Friday, April 28

1 Peter 4:1-11: Once gain the Apostle turns to the theme of Christ’s sufferings (cf. 2:21-24; 3:18) in order to draw out the practical implications of the Cross in the life of Christians (verse 1). Considering the Passion of Christ, believers are to arm themselves (hoplisasthe with “the same way thinking” (ennoian). That is to say, they are to take the remembrance of Christ’s sufferings as the guide to their thoughts and sentiments.

The Apostle Paul taught the same thing: “Let this mind be in you (touto phroneite) which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).

Such a one, first of all gives up the life of sin (verses 2-4). Otherwise he betrays the Cross, which paid the price of those sins. Similarly, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans: “How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin” (Romans 6:2-6).

The Apostle John was just as clear on the subject: “Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him” (1 John 3:6).

Since our past lives, says Peter, have been wasted with the passions and interests of men, let us spend our remaining days serving the will of God, because whoever “has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.”

The life of the baptized person is turned away from the activities of yesterday. Peter spells out these activities lewdness, drinking sessions, and wild partying.

It is true that we gained friends amidst such activity in former times, but they are the very ones who will find our new way of life so puzzling and incomprehensible: “In regard to these, they think it strange that you do not run with them in the same flood of dissipation, speaking evil of you.” Peter takes it for granted that conversion to Christ will mean the end of some such friendships. The believer will have much less in common with his former drinking buddies. He won’t like their lewd jokes any more, and perhaps they will no longer like him. In such situations, Peter sends us to the Cross.

Saturday, April 29

1 Peter 4:12-19: Outside of the Acts of the Apostles, this section contains the only place in the New Testament where we find the word “Christian”: “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed” (verse 16).

Two observations may be made in regard to Peter’s use of the term “Christian” here.

First, Peter himself had been active in the founding of the Church at Antioch, where this term was first used (Acts 11:26; Galatians 2:11). It was from Antiochian usage that he adopted the term.

Second, it is significant that this name “Christian,” first used by non-Christians to describe the new group at Antioch, tended to be used in the context of persecution, as is clearly the case here in 1 Peter (verses 14-16). This context is identical to that of the only other place where we find the word “Christian,” the trial of Paul before Agrippa (where it is also heard from the lips of a non-Christian: “Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘You almost persuade me to become a Christian’” (Acts 26:28).

It is useful for Christians to bear in mind, when they call themselves by this name, that original context of enmity and even persecution. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that the name was first used by those who actually hated Christians. Consequently, it should not surprise us if even today the word is used as an epithet of contempt, as is fairly often the case in the secular media and some political discourse.

At the same time, the impending judgment of God, says Peter, begins “at the house of God” (verse 17). This fact is important, because there abides the temptation for Christians to imagine that they will somehow be exempted (either by a rapture or in some other way) from God’s final judgment on history. This is emphatically not the case. The Book of Revelation, which so vividly describes the final judgment of the world, begins with His judgment of the churches (chapters 2-3).

Exodus 6: There are two distinct parts to the material in this chapter: the first (vv. 1-13) continues the dialogue between God and Moses from the precious chapter, and the second (vv. 14-27) provides a genealogy of the family of Levi, the tribe of Moses and Aaron.

In the first section the reader recognizes a repetition of the revelation in the Burning Bush. Thus, commanding Moses to take a message to Pharaoh, God identifies Himself, once again, as IHWH, “He Who Is.”

In this instance, however, we perceive an important difference. This second disclosure of the Divine Name is placed within a gradual revelation; God reveals Himself in stages. Here the Lord says, “I am IHWH. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El Shaddai [God Almighty], but by My name IHWH I was not known to them.”

In fact, the divine name El Shaddai is found those patriarchal stories commonly thought to be from the priestly source mentioned above. Thus, in His covenant with Abraham God declares, “I am El Shaddai. Walk in My presence and be perfect” (Genesis 17:1). Similarly, Isaac blesses Jacob with the words, “May El Shaddai bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you” (Genesis 28:3). Likewise, when God changes Jacob’s name to “Israel,” He says,

I am El Shaddai. Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and am assembly of nations shall come forth from you, and kings wll come from your body. The land I gave Abraham and Isaac I give to you; and to your seed after you I give this land (35:11-12; cf. 48:3; 49:25).

In the scene in Exodus 6, the God revealed to Moses identifies Himself as this very El Shaddai known to the Patriarchs. The stages in the revelation serve to make continuity clearer.

In verses 14-27 we find another genealogy, of which there were so many in Genesis, and many more of which will be found in the rest of Holy Scripture. Although modern readers may be disposed to skip such passages as uninteresting, they were certainly important to the biblical writers, not least because they helped give structure to the continuity of the narrative.

In this case the genealogy serves to relate the founding of Israel’s priestly family, the established priesthood being one of Israel’s principal defining institutions. In biblical thought, salvation is not a purely individual thing; it is intimately linked, rather, to certain prescriptive institutions and authoritative ministries, and priesthood, as one of these, involves a proper succession. Proper succession is also a requirement of Christian ordination, a point that was argued strongly before the end of the first century (cf. Clement of Rome, Epistle to the Corinthians 40-44).

Sunday, April 30

Exodus 7: The changing of the water into blood, sufficiently destructive in itself, also serves as an implicit warning of the tenth and final plague, when the avenging angel will slay the firstborn sons of Egypt.

Few nations could survive the sudden destruction of its water supply, and Pharaoh’s defiance in the face of this plague indicates the depths of his resistance to grace. Certainly, his is a hardened heart.

When the water of the Nile is turned into blood, this is a fitting retribution for murder of the Hebrew infants condemned to be drowned in that river (Ex 1:22). The propriety of this punishment was noted by the author of the Book of Wisdom, also known as The Wisdom of Solomon (and probably to be dated during the period of the Second Temple). He wrote that this plague came “in rebuke of the decree to slay the infants” (Wisdom 11:7).

The same idea appears also in the hymn that accompanies the third bowl of plagues in the Book of Revelation:

Then the third [angel] poured out his bowl on the rivers and springs of water, and they became blood. And I heard the angel of the waters saying: “You are righteous, the One Who is (ho On) and Who was, O Holy One, for You have passed judgment on these things. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and You have given them blood to drink. They deserve it! (Rev 16:4-6)

This plague was also celebrated in a more ancient hymn of God’s People, which describes how Israel’s Holy One “worked His signs in Egypt, / And His wonders in the field of Zoan; / He turned their rivers into blood, / And their streams, that they could not drink” (Ps 78[77]:44).

Many modern Western readers of this story, who take for granted a distinction between politics and theology (cf. Mark 12:17), do well to consider that neither Moses nor Pharaoh was familiar with that distinction. Ignorant of the true God—indeed, boasting of that ignorance (Ex 5:1-4)—Pharaoh thought of himself in divine terms.

In his own person, Pharaoh was believed to be the living spokesman for the whole Egyptian pantheon. In Holy Scripture, the Egyptian king represents the perennial disposition of political authority to make ultimate and transcendent claims for itself.

When the political order goes beyond its legitimate warrant—when it presumes, in other words, to take in hand the things of God, as well as the things of Caesar—it becomes idolatrous. It claims for itself a total authority; it becomes totalitarian, even challenging the structure of God’s Creation.

The struggle described here in Exodus, consequently, is not simply a political conflict between Egyptians and Israelites, much less a mere personality-conflict between Moses and Pharaoh. It is not a conflict to be worked out through arbitration, nor can it be smoothed over by recourse to an anger-management seminar. It is a fight-to-the death between the gods of Egypt and the true Lord revealed in the Burning Bush.

Immediately, the suddenly-thirsty Egyptians begin digging new wells. Pharaoh, meanwhile, reluctant to admit defeat and eager to make a point, calls on his own sorcerers to turn this water, too, into blood! Hardness of heart, it seems, leads to dullness of thought.

May 1

Exodus 8: There are several obvious connections among the various plagues. Here, for instance, in the second plague there is a great multitude of frogs because their natural habitat, the water, has become contaminated. Indeed, it was normal for frogs to appear throughout Egypt each year as the waters of the Nile receded.

This “swarming” of these animals from the water should be compared and contrasted with the scene in Genesis 1:20, where God commands the waters to bring forth swarming things.

Once again Pharaoh’s magicians are still a bit “unclear on the concept.” When Pharaoh asks them for help, they respond by bringing forth of even more>/i> frogs—as though Egypt was suffering a shortage of available frogs!

Pharaoh’s reaction is new; he is starting to recognize that Moses is not a nobody. Pharaoh is going to test if Moses is really a spokesman for God. As will be very much the case later in the Exodus narrative, Moses is presented as a man given to intercessory prayer. Here he tells Pharaoh to “pick the time,” and, remembering that the previous plague lasted a week, he wisely picks the next day!

Pharaoh wants Moses to call upon “the Lord” (YHWH). This is the very “Lord” Pharaoh insists he does not know. By the end of the second plague, Pharaoh is no longer disposed to treat Moses and Aaron with contempt. The king of Egypt starts to think about negotiations.

When the frogs die, there is a terrible stench, especially when the people decide to burn their bodies. They have hardly recovered from the stench of the dead fish in the first plague.

The third plague seems to be a swarm of mosquitoes. Mosquito bites are painful and difficult to avoid. The mosquito, when she bites, injects an anticoagulant to prevent the blood from clotting. This anticoagulant causes an allergic reaction that includes the typical round, red bump, known as the mosquito bite. If one is attacked by a whole swarm of mosquitoes, the effect can be agonizing.

In addition, mosquitoes carry various infectious diseases. Among the infections borne by Egyptian mosquitoes, perhaps the most notable is the West Nile Virus, which can cause neurological disease and death.

The sudden appearance of great swarms of mosquitoes in Egypt could also be related to the previous plague of frogs. According to Exodus 8.13, the prayer of Moses caused all the frogs in Egypt to die. Frogs are, in fact, natural predators of mosquitoes. In addition, tadpoles compete with mosquito larvae for food. The recent disappearance of frogs from Egypt, then, goes some way toward explaining this plague of mosquitoes.

Tuesday, May 2

Exodus 9: God says to Moses and Aaron, “Take for yourselves handfuls of ashes from a kiln, and let Moses scatter it heavenward at the eyes of Pharaoh.”

These ashes come from a “kiln,” a kibshan. This is an industrial furnace, used either to smelt metallic ore or to bake bricks. The important thing to observe is that this kibshan represented the economic and cultural life of Egypt.

When the Book of Exodus earlier spoke of the hardships the Egyptians imposed on the Israelites, it spoke in particular of the baking of bricks for the Pharaoh’s building projects (1:14; 5:7-19). In this respect, the construction technology in Egypt resembled that of ancient Babel (Genesis 11:3). There was an even deeper, more spiritual affinity in the two cases; the ambitions of Babel and Egypt displayed the same political idolatry, the identical rebellion against the true God.

Thus, when Moses throws ashes from this kiln “heavenward” (hashamaimah), the action symbolized Egypt’s pride and rebellion against God. The text says that Moses did this “at the eyes (le‘eine) of Pharaoh”). That is to say, the ashes are thrown toward heaven, but they are also thrown toward Pharaoh’s eyes; scattered in the latter direction they symbolize the spiritual blindness the king displays through the entire course of the plagues.

The fine dust spread by Moses’ ritual action produces an inflammation on the skin. This inflammation is accompanied by pustules. Although the previous plagues, particularly the mosquitoes and the dog-flies, certainly caused severe physical distress on the bodies of those who were bitten, the earlier accounts of them did not describe that distress. In the present case, however, the symptoms are explicitly described.

This affliction may have been accompanied by fever. The Hebrew text calls the inflamation shechin, a noun derived from the root shachan, meaning “to be hot.” (This fact has prompting some commentators to suspect this is an outbreak of smallpox. Such a diagnosis, however, seems improbable; although some animals can carry the smallpox virus, they do not suffer from its symptoms.)

This sudden, dramatic attack on human flesh is reminiscent of the trial of Job. After Job did not succumb to impatience or rebellion at the loss of his goods and even his children, Satan asked for more; he challenged God, “But stretch out Your hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will surely curse You to Your face!” Satan, given leave to do so, “struck Job with an inflammation (shechin) from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (Job 2:5-7).

In the Book of Revelation, this plague returns with the emptying of the first bowl of the divine wrath: “So the first [angel] went and poured out his bowl upon the earth, and a foul and loathsome sore came upon the men who had the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image” (Revelation 16:2).

Wednesday, May 3

Exodus 10: To an agricultural economy, few things are more frightening than a visitation of locusts, which can reduce all plant life, over many square miles, to absolute ground level in a matter of hours (cf. the first chapter of Joel).

In three respects this is the most effective of the plagues to date: (1) Pharaoh’s servants, who had begun in support of him, and had come to see themselves bested (8:15), and had then retired from the combat (9:11), now come out to make a common plea with Moses against Pharaoh; (2) Pharaoh, for the first time, offers to release the Israelite men even before the plague starts; (3) Pharaoh himself asks for forgiveness. Even though the king’s heart is still hardened, the inspired author takes note of the progress.

Because the sun god, Re, held a special prominence in Egypt, this plague of darkness is freighted with special theological significance; the Lord is in earnest doing battle with the gods of Egypt. The three days of darkness here should be seen as a type of the three hours of darkness that covered the earth on that afternoon when the new Moses did battle with the most ancient of the pharaohs of our slavery, himself the Prince of Darkness (Mark 15:33). There on Calvary, as here, the plague of darkness immediately precedes the death of the Firstborn Son.

Revelation 16:1-11: Four of the five plagues described here come right out of the arsenal of Moses. Sores on the flesh of the bad guys (verse 2) were his sixth plague. As in the account in Exodus, the intent of this plague is that the idolaters should repent, but in neither case does it happen. The second and third plagues here (verses 3-4)—the changing of water into blood, are identical to Moses’ first plague—which was regarded, we recall, as a rather easy plague, in the sense that even Pharaoh’s magicians could do it (Exodus 7:22).

Here in Revelation, these two plagues are related to the great bloodshed of persecution caused by the enemies of God’s people (verse 6; 16:5-7). This crying out of the altar puts one in mind of the earlier scene where the souls (that is, the blood) of the martyrs cried from the altar (6:9-10). In that earlier scene the saints prayed for justice to be done on earth, for the righteousness of God to be vindicated in history. Now, in the present instance, the voice from the altar praises God that such justice has been done, that God’s fidelity has been made manifest.

The fourth plague does not appear in Exodus at all; Moses had been able to blot out the sunlight, but not even he was able to make the sun hotter. Even this plague, nonetheless, does not bring the idolaters to repentance (verse 9).

The darkness of the fifth bowl (verse 10) corresponds to the ninth plague in the Book of Exodus (10:21-29).

Thursday, May 4

Psalms 37 (Greek & Latin 36): This is one of twelve psalms crafted an alphabetic acrostic pattern—that is to say: starting with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph, each new line (in this case, every other line) of the psalm begins with the next successive letter of the alphabet. Thus, if one looks for some sort of logical or thematic progression in the course of the psalm, he may be mightily disappointed. The arrangement of the psalm’s ideas is determined only by something so artificial and arbitrary as the sequence of the alphabet, so the meditation does not really progress. It is, on the other hand, insistent and repetitive.

It is obvious at once that Psalm 37 has close ties to the Bible’s Wisdom tradition. If it were not part of the Psalter, we would expect to find it in Proverbs or one of the other Wisdom books. It appears to be a kind of discourse given by a parent to a child, or a wise man to a disciple. It is full of sound and godly counsel: “Fret not thyself because of evildoers . . . Trust in the Lord and do good . . . Cease from anger and forsake wrath . . . Wait on the Lord and keep His way,” and so forth. Such admonitions, along with the psalm’s allied warnings and promises, are stock material of the Wisdom literature.

So how does one pray such a psalm? To begin with, by respecting its tone, which is one of admonition, warning, and promise. Surely prayer is talking to God, but it also involves listening to God, and this is a psalm in which one will do more listening than talking. It is a psalm in which the believer prays by placing his heart open and receptive to God’s word of admonition, warning, and promise.

One may likewise think of Psalm 37 as the soul speaking to itself: “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him . . . But the meek shall inherit the earth . . . The little that the righteous has is better than the riches of many wicked . . . The Lord knows the days of the upright . . . The Law of his God is in his heart,” and so on. The human soul, after all, is not of simple construction. The great thinkers who have examined the soul over many centuries seem all to agree that it is composed of parts, and sometimes these parts are at odds one with another. This mixture of conflicting experiences in the soul leads one to utter such petitions as, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” It is one part of the soul praying for the other.

In this psalm, one part of the soul admonishes the other, reminds the other, cautions the other, encourages the other. And this inner conversation of the human spirit all takes place in the sight of God, the Giver of wisdom.

This inner discussion is rendered necessary because of frequent temptations to discouragement. As far as empirical evidence bears witness, the wicked do seem, on many occasions, to be better off than the just. By the standards of this world, they prosper.

Our psalm is at pains to insist, however, that this prosperity is only apparent, in the sense that it will certainly be short-lived. As regards the workers of iniquity, “they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb . . . For evildoers shall be cut off . . . For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be . . . For the arms of the wicked shall be broken . . . The transgressors shall be cut off together.”

The suffering lot of the just man is likewise temporary and of brief duration. He need only wait on the Lord in patience and trust: “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He will give thee the desires of thy heart. Commit your way unto the Lord, and trust in Him, and He shall bring it to pass . . . But the salvation of the righteous is of the Lord; He is their strength in the time of trouble. And the Lord will help them and deliver them; He will deliver them from the wicked and save them, because they trust in Him.”

This, then, is a psalm of faith and confidence in God, without which there is no Christian prayer. It is also faith and hope under fire, exposed to struggle and the endurance that calls for patience. After all, “faith is the substance of things hoped for” (Heb. 11:1), and “We were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope . . . But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance” (Rom. 8:24, 25). Our psalm is a meditative lesson on not being deceived by appearances, and a summons to wait patiently for God’s deliverance.

Friday, May 5

Exodus 12: There are four features especially to be noted about this important text that interrupts the narrative sequence in order to place the whole into a more theological and liturgical context:

First, the paschal lamb is an example of “substitutionary” sacrifice; like the ram that had replaced Isaac on Mount Moriah in Genesis 22:13, the paschal lamb’s life is given in place of the lives of Israel’s first born sons.

Second, there is nothing in the text to suggest that this sacrifice is “expiatory.” That is, unlike certain other biblical sacrifices, such as those associated with Yom Kippur, the sacrifice of the paschal lamb is not made in reparation for sins. Moreover, the Old Testament provides not a single example of an animal being sacrificed in place of a human being whose sin was serious enough to merit death.

Third, the blood of this paschal lamb is sprinkled at certain points of the houses of those who are “redeemed.” This sprinkling is explicitly said to be a “sign” of covenant protection, parallel to the rainbow in the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9:12-17 and circumcision in the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17:19-27.

Fourth, because this paschal lamb was a type or symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7), it was fitting that the meal celebrating the new covenant in His blood should be inaugurated in the setting of the paschal seder (cf. Luke 22:15-20).

The “this day” of verse 14 is the fifteenth day of the month Nisan, but it includes the night of Pascha. Pascha itself was to be the first liturgical day of an entire “week of sabbaths,” that is, seven days of rest and festival continuing the celebration, during which Israel could eat unleavened bread as on Pascha itself. More regulations relative to this weeklong feast are to be found in 13:3-10. In the New Testament the two terms, Pascha and the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, are used almost interchangeably.

After the lengthy and detailed instructions that prepare for it, the tenth plague is narrated very succinctly, to great dramatic effect. The Exodus itself follows at once. In the writings of the New Testament, the event especially served as a prefiguration and type of redemption, including all of the events narrated of that great week, both His death for our sins and His rising again for our justification.

So important was the liturgical observance of Pascha to the life of the early Christians that one of the major and most heated controversies of the second century Church concerned the proper dating of the feast. In spite of a venerable tradition held in Ephesus and the other churches of Asia Minor, it was finally determined that Pascha would always be celebrated on a Sunday, a rule that has been maintained by all Christians since the fourth century.

In verses 43-50 we find more regulations relative to the preparation of the Seder of Pascha. As was noted above, there was no disagreement among the early Christians with respect to the deeper meaning of the paschal lamb. Indeed, verse 46 here, about not breaking the bones of the paschal lamb while preparing it, was seen by St. John as a prophecy of the body of Jesus on the cross, in that the soldiers did not break His legs (cf. John 19:36).