Friday, August 7

Mark 12:38-44: We may distinguish three layers of meaning in this story: First, what did the event mean at the time it happened? Second, what did it mean in the preaching of the early Church? Third, what does it mean in the literary context of the Gospel according to Mark?

With respect to the first inquiry—What did the event mean when it happened?—we consider three subheadings: What did it mean to the woman herself? What did it mean to the passers-by? What did it mean to Jesus?

First, what did it mean to the widow? We may start with the consideration that these two small coins were her last resources. It was all she had, and the amount was divisible. She could have put in only one of those coins. Even that gift would have amounted to five times her tithe! No one would have blamed her for keeping back one of those coins.

In fact, it may have occurred to this woman that she need not have given anything. The Temple certainly did not need that gift. Moreover, the gospels tell us that rich people were putting large amounts into the Temple treasury. The woman could see this as well as Jesus did.

This woman’s gift scarcely affected the Temple’s annual budget. There would be no shortage of candles, if she failed to put in her two cents’ worth.

It may have occurred to the woman to consider that her own gift was relatively unimportant, because those who counted the collection would not miss it.

All these considerations may have been going through her mind, by way of temptation. After all, she was a widow with no one to care for her. Every penny counted, as in the parable of the woman who lost just one of her ten coins.

Moreover, we observe that Jesus did not say anything to this woman. She was left to settle the matter on her own, with only the judgment of her own conscience in the presence of God.

What did her gift mean to the passers-by? Probably nothing. Being poor, she was socially insignificant. Only Jesus sees her.

What did her gift mean to Jesus? Well, he tells us, drawing attention to the completeness of her gift and its relationship to her life. This woman would suffer because of this gift. Already poor, she thereby became poorer. Jesus saw in this woman’s deed the completeness of self-giving. It embodied the drama of Holy Week itself. This woman, like Jesus, gave “her whole life” to God.

Saturday, August 8

Mark 13:1-13: Here begins the Olivet Discourse, the longest uninterrupted dominical discourse in Mark after the Parables of the Kingdom in Chapter 4. This discourse, which is private in the sense that it was not preached to the crowds (verses 1-2), forms a bridge between the controversy stories of chapters 11–12 and the subsequent Passion narrative of chapters 14—15. Thus, it is framed in the drama of the Lord’s last days.

Consequently, the Lord’s teaching on the fall of Jerusalem and the coming destruction of the Temple is conveyed in the immediate context of His own suffering and death. Jesus intimately joins these two things together.

It is useful to recall that, if the traditional dating of Mark (A.D.65-66) is correct, Jerusalem had not yet fallen when these words were written down for the Church at Rome.

This chapter contains more than a prediction, however. It is especially an exhortation to the Church, an instruction on how believers are to behave in the terrible trials to come. Mark evidently regards the sufferings of the Church following the Neronic persecution (A.D. 64-68) as a preamble to the end of the ancient life of Israel. This is why there are so many verses in this section that point most readily to the end of the world. What Mark and his Christians were witnessing was certainly the end of the world as they knew it. The Olivet Discourse begins, then, with the foreseen destruction of Jerusalem (verse 2).

2 Peter 2:12-22: Of the two Old Testament accounts given of Balaam (Numbers 22-24 [cf. Joshua 24:9-10; Micah 6:5; Deuteronomy 23:3-6] and Numbers 31), only the second portrays him in a bad light, as responsible for tempting the Israelites into lust and apostasy in their encounter with the Midianites. For this sin he is killed in Israel’s war with Midian (cf. Numbers 31:8; Joshua 13:22).

Peter’s negative comments on Balaam in the present text are similar to those found in rabbinical sources and in the Jewish philosopher Philo. His foul counsel to the Midianites, whereby young Israelite men were brought to their spiritual peril, was taken by early Christian writers as symbolic of the deceptions of false teachers. One finds this perspective expressed, not only here in Peter, but also in Jude 11 and Revelation 2:14. Balaam is the very image of the deceitful teacher, and hardly any other group is criticized more often or more severely in Holy Scripture than the false teacher. One finds this condemnation in Peter, Jude, James, Paul, and John.

In the present chapter the false teachers are singled out for deceiving the newly converted (verses 2,14,20-22), an especially vulnerable group of believers, who are not yet mature in solid doctrine. These latter, in the very fervor of their conversion, are often seduced by unreliable teachers who prey on their inexperience. In the mouths of false teachers, little distinction is made between liberty and libertinism (verse 19; 1 Peter 2:16; Romans 6:16; John 8:34), and they use the enthusiasm of the newcomer to change conversion to subversion.

Sunday, August 9

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

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

The prophet Daniel had referred to that desecration as the “abomination of desolation” (Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11; also 1 Maccabees 1:54). The Temple itself was stripped of its adornments; other pagan altars were erected, and unclean animals were sacrificed upon them (Josephus, Antiquities 12.54). This had been a time of great persecution of the righteous Jews by the unrighteous, not only by pagans but by fellow Jews. All of this, and worse, says Jesus, will fall on the Holy City very shortly. This prophecy was directed to the Jewish Civil War against the Romans, which would climax in the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 (cf. Josephus, The Jewish Wars 5.10).

Jesus also alluded to that Maccabean persecution when He warned, “And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath” (verse 20). During the Maccabean persecution, many Jews were slaughtered on the Sabbath, a day on which they were reluctant to fight back (1 Maccabees 2:29-41). In addition, a flight on the Sabbath day, if one kept the Sabbath day strictly, would not go very far. It would hardly be a flight at all.

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

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 being 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.

Monday, August 10

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

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

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

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

2 Peter 3:10-18: Since only God knows the length of the eleventh hour, the Lord’s return will confound all human calculations of its timing. The simile of the thief in the night, for instance, must not be taken literally, because it is never nighttime everywhere at the same time, and the Bible contains no hint that the Lord will return to the earth by following the sequence of its appointed time zones!

This comparison with the thief’s nocturnal entrance was doubtless common among the early Christians (Matthew 24:43; Luke 12:39; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; Revelation 3:3; 16:5). It will all happen with a “rush,” this onomatopoeia corresponding to the Greek verb rhoizedon in verse 10. Watchfulness, therefore, and a holy life are the proper responses to our true situation in this world (verse 11; Matthew 24:42-51; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11). Both heaven and earth will be renewed (verse 13; Isaiah 65:17; 66:22; Revelation 21:1; cf. Romans 8:19-22).

The expression “without spot and without blame” in verse 14 (aspiloi kai amometoi) contains the negative forms of the adjectives describing the false teachers in 2: 13 (spiloi kai momoi). Peter’s reference to Paul indicates his familiarity with more than one Pauline epistle and probably suggests that Paul’s letters were already being gathered into collections and copied. Peter likewise testifies to the difficulties attendant on the understanding of Paul’s message. Christian history bears a similar witness, alas, in the modern divisions that have arisen among Christians over their differing interpretations of Paul. Paul himself was aware, even then, that some Christians were distorting his thought (Romans 3:8).

Tuesday, August 11

Mark 14:1-11: Mark continues the narrative on Wednesday of Holy Week, traditionally known as “Spy Wednesday” in the Christian calendar to remember that this was the day that Jesus was sold and His enemies were trying to “spy Him out,” looking for an occasion to murder Him.

There are three scenes in this section: (1) the conspiracy of Jesus’ enemies (verses 1-2); (2) the anointing of Jesus in the home of Simon of Bethany (verses 3-9); (3) the betrayal of Judas (verses 10-11).

The first scene is brief. The Passover, in context, includes both the Passover itself and the festival of the Unleavened Bread that follows it. Jesus’ enemies, aware that the city was full of pilgrims from all over the world, hoped to be able to seize Him by stealth at a time when everyone in the city would be preoccupied with the Passover and its preparations. They believed that they might at last realize the plot that they had long been planning (cf. 3:6;11:18; 12:12).

In the longer second scene we are presented with a contrast in the figure of the anonymous woman that anoints Jesus “for burial.” Even in the midst of this outpouring of love, it is clear that not everyone present in Bethany that day took a very high view of Jesus. There are complaints (and they seem to come from more disciples than simply Judas) that the Lord is being too well treated! Mark and all his readers appreciate the irony of this disrespect, for the Lord is about to pour out His blood for their redemption, while they are squabbling about the price of the woman’s ointment.

In response to what happens in the second scene, Judas Iscariot appears by name in the third scene as the Lord’s betrayer. His cooperation is necessary to the plot, because Jesus might be hard to locate in the city when so many pilgrims thronged its streets and buildings.

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 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 and the daughters of Philip the deacon.

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).

Wednesday, August 12

Mark 14:12-21: We come now to Holy Thursday and the evening of the Last Supper. The traditions behind the four gospels attach several stories to the narrative of the Last Supper. These include the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, a saying of Jesus relative to His coming betrayal, a prophecy of Peter’s threefold denial, various exhortations and admonitions by Jesus, and a description of the institution of the Holy Eucharist.

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).

Thursday, August 13

Mark 14:22-31: Saint Paul wrote the earliest extant reference to the Church’s discipline of maintaining the Lord’s Supper. He places the institution of that ritual meal in the context of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas Iscariot: “I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the night in which He was betrayed took bread . . .” This text provides clear evidence that the traditional narrative contained in the Eucharistic prayer, as it was already known to Paul when he founded the Corinthian church about A.D. 50, made mention of Judas’s betrayal. The Gospel accounts of the Lord’s Supper, including this text in Mark, follow suit.

The Church’s testimony on this point is remarkable. It is as though some deep impulse discourages Christians from celebrating the Holy Communion without some reference to the betrayal by Judas. This reference serves to remind Christians of the terrible judgment that surrounds the Mystery of the Altar:

Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).

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].

Friday, August 14

Acts 21:37—22:29: To apprehend Paul and put a stop to the riot, the soldiers had descended a long flight of stairs that leads up to the entrance of the Fortress Antonia. Now practically carrying their prisoner, they ascend those stairs, which will effectively give Paul an elevation from which to address the crowd. Perhaps the commander of the fortress had received a bulletin to be on the lookout for a famous Jewish revolutionary from Egypt (described in considerable detail by Josephus, incidentally). In any case, he mistakes his new prisoner for that individual and is surprised when Paul speaks to him in Greek. Thus taken by surprise, he grants Paul’s request to address the mob.

Speaking to them in Aramaic, Paul is deferential in tone (“Men, brothers and fathers”) and patient in the development of his theme, which consists essentially in another narrative of his conversion. The story is told as a form of personal apologetics (apologia in verse 1). Paul insists, “I am a Jew” (verse 2). He tells of his education in Jerusalem under the tutelage of Rabbi Gamaliel, his adherence to the strictness (akribeia ) of the Torah, his zeal (literally “God’s zealot” — Theou zelotes), which zeal he compares with their own (verse 3; Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:6). Paul too once opposed the new “way” (hodos), he tells them, as zealously as they are doing today. All this, however, changed dramatically, as he rode to Damascus.

Essentially identical with the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9, the account given here does provide some details not mentioned in that earlier version. We now learn, for instance, that Paul’s conversion took place at the noon hour (verse 6), which we know was a prescribed time of prayer for Jews. Thus, we ascertain that Paul’s conversion took place while was stopped along the road, turned facing Jerusalem (cf. 1 Kings 8:48; Daniel 6:10), and reciting the Tefillah, or Eighteen Benedictions. He was suddenly surrounded by an overwhelming light, flung to the ground, and dramatically addressed by name by the accusing Lord.

By noting the specific hour of Paul’s experience, this version of the story relates it to the ecstatic vision of the apostle Peter, who was also praying at noon, in Acts 10. In each case the praying apostle is called by name (10:13; 11:7; 22:7) and answers the “Lord” (Kyrie in 10:14; 11:8; 22:8) in a brief dialogue. Each man is given a command (10:13; 11:7; 22:10). In each case the context is related to the calling of the Gentiles. In the instance of Peter, the experience leads directly to the baptism of Cornelius and his companions (11:9-14). In the present instance, this point is made by describing a second experience of Paul, this one in the temple at Jerusalem after his return to that city three years later (cf. Galatians 1:18). This second experience is called an ecstasy (en ekstasei in 22:17), the same word earlier used to describe Peter’s experience (10:10; 11:5).

The ecstatic experience of Paul, which also occurs in the context of prayer (22:17), takes place in the temple. This latter detail seems most significant within the general framework of Luke’s symbolic topography. His Gospel narrative both begins and ends in the temple (Luke 1:9; 24:53), and now it is in the temple, the very center of the Jewish faith and hope, that God commissions the Apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 11:13) to take the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21; 9:15). This mention of the Gentiles, the goyim, to the crowd of already angry Jews is what brings Paul’s brief speech to a swift conclusion.