Friday, August 18

Joshua 11: This is the sort of story that causes many modern people to wince and squirm—so much violence!

I liken these darker parts of the Hebrew Scriptures to shadows cast on the earth by the earliest appearance of the light. The Latin Psalter says to the Lord, “Thou hast crafted the dawning and the sun”—Tu fabricatus es auroram et solem (Psalm 73:16). We observe the order: Dawn-then-sun. Strictly speaking there could be no dawn unless the sun already existed. The Psalmist’s sequence of dawn-then-sun describes how things appear, not how they exist. The early light comes to us on a curve and then an angle. The daylight is presented to us in stages, the full sun itself being the final stage.

The angularity of the early morning light seems to hurl long lines of darkness on the earth. This is only an impression, nonetheless. What sort of logic would blame the light for the shadows? Who among us does not recognize that the shadows were already there, long before the light appeared? Indeed, it is the gradually emerging light that reveals the dark places. These shadows, they shorten, bit-by-bit, and they will vanish in the fullness of time, when the sun increases to full strength.

I am no more offended, then, by the darker parts of the Bible than by the shades thrown forward by the slanting daylight. To me, the dark recesses of the Book of Joshua resemble the somber drama of the Grand Canyon, as myriad silhouettes take shape down its walls, just before the sunrise.

Acts 21:26-40: On the next day Paul begins daily worship in the temple as the sponsor of the four men under vow, to provide the offering required on such occasions (verse 26). A week later he is recognized in the temple by some of the same Asian Jews with whom he has already had so many painful experiences (verse 27; 18:19; 20:19).

It is important to observe that the objections to Paul at Jerusalem do not come from the Jewish Christians living there, but from the Diaspora Jews, whose presence in Jerusalem is occasioned by the feast of Pentecost (20:6,16), a normal time for pilgrimage to the temple. On the streets of the city they had already recognized Trophimus, a Christian from Asia, who accompanied Paul to Jerusalem for the purpose of transporting the collection of money for the poor (20:4; cf. also 2 Timothy 4:20). The Jews from Ephesus accuse Paul of introducing this Gentile into the temple beyond the Court of the Gentiles.

The gravity of their accusation is indicated in the inscription, written in both Greek and Latin, which separated that court from the Court of Women (Josephus, Jewish War 5.5.2; Antiquities 15.11.5 [417]; cf. also Ephesians 2:14). That inscription, discovered by C. S. Clermont-Ganneau in 1871, says: “No foreigner [non-Jew] is to enter within the balustrade and the embankment that surrounds the sanctuary. If anyone is apprehended in the act, let him know that he must hold himself to blame for the penalty of death that will follow.”

After ejecting Paul from the temple, his accusers close the gates to prevent his seeking refuge therein (verse 30). Because such riots in the temple are by no means rare, particularly during pilgrimages, a Roman guard of a thousand men is stationed in the nearby Fortress Antonia, and news of the disturbance reaches the commander of this unit, Claudius Lysias (23:26), who promptly takes Paul into custody to prevent his being murdered. It was at this very place that an earlier crowd of Jews had insisted to Pilate, “Take Him away!” [Aire touton in Luke 23:18] with respect to Jesus, the same insistence now being made with respect to Paul [Aire auton in Acts 21:36].

Saturday, August 19

Acts 22:1-21: Essentially identical with the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9, the present account does provide some details not mentioned in that earlier version. We now learn, for instance, that Paul’s conversion took place at the noon hour (verse 6), which we know was a prescribed time of prayer for Jews. Thus, we ascertain that Paul’s conversion took place while was stopped along the road, turned facing Jerusalem (cf. 1 Kings 8:48; Daniel 6:10), and reciting the Tefillah, or Eighteen Benedictions. He was suddenly surrounded by an overwhelming light, flung to the ground, and dramatically addressed by name by the accusing Lord.

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

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

Psalm 33 (Greek & Latin 32): For the first time, the Book of Psalms uses an important expression—“new song,” shir chadash—which will later appear four more times in the Psalter and once in Isaiah: “Sing to Him a new song” (see Psalms 95:1; 97:1; 143:9; 149:1; Is. 42:10). The praise of the righteous, of the just man to whom the Lord imputes no guilt and in whose mouth is no deceit, is characterized by a particular kind of newness, of renewal, of new life, inasmuch as “He who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new’” (Rev. 21:5). The song of the believers is always a new song, because it springs from an inner divine font. It is the song of those who are born again in Christ and therefore “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). The song of the Lord’s redeemed is a new song, for they adhere to the new covenant in Christ’s blood and “serve in the newness of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:6).

All Christian praise of God is a participation in the liturgy of heaven where the saints gather in glory about the Lamb in the presence of the Throne. According to Revelation 5:9, our “new song” has to do with the opening of the seals of the great scroll by the Lamb who gave His life for our redemption: “You are worthy to take the scroll, / And to open its seals; / For You were slain, / And have redeemed us to God by Your blood.” The new song is for those who have been made “kings and priests to our God” (5:10). The new song is “the song of the Lamb” (15:3). The new song, according to Revelation 14:1–3, is sung by the redeemed as they gather about the Lamb on Mount Zion. This is the folk of whom our psalm says: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people He has chosen as His own inheritance.”

Sunday, August 20

Acts 22:22-29: It is clear that Paul’s life is in danger (22:22; 25:24). Since he had been speaking to the crowd in Aramaic, Paul’s message was not understood by the commander of the fortress, so the latter is bewildered and troubled by the crowd’s violent reaction (verse 23). His own reaction is understandable. In due course he will be obliged to render an account of this recent disturbance to the Roman procurator of the region at Caesarea, but up to this point he has no idea just what has transpired.

Since he can make no intelligible sense of the yelling and actions of the crowd (21:34), he orders Paul to be tortured by beatings, in hope of obtaining some solid information on the matter (verse 24). Paul, however, will have none of it. When he was beaten earlier at Philippi by the governmental officials in Acts 16, he had not mentioned his Roman citizenship, the Lex Porcia, until after that event. On the present occasion, however, he speaks up ahead of time, indicating the high status that precludes his being tortured. Indeed, the commander has already gone too far by having Paul handcuffed without legal warrant (verse 29). Thus, the matter of Paul’s Roman citizenship is introduced into the narrative for the second time. In due course it will be that special legal status that permits Paul’s recourse to a court in the capital city. Paul’s Roman citizenship, then, is an important component in the dynamism of the whole account in this book, which narrates the movement of the Gospel from Jerusalem to Rome.

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

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

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

Monday, August 21

Acts 22:20—23:10: Luke does not tell us if Claudius Lysias interrogated Paul further, but it is reasonable to think that he did. He would not have learned from Paul, however, any solid information that would clarify the legal situation. The fortress commander thus finds himself in a dilemma. He has arrested a prisoner on the basis of no identifiable offense. This is all quite embarrassing. How would he ever explain this serious irregularity to the authorities at Caesarea when official inquiries were made? If, on the other hand, Claudius Lysias were simply to release Paul, he may be setting free a criminal, possibly a revolutionary and subversive. Caught in this conflict, Lysias determines to consult the Sanhedrin, Judaism’s highest governing spiritual authority.

Thus, Paul must now defend himself before the Sanhedrin, and he does this masterfully. Well aware of the major theological division of that body into Sadducees and Pharisees (verse 6), Paul goes to some lengths to identify himself with the latter party. Why, after all, is he being held as a prisoner? Is it not because of his affirmation of the resurrection from the dead? And is not the coming resurrection from the dead one of the major and characteristic features of Pharisaic belief?

By this insistence, therefore, Paul succeeds in dividing his opponents (verses 7-10), this time not among a rioting mob but within the highest and most dignified religious body in Judaism. Lysias, frustrated that he has no more reliable information than he had before, has Paul locked up again. That night, when the Lord speaks to strengthen His apostle, He sets in parallel Paul’s preaching in Jerusalem with his coming preaching in Rome.

Joshua 14: This chapter begins the section in which the land of Canaan is divided by allotment, in accordance with the command that Joshua received in the previous chapter (13:1,7).

We already know from Numbers 36:16-29 that Eleazar, Aaron’s son and heir in the priesthood (Numbers 3:32; Deuteronomy 10:6), is to assist Joshua in this allotment.

Prior to this allotment, however, the reader is again reminded that territory has already been set aside, east of the Jordan, for two and a half of these tribes (verse 3). The writer likewise mentions once again that special provision is to be made for the tribe of Levi (verse 4).

In addition, before any allotment to the remaining tribes can be made, provision must be made for Caleb, the other of the only two spies who had remained loyal, decades earlier, when Moses had dispatched them for an initial inventory of the Promised Land (Numbers 13—14; Deuteronomy 1:35-36). Caleb officially belonged to the tribe of Judah (Numbers 13:6; 34:19), and his inheritance will fall within that tribe.

Forty-five years have elapsed since Caleb, a mere lad of forty at the time, had received Moses’ promise that he would inherit property in the land of Canaan (verses 6-10). Except for Joshua, he was the only surviving adult of the multitude that had marched out of Egypt, so it was entirely fitting he should be the first to inherit real estate in the land that he had inspected nearly half a century earlier. Caleb stands forever in the Bible as the model of such perseverance as leads to a great reward.

Tuesday, August 22

Acts 23:11-22: During the night after his hearing before the Sanhedrin, Paul was visited by the Lord in a dream, in which he was encouraged by the explicit assurance that he would be going to Rome. Consequently, in spite of outward appearances, Paul knew that his life was not in danger for the moment (23:11).

Such encouragement was exactly what he needed, for a new trouble arose on the next day. More than forty men, conspiring to murder him, vowed not to eat or drink until the deed was done (23:12-13). It is instructive to note that the plotters involved the Sadducees, the priestly party, in their conspiracy (23:14-15), but not the Pharisees. It was this latter group, we recall, that expressed sympathy for Paul’s message.

A plot involving so many people is hard to keep secret, and Paul, not confined by maximum security, was able to learn of it and, using the services of a nephew, to take steps against it (23:16-17). We are probably correct in suspecting that Luke’s source for this account was the boy himself. About nine o’clock that very night, Paul was moved out of the city under armed guard, Indeed, the large retinue included nearly half of the forces garrisoned at the Fortress Antonia. We are not told whether or not the frustrated plotters actually persevered in their vow of starvation!

Mark 14:22-31: We come now to Holy Thursday and the evening of the Last Supper. The traditions behind the four gospels attach several stories to the narrative of the Last Supper. These include the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, a saying of Jesus relative to His coming betrayal, a prophecy of Peter’s threefold denial, various exhortations and admonitions by Jesus, and a description of the institution of the Holy Eucharist.

Only two of the stories are told in all four gospels. First, there is some reference by Jesus to His betrayal. In Matthew and Mark this comes before the institution of the Holy Eucharist; in Luke it comes afterwards, in John it immediately follows the foot-washing. Only in Matthew and John is Judas actually identified by Jesus. Luke and John ascribe the betrayal to the influence of Satan.

Second, all four gospels include a prophecy of Peter’s threefold denial. All of them, likewise, narrate the fulfillment of that prophecy.

Wednesday, August 23

Acts 23:23-35: A letter about Paul was sent to Antonius Felix, the well known and often cruel procurator of Judea from A.D.52 to 59/60 (cf. Suetonius, Life of Claudius 28; Tacitus, Histories 5.9; Josephus, Antiquities 20.7.1 [137-138]; 20.8.9 [182]; Jewish War 2.12.8 [247]). Claudius Lysias, in his letter to Felix, painted himself in the most favorable light. The whole matter, he explained as an obscure Jewish problem, and the Jews were to blame. Lysias, for his part, had done no more than rescue a Roman citizen from Jewish violence! The stress of the message was on Paul’s innocence (23:29), a point that Luke will continue to make as the story progresses (cf. 25:18,25; 26:31; 28:18).

When the retinue and its prisoner reached Antipatris, in largely Gentile territory, the large bulk of the force, no longer needed, returned to Jerusalem. The exact location of Antipatris is disputed, but it may have been the site of the modern Kulat Ras el’Ain, about twenty-five miles from Caesarea.

Mark 14:32-42: In the Savior’s agony, believers perceive the most profound and disturbing inferences of the doctrine of the Incarnation—the “enfleshing” of God’s Son.

More than anywhere else in the New Testament, the Garden scene presents us with the phenomenon of frailty and conflict in the mind and heart, as Jesus struggles with the trauma of his impending Passion. Indeed, he speaks of this conflict in terms of spirit and flesh.

Whether the conflict is portrayed in terms of sorrow (Matthew and Mark) or of fear (Luke and Hebrews), the New Testament sources agree that Jesus did not want to suffer and die this painful and most ignominious death, and he prayed to be delivered from it.

Here, above all, we are presented with the profound mystery of self-emptying that the apostle Paul called “the weakness of God.” Each
account of the agony likewise demonstrates, nonetheless, how “the
weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25).

In this scene, according to all four sources, Jesus’ intense psychological
experience of weakness and turmoil was followed by a determined resolution, which is perhaps the most significant element in the story. Jesus was clearly stronger and more serene when he left the Garden, even though his captors had forcefully bound him.

Thursday, August 24

Acts 24:1-9: Paul now makes his defense before an official representative of the Roman government. To be his prosecutor, the Sanhedrin put forward a trained orator, Tertullus, who begins his argument by attempting to ingratiate Felix. It is shameless. When he credits Felix’s administration with the blessings of peace (24:2), for instance, the statement is true only in the sense that Felix had rather ruthlessly suppressed rebel uprisings and acts of terrorism (cf. Josephus, Jewish War 2.13.2 [252]). Tertullus diplomatically passes over those activities of Felix which effectively fomented rebellion and terrorism, those displays of his administration’s rapacity and harshness that would in due course lead to the Jewish rebellion against Rome.

Tertullus, aware of the attitude of Felix toward anything smacking of sedition, endeavors to portray Paul as a sort of revolutionary. The allegedly seditious party represented by Paul and here called the Nazarenes, is described as a “heresy” (24:5; cf. 24:14; 26:5; 28:22). This is hardly the first occasion on which Paul is portrayed as a trouble-maker (cf. 16:20; 17:6).

Mark 14:43-52: Seamlessly the gospels go from the Lord’s agony in the garden to his arrest. Jesus is still speaking when his enemies arrive. This company comes armed and in force, apparently prepared to meet a stern resistance. Some of them, at least, are the very people whom Jesus taught daily in the temple. The gospels indicate that Jesus never trusted these crowds who came to hear Him teach, any more than He trusted Judas, identified here by all the Synoptics as “one of the Twelve.”

Although there is a full moon—and John (18:3) says that the soldiers are carrying torches and lanterns—it is still sufficiently dark to make a mistake in the arrest. Consequently, Judas has given his company a sign to help them recognize Jesus: He will greet Jesus with a kiss. A kiss on the hand is a customary way for a disciple to greet a religious teacher. Thus, a sign of affection and respect is turned into a deed of hostility and deception.

Meanwhile the disciples, outnumbered and knowing physical resistance is futile, are at first uncertain what to do. The exception among them, according to John, is Peter, who is not named here by the Synoptics. Acting on the same impulse that prompted him to declare that he would never deny Jesus, Peter takes hold of a sword concealed in his garments and begins swinging it at the crowd. As Peter swung backhanded, one man, failing to duck sufficiently, suffered the loss of his right ear.

Friday, August 25

Acts 24:10-21: The opening sentence of Paul’s rebuttal is an exercise in irony that may, without exaggeration, be paraphrased as follows: “Well, there you have it, your Honor, you already know what these Jews are like, so you surely are not impressed by these trumped up accusations.”

In the course of Paul’s argument we learn that only twelve days have elapsed since his arrival in Jerusalem, a sum attained simply by the compound of seven (21:27) and five (24:1).

Explaining that he has come to Jerusalem solely as a pilgrim (“to worship” in 21:11) and to bring aid for the poor (21:17), Paul makes three points by way of “defense” (apologoumai in 21:10): First, no witnesses have testified to the charges brought against him (24:12-13,19). Second, he is, and has always lived as, a loyal, religious Jew. This is a scoring point, which Paul emphasizes by mentioning the Law and prophets (24:14). Because the Sadducees do not accept the prophetic books of the Bible as canonical, Paul is appealing once again to the judgment of the Pharisees. Third, Paul shares in the hope of the resurrection of the dead, a standard doctrine taught by the Pharisees (24:15,21) and which he himself had proclaimed before the Sanhedrin. As in his earlier appearance before that body, Paul is endeavoring to draw attention to an internal doctrinal split among his accusers.

Psalms 141 (Greek & Latin 140): This psalm is a prayer of desolation and loneliness: “With my voice have I cried to the Lord, with my voice have I prayed to the Lord. Before Him will I pour out my prayer; my desolation shall I declare in His presence. Even as my spirit takes its leave of me, You are the knower of my paths. In the way wherein I walk, have they concealed a snare for me. I looked to my right hand and beheld, but no one there acknowledged me. Flight itself fled from me; there was no patron for my soul. I cried to You, O Lord, I said, ‘You are my hope, in the land of the living my inheritance.’ Attend to my entreaty, for I am greatly humbled. Deliver me from my pursuers, for they are mightier than I. From the dungeon free my soul, unto the praising of Your holy name. The righteous shall await me, until You recompense me.”
Following an impulse early found in biblical history, an unknown hand added a note to the title of this psalm, describing it as the prayer offered by David “when he was in the cave.” As, in his younger years, he was being pursued by Saul, David probably concealed himself in several caves, there being no shortage of them in the Judean desert. First Samuel 22 tells of his seeking refuge from Saul in “the cave of Adullam,” and two chapters later there is a dramatic description of David’s concealment from Saul in a cave near Engedi by the Dead Sea. Perhaps these are the scenes that the scribal hand intended. Anyway, it is easy to think of this psalm as inspired by such experiences in the life of David. Or to imagine David praying it later when he was fleeing from Absalom.