Friday, August 11

Psalm 88 (Greek & Latin 87): It is appropriate that this psalm of the Passion be prayed on Friday, the “day when the Bridegroom is taken away.” Thus, the “voice” of this prayer is that of Christ, who, in his assumption of man’s sin, felt the full measure of the divine wrath. St. Luke calls this utterly mysterious experience an agonia, which prompted our Lord to pray “more earnestly.” His prayer was so intense that “his sweat became as large drops of blood falling to the ground” (22:44).
The divine wrath is revealed in the staggering realism of death. Thus, Jesus prays here, “My soul draws near to the realm of the dead (sheol, hades); I am numbered among those descending into the pit.” In this prayer he freely assumes the mortality of fallen man. “I am helpless, adrift among the dead, like the slaughtered lying in the grave.”

According to the Apostle Paul, “sin reigned in death” (Romans 5:21). Christ’s agony consisted in his confrontation with death, the inheritance bequeathed to this world by man’s sins, beginning with Adam. This is the revelation of the divine anger, because “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (1:18). Jesus, in his agonia, experienced the force of that wrath manifested in death. Thus, he prayed, “You placed me in the deepest pit, in darkness and the shadow of death. Your anger lies heavy upon me.”

In this psalm, there is no relief from the experience of the divine wrath. Even at the end, it is still the case that, “Your fierce anger has come upon me;? Your terrors have cut me off.”

For all its gloom and shadow, for example, is it without significance that the psalm begins by thus addressing the Almighty: “O Lord, the God of my salvation”? The intimacy and quiet hope of this address put one in mind of Psalm 22, in which the crucified Jesus, asking why God has forsaken Him, nonetheless continues to call Him “my God, my God.”

Bearing in mind that our fear of death is a reaction of the fleshly man, the “old Adam,” still active within us, we should be mightily consoled to think that the Holy Spirit, in this psalm, has made such generous provision for this fleshly side of ourselves. The Holy Spirit, that is to say, gives our fleshly fear its due. If we yet feel this fear of death, the Holy Spirit is careful for this fear to find expression in prayer. Here is the tender condescension of God, that He provides even that our fallen nature may voice itself to Him in supplication and the lowly fealty of our very fear.

Jesus took on Himself, not our pristine, unfallen nature, but our nature as tainted at the ancient tree and throughout the rest of our history. So the fear of death expressed in this psalm is certainly a fear that Jesus felt. If, in addition, as Holy Scripture indicates in so many places, death is but the outward expression of sin and our alienation from God, then a deeper understanding of sin must surely imply a more profound understanding of death. And who understood sin more than Jesus? Likewise was His perception of death vastly more ample and accurate than our own. And, as He knew more about the power of death than any of the rest of us, there is every reason to believe that He felt this fear of death more than the rest of us possibly could.

Saturday, August 12

Acts 19:23—20:1: The excavations at Ephesus, which is the world’s largest excavation site, show it to have been a tightly populated city, the sort of place where a riot could be easily incited and quickly spread. In addition, as we know from informal inscriptions carved into the flagstones of the streets, the silversmiths of the city had their shops concentrated in a area very near the amphitheater of Ephesus. This latter, which easily seats up to 25,000 people, is still in an excellent state of preservation.

The “Artemis” worshipped at Ephesus, in spite of her name, was not the virgin huntress of the Greeks but a fertility goddess, roughly the equivalent of the Phoenician Astarte and the Phrygian Cybele, portrayed with twenty-eight breasts, one for each day of the lunar menstrual cycle. She was often represented in figurines of silver and terra cotta, and, according to the present text, so was her famous shrine at Ephesus, recognized in antiquity as one of the seven wonders of the world (cf. Strabo, Geography 14.1.20).

Because Paul and his team have been so successful in their preaching (supported, as we have seen, by miraculous healings), the silversmiths understandably feel that their idol-making business is under threat. Moreover, because the shrine at Ephesus has for a long time drawn pilgrims from far and wide, a loss of interest in that city’s famous shrine would have an even more devastating effect on the municipal economy (verse 27).

Such a fear, of course, is identical to that expressed at Philippi in Acts 16:19, and the impact of the Christian Gospel on pagan religion was readily obvious to thoughtful pagans (cf. Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96.10).

So, two of Paul’s companions, who happen to be nearby, are abducted and dragged into the amphitheater, where the riot becomes concentrated. The situation grows tense and dangerous. Both of the apprehended Christians come from out of town, Aristarchus being a Thessalonian (Acts 20:4; 27:2; Philemon 24) and Gaius a Lycaonian from Derbe (Acts 20:4). Paul’s various friends and the other Christians prudently restrain him from entering the amphitheater, which has meanwhile become a scene of utter confusion, many of the rioters unsure why are rioting. Fearing that this situation might pose some special threat for the Jews, who in any case were never popular at Ephesus (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 16.6.1), a Jew named Alexander endeavors to disassociate the Jews from the Christians (verse 33), but mobs do not readily recognize distinctions so subtle. Besides, one of the abducted Christians is a Jew (cf. Colossians 4:10-11)! The riot could have ended very badly, but the Roman insistence on common sense and good order saves the day (verses 35-41). (If, as I have earlier suggested, Paul spent some time in jail at Ephesus, this was surely the occasion.)

A single man’s ability to restore order amidst such confusion should be credited, in no small measure, to the extraordinary acoustics of that amphitheater. Some decades ago I began to read this entire account in the Ephesian amphitheater in a slightly elevated stage voice and saw, spread all throughout the place, a hundred or more tourists, only a handful of them known to me, suddenly grow quiet, sit down, and listen to the story.

Sunday, August 13

Acts 20:2-16: At the end of three years in Ephesus, Paul returned to Macedonia in late 55, his journey apparently taking in also the large region northwest of Macedonia, known as Illyricum or Dalmatia (cf. Romans 15:19). While traveling in Macedonia, Dalmatia, and Greece during the year 56, Paul wrote 2 Corinthians (perhaps from Philippi, where he received a report on the Corinthian congregation from Titus — 2 Corinthians 2:13; 76-14), 1 Timothy, and Titus. Sometime during that year he apparently journeyed with Titus to Crete as well (cf. Titus 1:5).

Although Paul planned to spend the winter of 56/57 at the Greek city of Nicopolis, a port on the Adriatic Sea (Titus 3:12), at the beginning of January he returned to Corinth, not far eastward, where he lived during the first three months of 57 (Acts 20:2-3). While there, he wrote the Epistle to the Romans.

Traveling in two separate companies over to Troas, Paul needed several extra companions to carry and protect the money collected for Jerusalem. Their names are enshrined forever in Acts 20:4. Paul’s trip from Macedonia to Troas required five days (Acts 20:6). His company remained at Troas an entire week in order to share in the Sunday Eucharistic worship (20:7). Perhaps Paul had intended to be present for that worship on the previous Sunday but had simply not arrived early enough. In any case, we suddenly find him pressed for time.

When Paul finally left for Troas that Sunday morning, after losing a night’s sleep for the all-night vigil of worship, he decided to walk overland to the port of Assos while the others sailed around the small cape from Troas (20:13). It was a warm April day, and Paul, tired, preoccupied, and in a bit of a hurry, inadvertently left his heavy winter cloak at Carpus’s house in Troas, along with some other items (2 Timothy 4:23). Anxious to be in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost, fifty days after Easter (20:16), he met his companions at Assos on Monday, landing on the island of Lesbos on Tuesday (20:14), rounding the island of Chios on Wednesday, reaching Samos on Thursday, and landing at Miletus (the modern Balat) on Friday. Messengers were immediately dispatched to Ephesus, thirty miles inland, so that the presbyters of that church could come to Miletus to worship with Paul on Sunday (20:17). Paul will give his last sermon in Asia Minor.

Tuesday, August 15

Joshua 8: Although the Lord had delivered Jericho to Israel’s armies in a miraculous fashion, this seems not to have been the case with the city of Ai. The present chapter describes the fall of Ai, rather, in terms of regular military tactics. That is to say, it is sometimes the case that the Lord—to demonstrate the sovereignty of His grace—uses extraordinary and unexpected means to accomplish His purposes. At other times, He acts through means that are more obviously human. The present chapter illustrates such an instance.

John 2:1-11: According to this story, Mary approached her son—now a mature man—with an implied request on behalf of some embarrassed newly-weds.

Although now and then a regional rivalry between Nazareth and Cana prompted the citizens of one village to disparage the merits of the other (John 1:46), we are probably right to think such banter benign. The two places were doubtless linked—along with neighboring Bethsaida (1:41-45)—by numerous friendships, and we know that Jesus visited Cana more than once (4:46).

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Mary was invited to a wedding in that village. Indeed, John begins his story by noting her presence there (John 2:1). Nor is it extravagant to imagine she may have gone to Cana early in order to assist with the preparations.

If—as I guess—Mary assisted in the wedding preparations, it is not surprising that she, it was, who noticed the wine shortage. Indeed, during the several days of feasting, this helpful wedding guest may occasionally have cast a wary eye at the beverage supply, growing a tad alarmed at its steady decline. At last it was gone, and Mary determined to speak with her son.

Mary’s knowledge of Jesus was not of this dogmatic sort. It was, first of all, a mother’s knowledge of her child, especially a child who had lived with her well into adulthood.

There was surely more, as well: It would be wrong to imagine that when the Holy Spirit, “the power of the Highest,” descended upon her to effect the conception of Jesus, the Spirit intended this decent as a transitory visit.

Mary was not just a temporary or purely physical conduit of the Incarnation. The relationship between Jesus and his mother was transpersonal and transcendent to biology. She was truly the mother, and not simply the “bearer,” of God’s Son. When, during her pregnancy, she declared, “He who is mighty has done great things for me” (Luke 1:49), she was aware of at least this much. Day by day she measured, and now continued to measure, what this meant. If, then, she knew Jesus at all—if being the mother of God’s Son meant anything, it certainly meant she was entitled to speak to him about a shortage of wine.

Wednesday, August 16

Acts 21:1-14: Luke now carefully traces the stages of Paul’s journey southward, first noting his arrival at Cos that Sunday evening. This island, dedicated to Asklepios, the god of healing, was perhaps special to the “beloved physician” as the homeland of Hippocrates, the father of Greek medicine, who sat under the famous plane tree and instructed his medical students in the art of healing.

Paul’s company arrives at Rhodes on Monday and at Patara on Tuesday. Leaving this coastline vessel, they embark on a sea-going ship on their way to the Phoenician city of Tyre, some four-hundred nautical miles to the southeast, sailing around Cyprus. Finding Christians at Tyre (cf. 15:3), they remain for a week, and then press on to Ptolemais, twenty-five miles to the south, and then Caesarea, forty miles further (or thirty-two miles if they went by land).

One nearly gains the impression that Luke is copying out notes from a journal that he maintained on the trip, and one of the general effects of this listing of ports is to heighten the suspense of Paul’s approach to Jerusalem. Even back at Miletus he had spoken of the prophetic warnings that he was receiving with respect to this trip to Jerusalem (20:23), warnings later repeated at Tyre (21:4). Here at Caesarea, however, such forebodings are intensified by the prophecies of Agabus, whom we met earlier in 11:27, and the daughters of Philip the deacon (21:8-11).

Finally, Luke’s attention to detail, with which he narrates each step of this journey, renders all the more remarkable the omission of Antioch. After both the first (14:25) and second (18:22) missionary journeys, Paul took care to report back to the church at Antioch, but on this occasion, and with only a hint of explanation (20:16), he does not do so. Clearly, Paul is looking elsewhere now; his eyes are on Rome, as he had recently suggested in a letter to that city (Romans 15:22-28).

Mark 12:18-27: Jesus, as He is about to fulfill all of the Hebrew Scriptures over the next few days, shows His enemies things in the Bible that they either had not noticed or had seriously misunderstood.

Jesus’ reading of Exodus 3 is striking. He finds, buried and concealed in the story of the Burning Bush, plain evidence of the doctrine of the Resurrection. In doing this, He demonstrates that the true meaning of Holy Scripture is not always on the surface. Would we otherwise have guessed that the doctrine of the Resurrection was proclaimed from the Burning Bush? This style of reading of Holy Scripture, which uncovers deeper meaning concealed in the Sacred Text and in the event narrated there, is the “teaching” (didache) of Jesus, and it has always flourished in the theology of the Christian Church.
Thursday, August 17

Joshua 10: This chapter, in which attention is directed to the southern campaign of Joshua’s invasion, begins with an alliance formed to resist that invasion. This alliance, alarmed at the capitulation of the Gibeonites, recorded in the previous chapter, determines to attack Gibeon itself rather than Joshua’s invading force (verse 4). This procedure made military sense. If the alliance could punish the Gibeonites for their treaty with Joshua, it was reasoned, other Canaanite cities would think twice about following suit. If the attack on Gibeon proved successful, other cities would be disposed, rather, to join the coalition against Joshua.

This alliance of five Canaanite city-states, under the leadership of Jerusalem, had another reason for conquering Gibeon as a way of resisting Joshua’s advance. In fact, this second reason rendered the control of Gibeon imperative to the resistance—namely, Gibeon’s strategic position guarding the route through the Ajalon Valley, a route that would enable Joshua to divide and isolate the southern cities. After Joshua’s defeat of the alliance, his campaign pursued its remnant forces southward through that valley (verses 10-13).

Understanding the political situation throughout Canaan, Joshua resolves to make an example of the five kings involved in the alliance (verses 16-27). His ruthless tactics were extended to the citizens of Makkedah (verse 28), Libnah (verse 30), Lachish (verse 32), and elsewhere (verse 39). We may want to bear in mind that these descriptions are common in the language of battle, where they bear what we may call a “poetic sense.” That is to say, if ALL the citizens of all of these cities really did perish under Joshua’s sword, we readers of Holy Scripture will be hard pressed to explain why they continued to pose problems for Israel in the very near future.

Acts 21:15-25: Paul goes to pay his respects to James, the Lord’s “brother,” who appears to be the chief pastor of the church in that city and the leader of its presbyters. This impression is consonant with the early preserved lists of the bishops of the churches, where James is invariably listed as Jerusalem’s first bishop (along with Mark as Alexandria’s, Evodius as Antioch’s, Linus as Rome’s, and so on).

Unlike the earlier gathering at Jerusalem in Acts 15, this meeting does not mention the “apostles.” These latter have by now all left Jerusalem and have gone to preach the Gospel in other lands, some of which have preserved memories of earlier apostolic evangelization. There is evidence that the apostle Thomas preached in India, for example, Philip in Phrygia, Matthew in Syria and Ethiopia, and Andrew in Thrace. The apostle Peter had moved westward by this time, but the absence of his name from Paul’s letter to the Romans indicates that he had not yet reached the Empire’s capital, where he would, along with Paul, suffer martyrdom.

Meanwhile, at Jerusalem Paul’s report greatly heartens James and the presbyters (verses 19-20), but they express concern about certain misrepresentations of Paul being circulated among the Jewish Christians. Because of Paul’s frequent encounters with hostile Jews in various cities, he can hardly be surprised by such reports, and James is eager to put them to rest. Paul, desiring to be all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:19-23; Romans 7:12), acquiesces in James’s suggestion for how to go about neutralizing the rumors current among the “tens of thousands” (myriads — verse 20) of Jewish Christians. This suggestion involves the rather elaborate public fulfillment of a Nazirite vow (verses 23-24; Numbers 6:1-21).

Friday, August18

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].