Friday, March 4

Matthew 16:1-12: The recent reference to “the children’s bread” is followed now by the apostles’ failure to bring enough bread when they embark on a trip across the lake. They think Jesus must be referring to this failure, when He tells them to be cautious about “the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Matthew’s version of this warning is distinguished by its reference to the the Sadducees,” who are mentioned four times within these verses (vv. 1,6,11, 12). Matthew’s text here reflects certain concerns that arose in Judaism (and consequently among Jewish Christians) after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Foremost among the Jewish groups who lost credibility in the aftermath of that event was the party of the Sadducees.

This group, it was generally believed, had been excessively compliant with the Roman powers for over a century, too compromising, too little disposed to speak up for the people as the Pharisees had done. Consequently, after the year 70 the Sadducees came into bad odor among rank-and-file Jews.

Moreover, this party was bound to lose power, because their power had been concentrated in the temple priesthood, which was put out of business by the destruction of the temple. In Matthew we observe (three times in these verses, and elsewhere in 3:7; 22:34) explicit criticisms of the Sadducees not found in the other gospels. Mark (12:18) and Luke (20:27) mention the Sadducees only once each.

The present discourse summarizes the two occasions when Jesus multiplied the loaves. It also contains some criticism of the apostles, who are described as “of little faith” (verse 8), in spite of having witnessed two miraculous provisions of bread (verses 9-10). These disciples of the Lord do not yet “understand” (verse 8) the implications of those miracles in the wilderness. The Lord’s reproach brings them to some level of understanding (verse 12). At least in some measure, the sown seed is beginning to fall on good ground.

Saturday, March 5

Romans 10:14-21: Israel, says Paul, is without excuse. It was to Israel that the Gospel was first addressed, but they did not believe.

This assessment refers, not only to the preaching of Jesus and the first apostles, but also to Paul’s own experience. As the Acts of the Apostles describes it, Paul’s custom, on first arriving at any new city, was to take the Gospel first to the local synagogue (Acts 13:5,14; 14:1; 17:1-2,10,17; 18:4,19,26; 19:8). In a majority of the recorded instances, however, the message was rejected by most of the Jews who heard it.

By and large, Paul discovered, his more receptive audiences tended to be made up of Gentile seekers who had attached themselves, in varying degrees, to the synagogue. These, together with small remnants of Jews in each city, became the first members of the Christian Churches of Cyprus, Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, and so on.

The proclamation of the Gospel is the ministry of preaching, and this involves the authority of the preacher who is “sent” (verses 14-15; Acts 13:1-4). This “sending” has to do with “apostolicity,” a word derived from the Greek verb, apostello, “to send.” The sending forth to preach is the commission of the Church, a commission the Apostles received from Christ (Matthew 10:5-15; 28:16-20; John 20:21).

The transmission of this authority through the appointed successors is known to Christian history as the “apostolic succession,” which means “the succession of those who have been sent.” It is the succession itself that transmits that authority, the singular identity of the apostolic ministry from one age to the next. The authoritative proclamation of the Gospel is derived from that historical succession, which is an essential component of the Church. All legitimate mission, therefore, is rooted in a proper historical succession. The Gospel authority is transmitted through the Spirit-guided handing-on of the being of the Church.

Paul indicates the social and ecclesiastical nature of faith by insisting that “faith comes by hearing” (verse 17). Even Paul himself, to whom Jesus had spoken directly, was obliged to go to the Church in order to submit himself to her authority and be instructed by Her Tradition: “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (Acts 9:6).

What the Church preaches is “the word of Christ” This expression seems to have a twofold meaning: First, it signifies the word received from Jesus through the Tradition preached in the Church (and in due course transmitted into Holy Scripture in the form of Gospels and Epistles).

Second, it means that word of which Christ is the very content. These two meanings appear to be but aspects of one reality.

Small wonder, says Paul, if many of the Jews rejected Christ; they had already rejected Isaiah (verse 16). Indeed, they had already rejected Moses (verse 19; John 5:46).

In verse 18 Paul saying that the Gospel is as cosmic as the cosmos. He sees in God’s revelation in nature a foreshadowing of His revelation in the Gospel, for the universality of God’s witness in the works of Creation is to be matched in the universal character of the Gospel’s proclamation.

The citation from Deuteronomy in verse 19 introduces the motif that will dominate the end of the next chapter: Israel’s providential “jealousy.”

Sunday, March 6

Matthew 17:9-13: Matthew omits a verse from Mark (9:10: “So they kept this word to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant”), a line indicating ignorance on the part of the disciples. As we have observed, Matthew tends to leave out such indications, because he regards correct understanding as part of discipleship itself.

Since, as it appears, Matthew is reliant on Mark for much of his material, and since Mark often portrays the disciples speaking in ignorance, Matthew is often obliged to adjust the narratives in order to make the point he wants. We may note this development by contrasting Mark 4 with Matthew 13. Thus, Mark 4:10 (“But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable”) becomes Matthew 13:10 (“Why do You speak to them in parables?”). That is to say, the disciples in Matthew do not ask Jesus to explain the parable. Then, Mark’s line “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” (4:13) is completely omitted in Matthew.

These differences carry over to the explanation of the parable. In Mark 10:15 we read “When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts,” whereas in Matthew’s version (13:19) we read, “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart.”

Similarly, Mark 10:20 says simply, “these are the ones sown on good ground, those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit,” while the parallel text in Matthew (13:23) says, “he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces.”

Finally, only Matthew, not Mark, finishes the chapter on the parables of the Kingdom with the following question and answer: “Jesus said to them, ‘Have you understood all these things?’ They said to Him, “Yes, Lord” (13:51).

Psalms 67 (Greek & Latin 66): The reference to the drying up of the waters in this psalm suggests that its original context was the celebration of the Passover and Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt, themes manifestly understood in the New Testament as types of the new Christian Pascha: “He turns the sea into dry land; through the river they will walk on foot.”

There is further reason for believing that Christian tradition has ever understood this psalm as referring to the mystery of Pascha. Most Greek biblical manuscripts of it add a single word supplementing the inscription. To the psalm’s Hebrew title, which reads simply “To the choirmaster—a song—a psalm,” the majority of Greek manuscripts adjoin the word anastaseos, “of the resurrection,” a reading that is followed in the Latin tradition as well. Thus, according to the general Christian manuscript tradition of Psalm 65, it is “a psalm of the resurrection.”

Monday, March 7

Matthew 17:14-21: If we compare Matthew’s account with that of Mark, we easily see that the latter is longer and much more colorful and dramatic. Matthew’s version is not only shorter; it is greatly simplified. Although the father tells of the boy’s violent behavior, in Matthew this behavior does not take place in Jesus’ presence. In Matthew this is a scene of worship, as we have observed, and the tone is one of serenity, prayer, and divine grace.

We may look at some other features of Matthew’s version of this event.

First, when the man approaches Jesus (verse 14), he kneels down—gonypeton, literally “bending the knee”—before Jesus. That is to say, he assumes before Jesus the posture of prayer (contrast Mark 9:14-17). Like Solomon at the dedication of the Temple, he kneels before Jesus in prayer. This is the second time in two consecutive scenes in Matthew where kneeling is the proper posture in the presence of Jesus. In Matthew, then, the scene is one of worship and prayerful petition. And what does the man say to Jesus when he kneels down? Kyrie, eleison! — “Lord, have mercy!”

This kneeling down, or prostration, in prayer is not simply a generic act of worship. It is specified by its Christological reference. Indeed, in the former scene, the Transfiguration, the disciples fall into this posture when they hear the voice of the Father identifying Jesus as His Son. Their posture is a theophanic response (cf. Revelation 1:16-17). Here in Matthew (verse 15) the man bends the knee Avton–“towards Him.”

Second, in kneeling down he addresses Jesus as “Lord”–Kyrios. We should contrast this with Mark’s account, which addresses Jesus here as “Teacher”–Didaskalos. Matthew, that is to say, uses the full confessional word of the Christian faith (cf. Philippians 2:11; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 12:3).

Third, the father remarks that Jesus’ disciples were unable to effect a cure–therapevsai, and when Jesus does drive out the demon, Matthew says that the boy was “cured”–etherapevthe.

Tuesday, March 8

Romans 11:22-36: It has long been common to distinguish between God’s mercy and His justice, the former the source of salvation, and the latter the basis for punishment. This distinction, however, is overly simple, and consequently misleading.

In Holy Scripture the justice of God—His righteousness, dikaiosyne—is also the fount of salvation. It is not that Christ, by His passion and death, reconciled us to God’s justice. God’s justice, His righteousness, is the very cause of our redemption. He redeemed us in His righteousness. He redeemed us, furthermore, in order to manifest His righteousness by showing mercy.

The righteousness of God is not an abstract quality in God that obliges man to measure up. The righteousness of God is, rather, that activity of God that causes man to measure up. In dying on the cross, Jesus did not address Himself to God’s righteousness. On the contrary, He Himself expressed God’s righteousness. He was the expression, the very embodiment, of God’s righteousness.

Nonetheless, that popular distinction between God’s mercy and His justice, even though inadequate and misleading, seems to be an attempt to express a real difference, and that difference appears to be what Paul has in mind by distinguishing between God’s kindness and His severity (verse 22).

The continuance of God’s kindness, though unmerited and freely bestowed, does depend on human perseverance. “Otherwise you also will be cut off,” writes St. Paul. This apostle knows nothing about a level of grace that precludes the possibility of the believer’s defection. Even as he holds the winning hand, foolish man may still choose to discard. God’s grace never removes the freedom of man’s choice.

But just as it is possible for a believer to fall, it is also possible for an unbeliever to rise. The defection of the Jews, therefore, is not necessarily final (verse 23). Their return to the ancient tree would seem especially fitting (verse 24). Indeed, this is what God has in mind (verse 25). It is the “mystery” (mysterion) of His plan for the Jews, when history has run the proper measure of its course.

The “all Israel” that will be saved appears to refer to the fullness of the Church, drawn from both Jews and Gentiles. This return to the Gospel, Paul believed, was prophesied by Isaiah (verses 26-27).

Wednesday, March 9

Romans 12:1-8: Here begins the “therefore” (verse 1) section of Romans, in which Paul enunciates the practical moral and ascetical inferences to be drawn from the dogmatic premises elaborated in the first eleven chapters (compare Ephesians 4:1; Philippians 2:1, and so forth).

Although the believer has been delivered from the works of the Mosaic Law—”the curse of the Law”—he has by no means been freed from the works of the Gospel. As the Sermon on the Mount repeatedly asserts, the works of the Gospel are far more demanding than the works of the Law (cf. Matthew 5:17-22,27-28,33-34,38-39,43-44, and so on). At baptism the believer assumes responsibility, and if he refuses to take that responsibility seriously he runs the risk of defection from the faith and being cut off from Christ (11:20-22).

Listed first here, among the components of this responsibility, is the duty of cultivating bodily holiness, because the body itself is the bearer of the Holy Spirit, who will in due course raise it from the dead (8:11). Paul is reviewing here the plea that he made for bodily holiness in 6:12-13,19-20. This ascetical effort he now describes in the imagery of sacrifice (cf. Philippians 4:18; 1 Peter 2:5).

This moral and ascetical effort, because it stands directly at variance with the standards, interests, and aspirations of the world, will also require an adversarial attitude toward the world. To the world the Christian must not “conform” (verse 2). The Greek word indicating worldly conformity here is syschematizesthe, in which the attentive reader will discern the root word, schema. The world, that is to say, tends to “schematize” human beings by imposing an outward pattern on them. (A few verses later Paul will contrast the world’s outward uniformity with the great diversity among Christians.)

The believer, however, is not to adopt the “schemes” of the world. He is not to “conform” but to be “transformed,” metamorphousthe, this verb indicating an inner change (meta) of form (morphe). Outward conformity is replaced by inner renewal.

This transformation comes from what Paul calls a “newness of mind,” implying a radical alteration of both the content and the processes of thought. The thought-life of the Christian mind (nous), precisely because it is “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16) will bear less and less resemblance to the ideas of the world, as the believer is transformed by the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Unlike the thinking of the world, Christian thinking will be humble, sober, and self-effacing (verse 3). In this respect each believer is to measure himself by the standard that he has received in the Christian faith, “the measuring rod of faith” (metron pisteos). This standard will permit not man to entertain too high a view of himself (Philippians 2:5-10).

Thursday, March 10

Romans 12:9-21: With respect to the works of the Gospel, these verses provide a lively list. Among the duties and disciplines enumerated here, we observe that most have to do with the mutual relations among Christians (verses 9-10,13,16), though certain of these particulars also look to relationships outside the communion of the Church (verses 14,17-21).
Christian love is genuine—literally “un-hypocritical,” anypokritos (verse 9); it goes beyond the civility and politeness required in a decent society.

Christian love is morally discerning, however, not confusing evil and good. Indeed, it is striking to find, amidst these sundry admonitions to love, a clear injunction to hate: “Abhor what is evil.” Those things in society that are abhorrent should be regarded with abhorrence, not tolerance, and this too is a duty of Christian love.

The love to be cultivated is not only the spiritual love called agape, but includes also those more common qualities of philadelphia (fraternal love), philostorge (affection), timé (esteem), and philoxenia (hospitality) (verses 10,13).

Such things are impossible except by the personal cultivation of patience, hope, and prayer (verse 12). This prayer will embrace one’s enemies (verse 14; Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27-28) and require the forgiveness of wrongs (verse 17; Matthew 6:12-15). Paul tells these Romans not to hold grudges against persecutors. In view of the terrible persecution of Christians that will break out in Rome during the next decade, this was uncommonly timely counsel.

Paul’s wording of the quotation from Deuteronomy 32:35 in verse 19 differs from that found in both the Septuagint and the extant Hebrew text, but it is identical with the quotation in Hebrews 10:30. Was there another version of this passage common among the early Christians? The meaning, in any case, is clear enough. Christians are to leave to God all revenge and settling of scores. They are always to pursue good, never evil. Evil is the Christian’s only true enemy (verse 21).

Friday, March 11

Romans 13:1-14: Beginning with the believer’s relationship to other believers, and going on with respect to those outside the community of faith, Paul now addresses the Christian’s relationship to the political order (verses 1-7),

One is impressed by Paul’s attitude of respect, deference, and obedience toward the civil authority, not simply because that authority carries the power to exact such an attitude, but also because such an attitude is required by conscience (verse 5). To respect and obey the State, in Paul’s view, is demanded by God’s own ordinance, because ultimately the State holds its authority from God. (Contrast this view with that of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.) The State is “God’s minister” (verse 4).

Generally speaking, then—and proper exception being made for laws that violate the moral order—the dictates and decisions of government are binding in conscience. They are not simply penal laws. That is to say, in those instances where the State does not contravene God’s own law, the State speaks for God and is a valid channel for the discovery of God’s will.

Lest we be too quick to imagine that Paul is thinking of the State in very idealistic terms, we may bear in mind that the emperor at that time was Nero, and the State of Paul’s reference was the Roman Empire. This empire had earlier expelled the Jews, including Christians, from Rome only a decade before (Acts 18:2; Suetonius, “Claudius” 25), and about four years after writing this epistle Paul himself would be executed by this same authority. Three years after that, moreover, the full weight of the imperial government would come down hard on the Christians at Rome in a fearful persecution. In other words, Paul’s attitude toward Rome was not one of convenience, but of principle.

Paul’s affirmations here bear witness to an important feature of Christian anthropology. They testify that man’s relationship to God is not limited to the specifically religious and cultic sphere; Man is also related to God in the political, social, cultural, and economic spheres of his existence in this world. Man’s relationship to God, in other words, is inseparable from his relationship to everything else.