Friday, February 5

Matthew 10:1-15: Before sending out His missionaries in Matthew 11:1, Jesus gives a lengthy discourse on the structure and dynamics of mission; this is the second great sermon of the Gospel of Matthew. This initial mission, unlike the Great Commission at the end of Matthew, is directed only “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The disciples are endowed with exsousia, “authority” (10:1), which we have seen to be a characteristic of Jesus’ own ministry in deed and word. Sometimes the shaking-off of dust from the feet has been taken very literally by Christian preachers; cf. Acts 13:51.

Among many curious features of this list of the twelve apostles, it is instructive to note that the list includes someone who worked for the Roman government (Matthew) and someone sworn to its overthrow (Simon the Canaanite; cf. Luke 6:15). Much of this chapter will be concerned with the resistance that the world will offer to the proclamation of the Gospel. This message has been prepared by Chapter 8—9, where Jesus’ own ministry was constantly resisted by those who felt it to be a threat.

Hebrews 12:1-11: Jesus knew where He was going when He began Holy Week and the Way of the Cross, and that vision of the final glory is what permitted Him to step onto that dolorous path—“for the joy that was set before Him.” He took up the cross, not for the sake of temporary suffering, but because of the final joy. Hebrews speaks of this truth elsewhere too: “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone” (2:9).

Similarly, when Christians are called upon to endure, they are not called on to so for the sake of endurance, but for the sake of the future glory, “we may be partakers of His holiness.” We look to Jesus as our model: “though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered” (5:8).

This is why today’s text turns our attention to Jesus—aphorontes eis ton Iesoun, translated variously as “looking unto Jesus” (KJ, RSV), “our eyes fixed on Jesus” (Phillips, NIV, NEB, NAB), and “let us not lose sight of Jesus” (JB). If one is going to live as a Christian, this is where he keeps his gaze. Jesus is the joy set before us. He is the author and perfecter of our faith.

Saturday, February 6

Hebrews 12:12-29: Today’s reading describes the Christian’s experience of worship. To pray as a Christian is to take one’s place in a worship that is already going on. Strictly speaking, the worship does not begin when we begin the worship. The worship is already in progress. It has been going on since the dawn of time, “when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” To worship as a Christian is to step into a worship that is of heaven, with angels and archangels and the spirits of just men made perfect.

To pray as a Christian is to come to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. To be a Christian is to have citizenship in a city of prayer, a city whose very existence consists in the worship of God. It has no temple, that city, “for the Lord God almighty and the Lamb are the temple thereof.”

To worship as a Christian is to “come to the myriads of angels in festive assembly,” along with the Four Living Creatures, and four and twenty elders who encircle the throne, singing with loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb!”

Worshipping in this heavenly assembly is not one of the things that Christians do. Such worship is the thing that Christians do. It is the most essential act of Christian existence.

The Lamb joins us to Himself. Our knees are bent “in the name of Jesus.” To adore as a Christian is to adore God in Jesus: “For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

To pray as a Christian is to be in living communion with all believers who have gone before us; indeed, our prayer discerns that they have never really left us. They are in worship before the throne of God, and when we pray, we pray with them. These are the church of the firstborn whose names are written in heaven; these are the spirits of the righteous made perfect. Such prayer is the communion of the saints.

To worship as Christians is to join in at the deepest level of created being, which is the eternal praise of God. This is the bedrock depth of existence. Heaven and earth will pass away. The praise of God will never pass away. The deepest word of the Christian vocabulary is Alleluia, “Praise the Lord.”

The proper sentiment for the worship of God is not “When will this be over?” but rather “Take away this veil, that we may worship Thee forever. The appropriate mindset for Christian worship is “Oh, send forth Thy light and Thy truth, and let them lead me; let them bring me unto Thy holy hill and to Thy tabernacle; that I may go unto the altar of God, unto God my exceeding joy; and upon the harp will I praise Thee, O God, my God.”

Sunday, February 7

Matthew 10:27-31: This section continues to portray the resistance with which the proclamation of the Gospel will be met. In His exhortation to confidence in the face of such adversity, the Lord takes up an image from the Sermon on the Mount, God’s care of the birds (verses 29-31). Will He not be even more solicitous on our behalf, if He displays such regard toward the tiny sparrows? (Cf. 6:26)

Psalm 115 (Greek & Latin 113b): One way of approaching this psalm is through the consideration of space. It speaks of heaven, earth, and the nether world, and all of these references are related to the question, posed in an early verse, about where God is to be located: “So where is their God?”

This question, posed by the unbelievers as a mockery (“Why should the Gentiles say, ‘Where is their God?’”), is answered by the psalmist: “But our God is in heaven.” The affirmation here is not merely spatial, so to speak, for he goes on immediately to draw an inference that becomes a theme of the psalm: God “does whatever He pleases.” The verb, to “do” or “make” (‘asah in Hebrew), used repeatedly in the Creation account in Genesis 1, may be regarded as a key to the psalm’s meaning. This psalm is about a God who does things.

Nothing more is said about space until a dozen verses later, when the psalmist speaks of “the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” The word “made” here is ‘oseh, the active participle of the same verb as before; it could be translated even as a substantive—God is a doer. The Lord does things.

Here, then, is heaven once more, not simply a spatial reference but a symbol of God’s omnipotence. Just as, earlier, “heaven” had to do with God’s activity (“He does whatever He pleases”), so now the reference to God’s activity leads back immediately to the thought of heaven: “The heaven, even the heavens, are the Lord’s.”

In contrast to heaven there is the earth, which “He has given to the children of men.” God is in heaven; He is omnipotent. Men dwell on earth; they are not omnipotent.

Indeed, they will die and “go down into silence,” and this brings us to the psalm’s final reference to space—the nether world, where the “dead do not praise the Lord.” The “sons of men” are, in themselves, but creatures of a day. They are unlike God, for there are very strict limits to what they can do. And that was exactly the note on which our psalm began: “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to Your name give glory.”

In contrast to God, what can men, on their own, do? They can make idols. In fact, left to themselves, making idols is exactly what they will do. These idols he calls “the work of men’s hands,” the noun “work” translating here ma‘aseh, a Hebrew passive participle of the same verb we have been examining all along. That is to say, idolatry is the only thing that the children of men, left to their own devices, can do. Once again, then, we continue the theme of man’s utter weakness contrasted with God’s omnipotent activity: “Not unto us, but to Your name give glory.”

Monday, February 8

Hebrews 13:10-25: The author of Hebrews knew in some detail the events in the life of Jesus. He refers to Jesus’ birth (including the visitation of the angels—1:6), His sufferings and death, His resurrection. He even describes the agony in the garden. This author appears to know more about the events of Jesus’ life in particulars that are not found in any other New Testament epistle. Indeed, the very name “Jesus” is found here more than in any other epistle in the New Testament.

This familiarity renders it unsurprising, therefore, that our author was familiar with the fact that Jesus died outside the walls of Jerusalem: “For the bodies of those animals, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate.”

It is noteworthy that this detail is found in a work associated with Italy (cf. 13:25), because it is also found in a Gospel composed in Italy: exagousin avton–They led Him out to crucify Him” (Mark 15:20).

There was nothing abnormal about that detail. It was usual for executions to take place outside of city limits (Leviticus 24:14; Numbers 15:35-36; 1 Kings 21:13; Acts 7:58).

This detail also influenced the way that Matthew and Luke preserved the parable of the wicked vineyard tenants. Unlike Mark, both of these evangelists say that the Son was murdered outside the vineyard.

Jesus in His Passion, then, was supremely the “Outsider.” Jesus is not of this world, and the Gospels are insistent on this point. No other human being in history has spoken of himself as “coming” into this world from somewhere else: “the Son of Man came, not to be served, but to serve”—“I have come that they may have life”—and so on. A dominant feature of the consciousness of Jesus is the awareness of having come from elsewhere.

And so in the manner of His death. He died as an outsider, and in this detail the author of Hebrews perceives a call to Christian, a summons to go forth and become outsiders with Jesus: “Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.”

Tuesday, February 9

Romans 1:1-17: Paul’s eloquent introduction (verses 1-7) is easily the longest, most elaborate, and most detailed in all his writings. This feature reflects the fact that Romans, unlike Paul’s earlier letters to Thessaloniki, Galatia, Philippi, and Corinth, was not composed for the purpose of addressing questions and problems of the congregation to which it was sent. Although Paul evidently had several friends in Rome (as we see in the greetings sent to many individuals in chapter 16), this epistle does not show the Apostle familiar with the specific situation of the church in that city nor intent on dealing with particular problems there.

The Epistle to the Romans is, rather, a sort of theological treatise on a theme that had been thrust toward the center of Paul’s interest and concern during the previous six or so years, ever since the Galatian crisis during the early fifties—namely, justification through faith, apart from the observance of the Mosaic Law. Paul’s concentration on this theme in no way indicates that the Church at Rome was subject to the same or a similar crisis.

Paul’s name is the only one that appears as an author of this epistle, even though he actually dictated it to Tertius (16:22). We may contrast this feature with Paul’s earlier inclusion of Timothy, Silvanus, and Sosthenes as joint “authors” (1 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Philippians 1:1, 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1) and his later inclusion of Timothy in the letter to the Colossians (1:1).

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 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).

The Gospel reveals God’s reconciliation of man to Himself (verse 17), a reconciliation without which man is the object of the divine wrath (verses 18 and following). The righteousness of God (3:5,21,22,25,26; 10:3) is the divine quality and act by which He renders men righteous. This is what the Gospel reveals.

The expression “from faith to faith” seems to mean “through faith and for the sake of faith.” That is to say, salvation pertains to faith, from beginning to end. This is how the justified man lives.

Wednesday, February 10

Matthew 6:1-18: The first word, a plural imperative, is a summons to caution: “Take care,” prosechete. The Christian moral life has this in common with any serious moral system—namely, that an intense, reflective custody of the soul is necessary. In the present instance this custody has chiefly to do with the purity of one’s intentions. The entire moral life can be radically undermined by wrong intentions. Purification of intentions requires a most serious vigilance over the mind and will.

Jesus, having told us in a series of five contrasts, that our righteousness must excel that of the scribes and Pharisees, now insists that this righteousness (dikaiosyne) must not be “done” (poiein) for the benefit of human approval. Were this later to be the case, that human approval must suffice as its reward.

In this insistence we find complement to the preceding chapter. In the five contrasts just noted, attention was given to righteousness with respect to our dealings with our neighbors (control of the temper and the sexual impulse, complete honesty, non-resistance to aggression, and the love of enemies). Now the direction of righteousness is turned to God, our Father in heaven (verse 1).

This verse introduces the three subjects treated in this chapter, the great triad of traditional Jewish piety: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Because our Lord Himself authoritatively juxtaposes these three components here in Matthew, it is normal to think of them together as constituting a kind of ascetical standard. In truth, for a very long time Christians (for example, Hermas and Leo I of Rome, John Chrysostom, Maximus the Confessor) have habitually spoken of the three together as sort of a paradigm or outline of biblical ascetical life. In pre-Christian biblical literature, however, that specific triad of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is found in only one place: Tobit 12:8. It is through Matthew that this triad passed into Christian piety.

Even as Jesus treats of these three practices of piety, however, He continues the spirit of the five contrasts that He elaborated in the previous chapter. Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, He says, are all to be undertaken in a spirit that is contrasted with that of the hypocrites (verses 2,5,16). By now it is clear that this word refers to those same scribes Pharisees; it is shorthand for the Jewish leadership that set itself against Jesus and the Gospel. Matthew’s references to them in these early chapters show a rising hostility on their side, as well as Jesus’ disposition to take them to task. This latter disposition will reach its climax in chapter 23, which several times will condemn the “scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”

In the present text, these hypocrites are accused of failing to “take care” not to practice their righteousness to gain human approval. Theirs is not a true righteousness.

The first deed of righteousness named by Jesus is almsgiving (verses 2-4), which comes closest to the concerns of social behavior enunciated in the preceding five contrasts. The social nature of almsgiving makes it the easiest thing to do for human approval. However, those who abuse almsgiving by a bad intention are simply using the poor to their own advantage. Very well, says Jesus, they must be satisfied with that advantage (verse 2).

According to Gospel righteousness, on the other hand, the value of almsgiving must be preserved in secrecy. If the deed is disclosed to others, it loses its value before God (verse 3). The deed must not be spoiled by its motive.

Thursday, February 11

Romans 1:18-32: : In order to assess the “power” (dynamisI) 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 gnostonI), 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 certain of His predicates (verse 20; Acts 14:15-17). Such factual knowledge about God is ineluctable 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 [105]:20; Deuteronomy 4:16-18). These are gods of their own making, to whom, they are aware, they will never have to render an account

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 a 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).

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. The homosexual vice, however, by refusing to do so, is particularly vile. It is the very embodying of a lie.

Besides sexual turpitude, idolatry leads to all sorts of their sins (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), the Apostle 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 single 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.

Friday, February 12

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 [61]: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. (This is also the reason why, as we have seen, sentences about “salvation” normally appear in this epistle in the future tense. The fullness of salvation comes in the resurrection of our bodies.)

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.