Friday, November 18

Luke 21:7-19: The original remarks of the Apostles, which prompted this prophecy, were inspired by Herod’s fairly recent renovation of the Temple (cf. John 2:20). According to Flavius Josephus (Antiquities, 15.11.3), “the Temple was constructed of hard, white stones, each of which was about 25 cubits in length, 8 in height, and 12 in depth.” That is to say, the walls of this mountain of marble, towering 450 feet above the Kidron Valley, were 12 cubits, roughly 15 feet, thick! The various buildings of the Temple complex were colonnaded and elaborately adorned. Its surface area covered about one-sixth of the old city. The Roman historian Tacitus described it as “a temple of immense wealth.” (Histories 5.8). It was because of the Temple that Josephus remarked, “he that has not seen Jerusalem in her splendor has never in his life seen a desirable city. He who has not seen the Temple has never in his life seen a glorious edifice.”

Thus, the present text in Luke is concerned with the events connected with the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in the summer of A.D. 70. ??Jesus’ predictions of the persecutions that Christians must endure are partly fulfilled in Luke’s stories of the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles. He there describes their ill treatment in synagogues, their beatings before tribunals, their trials in the presence of governors and kings. For instance, the promise given here in verse 15 (“I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.”) we see fulfilled in Acts 4:9-10:

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead by him this man is standing before you well.

What will be required of Christians, in no matter what age they live, is patience (verse 19; cf. Romans 2:7; 8:25; 15:4-5).

Revelation 2:1-7: Revelation 2:1-7: Among the early Christian churches, that of Ephesus was particularly renowned for the strictness of its doctrinal purity. This was a book-burning congregation (Acts 19:19), which brooked no heresy. The apostle Paul, who had labored at Ephesus for three years, stressed the importance of doctrinal orthodoxy to all who ministered and taught there (Acts 20:29-31; 1 Timothy 1:3-7,18-20; 4:1-3; 5:17; 6:3-5,20; 2 Timothy 1:13-15; 2:14-18; 3:13; 4:2-5). In contrast to all of Paul-s other epistles, he mentioned no heresies in his Epistle to the Ephesians. Well into the second century, we know the reputation of the church at Ephesus for its doctrinal purity (cf. Ignatius of Antioch, Ephesians 6,2; 9.1; Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 1.26.3).

Here in Revelation 2 the church at Ephesus is commended for dealing with certain heretics called the Nicolaitans (verse 6), who apparently taught sexual immorality (2:14-15). The church was also obliged to deal with false apostles (verse 2), concerning whom the apostle Paul had earlier given warning to the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20:29; cf. 2 Corinthians 11:13-15; Didache 11).

Saturday, November 19

Revelation 2:8-11: Smyrna, the modern Turkish city of Izmir, was a seaport rivaling and then surpassing Ephesus. The Book of Revelation is our earliest historical witness to the presence of a Christian church at Smyrna, but it does not indicate when or by whom the place was evangelized.

A second century bishop of that church, the martyr Polycarp, one of the most revered men in early Christian history, personally knew the apostle John at one end of his ministry, and, at the other end, was the friend of Irenaeus of Lyons in Gaul, who lived to the dawn of the third century. Polycarp thus became the very embodiment of primitive Christian tradition, and because of him Smyrna’s status among the early churches rivaled that of Ephesus.

At Smyrna there seems to have been considerable conflict between the Christians and the local Jews, who are here referred to as “a synagogue of Satan,” not even worthy to be called real Jews (verse 9). Even in the mid-second century the Jews of Smyrna took steps to prevent the Christians from recovering the body of the martyred Polycarp (The Martyrdom of Polycarp 18.1).

The four verses here under consideration indicate that, unlike the situations in Ephesus, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, and Laodicea, in Smyrna the problems faced by the church came largely from without. Thus, unlike the Ephesians (2:5), the believers at Smyrna were not told to repent. John did warn the congregation, however, that they would soon be severely tested (verse 10). How many Christians perished in that testing? It is very difficult to say, but we do know that Polycarp, who was martyred in A.D. 155, was the twelfth name on the list of martyrs at Smyrna (The Martyrdom of Polycarp 19.1).

Those martyrs, in any case, were promised the “crown of life,” an athletic image indicating their victory in Christ (Philippians 3:14; 2 Timothy 2:5; James 1:12; 1 Peter 5:4). The “second death” in verse 11 refers to eternal damnation (cf. 20:6.14.15; 21:8).

Psalm 108 (Greek & Latin 107): Ours is a holy warfare, for it is fought by a holy people: “In God shall we do valiantly, and He will bring our oppressors to naught.” Through us, made holy with His sanctification, will the Lord throughout the day arise and divide Shechem, and measure out the valley of Succoth, taking possession of Gilead and Ephraim, Manasseh and Moab. By reason of our sanctification in the Holy Eucharist is the rest of the world, through our lives, to be sanctified. Especially are we to conquer the reputedly impregnable fortress of Edom, those very gates of Hades that the Lord says will not be able to withstand the onslaught of the Church’s faith in Him (cf. Matt. 16:18).

So we pray, “Let our mouths be filled with Your praise, . . . that all the day long we may meditate upon Your righteousness.” This is the daily praise of which our psalm says: “My heart is prepared, O God, my heart is prepared; I shall praise and sing in my glory.” It is with this prepared heart, rendered pure and fit for God’s praise by the assiduous effort of inner struggle, that we will meditate all the day long on His righteousness, for higher than the heavens is His mercy, and His truth above the clouds. He goes forth with us against our foes.

Sunday, November 20

Psalms 118: Every Sunday morning is full of the great Pascha surprise: “Yes, and certain women of our company, who arrived at the tomb early, astonished us. When they did not find His body, they came saying that they had also seen a vision of angels who said He was alive” (Luke 24:22, 23).

And our response to this message from the Myrrhbearing Women? “Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever. Let Israel now say, ‘His mercy endures forever.’ Let the house of Aaron now say, ‘His mercy endures forever.’ Let those who fear the Lord now say, ‘His mercy endures forever.’”

Every Sunday morning is the Church’s jubilant celebration of the Resurrection of Christ. Joining the Myrrhbearing Women who discovered His empty tomb, we raise our voices to greet the new dawn with shouts of exaltation: “The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tents of the righteous; the right hand of the Lord does valiantly. The right hand of the Lord is exalted; the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.” The message of Sunday morning is that the forces of death have not prevailed: “I shall not die but live, and declare the works of the Lord. The Lord has chastened me severely, but He has not given me over to death.”

Revelation 2:12-17: Pergamos is now the Turkish city of Bergama, which is about one-tenth the size it was in antiquity; it has had an unbroken history since the fifth century B.C. There is a still a small, poor congregation of Christians at Bergama, the direct descendants of that congregation to which was addressed the Book of Revelation. One may also see there the ruins of a once magnificent church dedicated to St. John by the Emperor Theodosius in the fourth century. Thanks to the excavations begun under the auspices of the Museum of Berlin in 1878, we know quite a bit about the ancient city.

The problems in the church at Pergamos seem to have been largely internal. There was a laxist group, apparently to be identified with the Nicolaitans (verse 15), who advocated sexual immorality and the eating of sacrifices made to idols (verse 14). Those internal problems were compounded, nonetheless, by external pressure in the form of occasional
persecutions, during one of which there perished the martyr Antipas (verse 13), identified by Christian tradition as the first bishop of that city (with an annual feast day on April 11).

So resolute was the opposition to the Gospel in Pegamos that Satan was said to throne there, perhaps a reference to the temple of the god Asculepius, whose symbol was a staff with a coiled serpent. That image, now universally known as the symbol of the healing professions (for Asculepius was the god of healing), would have reminded the early Christians of the serpent in Genesis 3, which will reappear several more times in the Book of Revelation (cf. 12:9 and 20:2, for instance). Pergamos also boasted temples to Zeus and to Roma, the deified personification of the empire. In verse 16 Jesus says that He will come quickly, a promise repeated six more times in Revelation (3:11; 16:15;

Monday, November 21

Luke 21:29-33: Throughout the era of the Church there will be times when the fig tree will appear to have died. Nothing looks deader than a fig tree in the wintertime. We may see in the harsh conditions of winter an image of the many persecutions and hardships that the persevering community of Christ must endure until the spring of His return.

One thinks, in this connection, of the condition of the Christian Church behind the Iron Curtain for so many decades, in such places as Russia and Poland. From the outside it certainly appeared to be, in not dead, at least near death. As soon as the Iron Curtain was brought down, however, immediately the new buds appear. The tree had been alive all along.

About the year 252, an African Christian bishop, Cyprian of Carthage wrote with respect to these verses,

the Lord had foretold that these things would happen. Instructing with the voice of His foreknowledge, teaching, preparing, and strengthening the people of His Church unto all endurance of things that lay in the future. He foretold and declared that wars, famines, earthquakes, and plagues in each place. And lest an unexpected and new fear of evils should overtake us, He earlier warned us that in the final times adversities would grow more and more (De Mortalitate 2).

Revelation 2:18-29: Thyatira, the modern Akhisar, was a city more modest than the previous three. The church in that city, too, was praised for its works, love, service, faith, and patience (verse 19).

Notwithstanding that praise, the congregation was tolerating in its midst the activities of a pseudo-charismatic woman whom John likened to the ancient Queen Jezebel of Israel, that fine Phoenician feminist responsible for so many of the ills condemned by the prophet Elijah in the ninth century B.C. (verse 20). The moral offenses of the woman at Thyatira, which included the advocacy of sexual sins and the eating of food sacrificed to demons, seem similar to those of the Nicolaitans, but in the present case John took care to single out an individual rather than to talk about a group. Against her he prophesied a dire judgment (verses 22-23). This woman seems also to have been a sort of mistress of the occult, here called “the depths of Satan” (verse 24).

But John does not condemn solely that woman; he speaks very critically, in addition, of the church that tolerated her activities (verse 20). Toleration, which today is everywhere regarded as a virtue to be cultivated, is everywhere in the New Testament regarded as a vice to be avoided (for example, Romans 1:32).

In the instance studied here, the church at Thyatira was permitting a very forceful woman, who claimed the authority of a prophetess, to bring moral havoc into the congregation. Whereas the members of the congregation were intimidated by her influence, or were simply reluctant to deal harshly with a woman, John, as we see, suffered from neither that intimidation nor that reluctance. In the present text, he accomplished the moral equivalent of that robust defenestration suffered by the aging Phoenician princess of Samaria on that judgment day when Jehu came a-riding.

Tuesday, November 22

Revelation 3:1-6: In antiquity Sardis had been the capital city of the famous Croesus, king of Lydia, and in Persian times it was the greatest city of Asia Minor, linked by a major highway to the faraway Persian capital of Susa. The acropolis of the city was so high and well fortified as to be nearly impregnable. In fact, it was never taken by direct assault. It was captured twice, however, on both occasions by sneak attacks, once by Cyrus in 546 and once by Antiochus the Great in 218.

It is against another surprise attack that John warns the people of Sardis now (verse 3), using an image found elsewhere in the New Testament (Matthew 24:43; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; 2 Peter 3:10). Truth to tell, lack of vigilance was a great problem in the church at Sardis, part of its more general condition of laziness and despondency. After all, John does not mention a single heresy at Sardis. The evil in that congregation is, rather, apathy and boredom; the congregation is too dead to be sick (verse 1).

Therefore, John summons them to vigilance (verse 2). Very few Christians in Sardis have measured up (verse 4), and the others are in danger of being removed from “the Book of Life” (verse 5; cf. also 17:8; 21:27). This latter image is not a metaphor for eternal predestination, obviously, precisely because names can be removed from it.
The Book of Life is, rather, a register of the citizens of heaven, and the metaphor of erasure testifies that the names written therein, as long as those who bear those names still live on earth, can be removed if the removal is warranted. There is no question, then, of some sort of eternal roll call already fixed and unchangeable, independent of the choices each man makes in his own heart. As long as he is on this earth, there remains the possibility that a man’s name may be erased from the Book of Life. Hence, the necessity of vigilance.

Psalms 120—127 (Greek and Latin 119—126): These are the first eight of the fifteen “Palms of Ascent” (120-134), a name given them, historians believe, because they were associated with an ascending gradation toward God’s Throne in the Holy of Holies. Perhaps they were chanted by the pilgrims processing up Mount Zion, or it may be the case that they were chanted by the Levites climbing the steps within the Temple itself. Whatever the specific motive for the title, there is in these psalms an intense interest in Jerusalem and, particularly, Mount Zion.

Their ancient liturgical usage, however, does not imply that all of these psalms were originally composed for that setting. The four ascribed to David, for instance, appear to have been prayed even before the construction of the Temple.

Wednesday, November 23

Luke 22:1-6: Although Luke agrees with Mark and Matthew placing the events of Holy Week in the context of the Passover, he is less precise than the others with placing those events on specific days. Thus, for instance, we are not told here on what day the Sanhedrin met to plot the death of Jesus (contrast Luke here with Mark and Matthew). ??Writing for Gentiles, Luke is not careful to distinguish Passover from the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, which immediately follows it. In this respect, he resembles Josephus (Antiquities 3.10.5), who also wrote for Gentile readers.

In addition, Luke does not specify how Judas was to betray Christ to His enemies, nor does he indicate how much money he was to receive for doing so. Luke explains the entire episode by saying that Satan entered Judas (verse 4; John 13:2,27; cf. 1 Corinthians 2:8).

In Luke’s account, it is apparent that the Passion is a battle between Jesus and Satan.?? In this respect the Passion in Luke takes up where the early Temptations scene left off. At that time, we recall, after Jesus had resisted all of Satan’s blandishments, Luke remarked that Satan left Him “for a while” (4:13). The “while” is over. Now Satan returns in dead earnest.

Revelation 3:7-13: This is the most cheerful, complimentary, and optimistic of the letters to the seven Asian churches. Not one word of criticism is directed to the Christians at Philadelphia. On the contrary, they are twice praised for their perseverance (verses 8,10). The problem at Philadelphia is external, involving conflict with the local Jews (verse 9), the sort of problem we saw at Smyrna.

“The key of David” (verse 7) alludes to Isaiah 22:22, where Eliakim is described as having exclusive power of the keys. A minister with this power was the man who decided who would and who would not be admitted to the royal presence. In describing Jesus in this way, John asserts that if anyone wants to go to God, he must go through Jesus. This emphasis on the unique mediation and finality of Christ is common throughout the New Testament.

The Christian congregation at Philadelphia is evidently small and of limited resources, but we get the impression that it is about to make significant missionary gains (“open door” — see Acts 14:27; 1 Corinthians 16:9; 2 Corinthians 2:12; Colossians 4:3). Also, there will soon be a trial (verse 10), and those who overcome in that trial will receive the name of God and the name of New Jerusalem (verse 12), the holy city that comes down from heaven (21:2; Galatians 2:9).

St. Paul contrasts the new Jerusalem with the now Jerusalem (he nun Hierousalem), which is simply a city in Palestine (Galatians 4:24-25). By the time that John writes, this latter city, the earthly Jerusalem, has already been destroyed by the Romans.

Thursday, November 24

Luke 17:11-19: The moral lesson of today’s Gospel has to do with thanksgiving. This point is made in Jesus’ question, with which the story ends: “Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?”

We doubt that this was the first time our Samaritan had given thanks. In truth, we suspect that he remembered to give thanks on this occasion because he had already formed the habit of giving thanks, even during those years when his leprosy made him an outcast. The cultivated and sustained habit of thanksgiving is the secret of a happy life. This is the reason Holy Scripture instructs us in all things to give thanks. Thanksgiving is to become the settled and normal habit of our souls.

It is ultimately thanksgiving that brings true healing to our lives. It is thanksgiving that separates us from those whose lives are spent in complaining and murmuring. The habit of complaining, after all, is profoundly unhealthy. Murmuring eats away the soul. Few things are more destructive of health than routine recourse to murmuring. It is no wonder that murmuring is the sin most condemned in Holy Scripture. Murmuring is never an expression of faith. Thanksgiving is.

This thanksgiving is an act of worship completely centered on the person of Jesus Christ. What, concretely, does our Samaritan do today? Let us read: “And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks.”

Observe these particular features of this proper thanksgiving. We fall on our faces at the feet of Christ, and we shout with a loud voice. Thanksgiving is Christ-centered worship. It assumes the posture of humility and adoration.

The grateful Samaritan, we read, fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks. Observe the correct posture of thanksgiving—our faces at His feet. This is the correct posture of God’s servant before his Lord. This is the correct deportment of a healthy human being.

The goal of evangelism is to bring every soul to this position, to bow every head—every mind—before the Lordship of Christ, to cause to rise from every throat the loud voice of grateful praise, to remove from every heart the last trace of that deep sickness called murmuring, and to replace it with it with saving faith in that only name under heaven by which we are to be saved.

Friday, November 25

Luke 22:7-13: The time has now arrived, declares Luke. All the previous parts of his account have led to this moment. From the beginning of his story, when the life of the First Born Son was redeemed by two turtle dove or young pigeons (2:24), through the Lord’s entire earthly life, during which His face was steadfastly set toward Jerusalem, all has been directed to this hour when the Paschal Lamb (to Pascha; see also 1 Corinthians 5:7; Deuteronomy 16:26) would be offered and the new Exodus (9:31) inaugurated.

All this must happen, says Luke, using one of his typical words, dei (cf. 9:22; 13:33; 17:25; 24:7,26,44).

Luke is the only Evangelist to name Peter and John as the two apostles deputed to make the Seder arrangements for Jesus and the apostolic band (verse 8). Luke’s considerable attention to these two apostles (cf. Acts 3:1,3; 4:13,19; 8:14) suggests that they may have been among the chief sources of his information about the events of Holy Week. Indeed, among the three Synoptic Evangelists, Luke’s account most resembles that of John’s Gospel.

Revelation 3:14-22: We commented, with respect to the church at Philadelphia, that John had no criticisms to make about that congregation. Writing to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pegamos, Thyatira, and Sardis, John paid some compliments and made some criticisms. Writing to the Christians at Laodicea, however, John has nothing at all encouraging to say! He is unable to find a single item for which to praise that church. To John’s thinking, the church at Laodicea is a lackluster group of slackers living in an affluent, self-satisfied society. Although this church was evangelized by Paul’s companion Epaphras (Colossians 4:12-13), it has lost its fervor and is now mediocre (verse 16).

The secular city of Laodicea was famous for three things: (1) its large banking interests, (2) its textile industry, and (3) a special eye-salve that the great physician Galen called “Phrygian powder.” John alludes to all three things in verse 18, where the church at Laodicea is told to come to God for (1) gold refined in the fire, (2) clothing to cover its nakedness, and (3) a special anointing of its spiritual eyes. The Laodiceans must admit, in short, that they are “poor, blind, and naked” (verse 17).

There are three points of Christology to note in this letter to Laodicea: (1) Christ in the past; the relationship of Christ to creation (verse 14; cf. Colossians 1:15-18; Hebrews 1:1-3; John 1:3); (2) Christ in the present, exhorting and inviting His Church, communing with those who open to Him (verses 19-20; cf. 19:9; Luke 22:28-30); (3) Christ in the future, rewarding those who vanquish in His name (verse 21; cf. Matthew 19:28). The image of the divine throne appears over forty times in the Book of Revelation. The present mention of it prepares for John’s vision in the following chapter.