far from uncommon to find husbands and wives conspiring to keep the Law of God out of their homes. It is part of the legacy of Adam and Eve.
From the story of Ananias and Sapphira we should take away at least these three lessons: the utter seriousness of the Holy Spirit, the danger of a rapacious attitude toward material things, and the great danger of using human institutions-especially the family-as the medium and setting of conspiracy against God’s Law.
Tuesday, June 2
Acts 5:12-21: This section returns us to the porch of Solomon. Encouraged by the healing of the lame man in Chapter 3, a great number of sick and infirm are gathered here, hoping even that Peter’s very shadow may fall upon them (verse 15).
This justified hope (verse 16), reminiscent of such scenes as Matthew 14:36, and to be replicated in the case of the apostle Paul (Acts 19:12), indicates the material, incarnational aspects of Christian salvation.
This “apostolic success” infuriates, once again, the Sadducees (verse 17), who have the apostles arrested. (The “sect” or “party” of this verse, referring to the Sadducees, is hairesis in Greek, the source of our word “heresy.”) In jail the apostles are strengthened by angelic ministry (verse 19), much like their Lord in His sufferings (Luke 22:43). Luke portrays these early Christians as being on rather familiar terms with angels (Acts 8:26; 12:7-10).
Meanwhile, unaware that the apostles have been freed from jail by the angels, the Sanhedrin summons them to a new trial. It is a scene of great irony.
Leviticus 7: All the blood sacrifices in this chapter (and 6:24-30) have the identical ritual structure, consisting in the mactation of the animal, the use of the sacrificial blood for atonement, the burning of the animal’s flesh on the altar, and the subsequent ritual meal of meat and grain. It is significant that the meal, since it is a means of communion with God in grace, follows the rite of blood atonement.
The Christian reader will see in this ritual the outline of theological truth. These ritual sacrifices, all fulfilled as prophecy in the sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 7:27; 10:12), indicate that communion with God in Christ requires the shedding of His blood for atonement. The sacrifice of the cross, that is to say, and Christ’s entrance into the holy place with His sacrificial blood are necessary required for our sharing in His Eucharistic meal.
Whereas in the Old Testament sacrifices of communion a strict distinction was made between priests and other Israelites with respect to this participation, no such distinction is made in the Eucharist of the New Testament. All Christians participate in the same Sacred Food. Through this Eucharistic meal, believers become the holy people of God. The Food itself is the means of this communion in grace. It is through this physical Food of this sacrificial meal that the Church is rendered holy.
Wednesday, June 3
John 18:19-27: The differences among the Four Gospels in their stories of the trial of Jesus are well known; nor, I think, do they warrant serious doubts about the historicity of the story. It appears that the Sanhedrin, or parts of it, questioned Jesus several times during the course of that night, and probably none of the Evangelists had access to anything resembling transcripts or a court record.
In each case, nonetheless, the story of Jesus’ trial is told in vivid detail, indicating that the four Evangelists relied on the testimony of eyewitnesses. Now this, I submit, invites—in my case, demands—an explanation. Just who were these eyewitnesses?
One of them, I strongly suspect, was the man of whom John wrote, “One of the officers who stood by struck Jesus with the palm of his hand, saying, ‘Do You answer the high priest like that?’” (18:22).
I infer this man himself to be John’s eyewitness, for one reason: Jesus actually addresses him and complains to him. This is the sole instance, in all the accounts of Passion, where Jesus does this: “If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why do you strike me?” (18:23). This instance, so extraordinary and unique, suggests that Jesus took a special interest in this “officer.” He offered to this sole individual the mercy of a question. Like Paul, in a later episode, he was asked, “Why?” This man must be our witness to the event.
Acts 5:22-32: Because of all the miraculous healings, the apostles have grown rather popular with the crowds, so the temple magistrates, when they come into the temple to arrest them again, must do so very carefully, lest the animosity of the people be aroused against the authorities (verse 26). The Sanhedrin realizes itself to be in some danger (verse 28).
Peter again acts as the apostolic spokesman, giving a three-verse defense of the Christian faith. Rejecting once more the Sanhedrin’s prohibition against their preaching, Peter summarizes yet a second time his sermon of Pentecost, stressing the guilt of the Christ-killers and the power of God in raising Him from the dead.
In verse 31 we particularly note the word “Savior,” used now by the Church for the first time with reference to Jesus.
Leviticus 8: Here begin three chapters (8-10) of stories describing especially the institution of Israel’s priesthood and the inauguration of its priestly worship. This narrative section thus describes various divine commands received by Moses in Exodus 29 and 40. Central to this whole section is the theophany in 9:23-24.
This long account proceeds in three steps, each developed in an individual chapter. Thus, chapter 8 tells of the consecration of Israel’s priests, chapter 9 describes the inauguration of the priestly worship, and chapter 10 narrates the sacrilege and death of two priests that failed in their responsibilities. This last story prompts the pronouncement of further rules to prevent the repetition of such a tragedy.
Wednesday, June 3
Chapter 8, which describes the priestly ordination of Aaron and his sons, refers to the Tabernacle (moshken–verse 10; cf. 15:31; 17:4; 26:11). This portable shrine had two parts: the outer part, which is to be identified with the “tent of meeting,” and the inner part, commonly called the “holy of holies” (Hebrews 9:2-3).
Moses was not a priest, but in this chapter we see him, as mediator of the Covenant, ordaining the priests. All priestly ordinations in the Israelite religion go back to what Moses did in this chapter.
We observe that the ordination lasted, like Creation, a whole week (verses 33,35; 12:2; 13:4,5,21,26,31,33,50,54; 14:8,38; 15:13,19,24,28). The number seven, the standard biblical number symbolizing perfection, is important to this chapter. Thus, for instance, some version of the formula “as the Lord commanded” is found here seven times (verses 4,9,13,17,21,29,36). That is to say, the rite of ordination required seven acts of obedience. In fact, this ordination rite follows exactly—to the letter—what was prescribed for ordinations in Exodus 29.
The vestments of the priesthood were sacramental, inasmuch as they not only symbolized the office and authority of the priests, but also were the means through which that office and authority were conferred. The investiture of the priests was part of the consecratory act itself (verses 7-9; Ezekiel 44:19-20).
Also essential to the ordination was the oil with which the priests, the altar, and its instruments were consecrated (verses 10-12). This oil, mixed with the sacrificial blood (verse 30), also consecrated the priestly vestments. The mixing of oil and blood is not found in the Bible except in the rite of ordination.
There seems to be a detailed symbolism in the smearing of the sacrificial blood on the right earlobes, thumbs, and big toes of the priests. These latter were to be consecrated in their obedient hearing of God’s Word, their executing of the ministries through their hands, and their walking into the holy place.
The priestly ordination is called a “fulfillment” (milu’im), evidently indicating that all the prescriptions of the ritual were carried out to perfection (and thus were “valid”). The Septuagint translated this word literally as teleiosis, “perfection” (verses 22,28,31,33; cf. 7:37; Exodus 29:22,26,27,31,34), and the normal Greek verb meaning “to ordain” as teleio, “to perfect” (verse 33; 16:32; 21:10; Exodus 29:9,29,33,35; Numbers 3:3).
It is theologically significant that this same verb is used in the Epistle to the Hebrews to designate the priesthood of Christ (2:10; 5:9; 7:28). It is also the verb used of Christians, who by baptism share in the priesthood of Christ (9:9; 10:14; cf 7:11,19). Consecrated by Jesus’ own sacrificial blood (9:13; 10:22; cf 1 Peter 1:2), they can “approach” or “draw near” to the true sanctuary of which He is the High Priest (4:16; 7:19,25; 10:1,22).
Thursday, June 4
Leviticus 9: We come now to this book’s first reference to the “eighth day” (verse 1), a symbolic time that will become a virtual theme in Leviticus (12:3;14:1023;14:14,29; 22:27; 23:36,39). Because seven days represents the work (and rest) associated with Creation, the eighth day signifies the beginning of history, the work of man that follows the work of God. It is the new day of the new week. Hence it represents renewal.
For this reason, it is the day that separates the Israelite from the rest of the human race. As all men were created during the first week, so the sons of the Covenant are created on the first day of the second week. Hence, circumcision takes place on the eighth day.
If this eighth day was so important for the Jew, how much more for the Christian! The eighth day, after all, is Sunday, and “Sunday seems to be an image of the age to come. Notice that although Sunday is the beginning of days, Moses did not call it the first day, but one day: ‘And there was evening and there was morning, one day,’ because this day would recur many times. Therefore ‘one’ and ‘eight’ are the same, and the ‘one’ day refers to itself and to the ‘eighth’ day. Even the Psalmist follows this custom in certain titles of the psalms [e.g., Psalms 6 and 12 in the LXX]. This day foreshadows the state that is to follow the present age, a day without sunset, nightfall, or succession, an age that does not grow old or come to an end” (St. Basil, On the Holy Spirit 27.66).
For this same reason, major feast days in the Christian Church often last eight days—what we call an “octave.” Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas come to mind. One likewise recalls that the traditional baptismal fonts of the Church are commonly octagonal, in accordance with the number eight associated with Baptism, the beginning of the new life (cf. 1 Peter 3:20-21).
The whole congregation “approaches” (qarab) and “takes its stand” (‘amad before God (verse 5). To “approach” or “draw nigh” suggests the intimacy of worship (cf. Hebrews 10:22), whereas “standing” indicates the respect due to the majesty of God. The latter word, for example, is used with respect to throne rooms (cf. 1 Kings 1:28). The priest always stands before God (Deuteronomy 10:8; 2 Chronicles 29:11; Hebrews 10:11).
This chapter twice refers to “the glory of the Lord” (verses 6,23), the divine radiance that prompts the respect and reverence indicated by the “standing” of verse 5. Israel has beheld this divine glory in the desert (Exodus 16:7,10), on Mount Sinai (Exodus 33:18,22), and at the consecration of the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-35), which will become the regular place of its appearance (Numbers 14:10; 16:19,42; 20:6).
Friday, June 5
John 19:1-11: In Mark, Matthew, and John the mockery of the Roman soldiers particularly addressed Jesus’ claims to kingship; he was mocked as “King of the Jews.”
In the use of this epithet, we should think of something close to “King of the Fools” in a medieval play. We should see in it the contempt those Gentiles felt toward Jews generally, contempt they were eager to pour out on this particular Jew, whose own people abandoned him. Pilate expressed this same contempt by the inscription he caused to be affixed over Jesus’ head on the cross. Suffering specifically as a Jew, Jesus became the supreme victim of anti-Semitism.
Jesus’ true claim to the Davidic kingship renders the scene of the mockery supremely ironical. The mocking soldiers do, in fact, bend their knees before the King. Their salutation of him is—as the evangelists and their readers know—theologically correct! Jesus is the same man who just days before, as he entered Jerusalem in triumph, was addressed as David’s son.
In this mockery Jesus is clothed in a scarlet or purple garment—likely a military cloak—to mimic royalty. To adorn his head, the soldiers weave a crown of thorns, which serves as both a form of torture and a point of shame.
The theological significance of this crown of thorns comes from the evangelists’ understanding of it, not the intent of the mocking soldiers. The Gospel writers knew, as do their readers in all ages, that the crown of Jesus was woven from the elements of Adam’s curse: “Both thorns and thistles [the ground] shall bring forth for you” (Genesis 3:18). Jesus, wearing that crown, bears that curse.
According to John (19:5), Jesus still wears the robe and the thorny crown when he appears before the crowd, and he wears them still as that crowd shouts, “Crucify him!” Although the robe is removed after the mockery (Matthew 27:31), no evangelist says that the crown is taken off. Christian art and hymnography commonly portray the crucified Christ as continuing to wear that crown on the cross, under the sign identifying him as “King of the Jews.”
Acts 6:1-15: This chapter introduces the chief spokesman for the Greek-speaking (“Hellenist”) Jewish Christians, Stephen. He is one of the seven men, all with Greek names, chosen for their administrative skills, in order to deal with certain practical problems in the Church related to the distribution of material resources to the widows dependent on the congregation.
The “tables” in this chapter should better be translated as desks or accounting tables, for these seven men are ecclesiastical administrators, assisting the apostles. (This will be the defining function of “deacons” for many centuries to come.)
Nonetheless, as we see in the ministries of Stephen and Philip, this work will also include considerable evangelism, and the Church immediately realizes a greater growth, including converts from the Jewish priesthood (Sadducees!).