Friday, January 5

Luke 3:7-20: Luke, alone among the Evangelists, describes John as preaching to the official representatives of the Roman Empire, the tax collectors and the soldiers of the Legions. This inclusion is consistent with Luke’s mentioning Tiberius Caesar in his first sentence about John’s ministry.

Hebrews 5:5-14: With respect to Christ our Lord, the author’s chief point in these verses is His compassion for sinners. He is compassionate, says Hebrews, because He suffered temptation. This theme was already introduced in Hebrews, at the end of that section dealing with the Incarnation: “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted” (2:17-18).

This author insists that this is kind of priest we need: He must feel the same weakness the rest of us feel: “For we do not have a High Priest unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but was, like ourselves, tempted in everything.”

The temptations faced by Jesus were recorded chiefly in two blocks of narrative in the New Testament: His temptation for forty days in the wilderness, and the agony in the garden. For all that, however, we should probably not imagine that these were the only times Jesus was subject to temptation. As the religious leaders of the Jewish people started to reject Jesus and His claims—an experience that apparently grew more intense during the course of His ministry—He began to realize that He would finish his life nailed to a cross. In fact, the gospels tell us, “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed” (Mark 8:31).

It is reasonable to think that the sadness and fear of Jesus, which became critical during His agony in the garden, took hold of His soul much earlier, as He came gradually to understand how sternly His fidelity to His Father would be tested.

If, as I believe to be the case, the Epistle to the Hebrews was written in the early 60’s, in these verses we have the earliest extant account of the Agony in the Garden.
Saturday, June 6

Matthew 2:1-15: There is an important parallelism between the story of the Magi and the account of the Great Commission; namely, the theme of the Church’s universal calling. Whereas Matthew ends his story with the Apostles being sent forth with the command, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (28:19), he begins his whole account with a kind of foreshadowing of that final mission by the arrival of the Magi, those wise searchers from the East who come to adore the newborn King of Israel. These two passages, then, thus embrace Matthew’s entire story of Jesus.

There is more suggested by the juxtaposition of these parallel texts, however; for the very purpose of the Great Commission is to transform the whole of humanity as the rightful heirs of the Magi. Like the stars themselves, the Apostles are sent forth to lead all nations into that path first followed by the wise men from the East.

Indeed, St. Paul compared the Apostles to those very heavens that “declare the glory of God,” quoting in their regard the Psalmist’s affirmation that “Their line has gone out through all the earth, / And their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm 18 [19]:4; Romans 10:18). The stars and the Apostles proclaim the same universal message, and that message is the Gospel.

Although the Magi were instructed by what they read in those heavens that ‘declare the glory of God’, they did not pursue their quest among the stars but upon the earth. They found the answer to their quest, that is to say, in a particular place and at a particular time. They accepted the spatial/temporal, fleshly limitations that God Himself assumed.

Luke 3:21-22: Luke’s description of this scene, alone among the Evangelists, speak of the Savior at prayer: “. . . Jesus—having been baptized—was praying . . .” This is the first of many times Luke describes Jesus communing with God as other human beings commune with God—namely, by prayer (cf. Luke 5:16; 6:12; 9:19,28; 10:21-23; 11:2; 22:32, 41-44; 23:46).

Also unique to Luke is his emphasis on the visible way the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus: “. . . the Holy Spirit, in bodily form (somatiko eidei) like a dove, came down upon him . . .”

Sunday, January 7

Matthew 3:13-17: In Matthew’s description of the Lord’s baptism, the event is portrayed as a theophany, a revelation given to the bystanders: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 emphasis added). Matthew very soon strengthens this emphasis by his insertion of Isaiah 9:1-2, a text about the revelation of the divine light to the nations (Matthew 4:13-16). This emphasis is related to Matthew’s theme of universal evangelization.

This baptismal revelation, in Matthew, is Trinitarian; the Father is revealed in the voice from heaven, the Son in the person baptized in the Jordan, and the Holy Spirit in the descending dove. In a parallel to this baptismal revelation, given at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Matthew places a corresponding “baptismal” scene at the end of it. This one is also Trinitarian: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

John 2:1-12: In this story of Cana, John introduces the Mother of Jesus. She appears only here and at the foot of the Cross (19:26–27). Thus, John places Mary at both the beginning and the end of Jesus’ public ministry. These two portrayals, both found only in John among the evangelists, have several things in common.

First, Mary does not appear in John’s Gospel outside of these two places. She frames the Lord’s public ministry.

Second, in both places she is called only “the mother of Jesus” and is never named. Uniting John’s portrayal of Mary at the wedding at Cana (the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry) and at the foot of the cross (the end) is what we might call “the theme of the royal mother.” John stresses Mary’s maternal relationship to Jesus; his use of the term “mother of Jesus” seems to convey a certain reverence, much as it does in Luke’s portrayal of the nascent Church gathered in the upper room, waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Third, in each instance Jesus addresses his mother as “Woman” (gyne). This, too, unites the two stories. Though this bare expression strikes the modern ear as impolite, perhaps even harsh, it was in fact a formal and decorous way for women to be addressed in biblical times (see, for example, Matthew 15:28 [Canaanite woman]; Luke 13:12 [crippled woman in the synagogue]; John 4:21 [Samaritan woman]; 8:10 [woman taken in adultery]; 20:13 [Mary Magdalene]).

Fourth, in both cases a “new family” is formed—in the first scene by the wedding itself, and in the second scene by a kind of adoption in which the beloved disciple “took her to his own home.”

John’s “mother of Jesus” thus plays an important part near the beginning of his account of the Lord’s ministry, in “the first of his signs,” wherein he “manifested his glory” at Cana (John 2:11). In the dialogue leading up to this manifestation, Jesus seems at first to bridle at his mother’s hint that He should relieve the shortage of wine at the wedding feast. He explains to her, “My hour has not yet come” (2:4).

Monday, January 8

Matthew 4:12-17: This is the first of three pericopes about Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. The next two stories are the calling of the first apostles at the Sea of Galilee (4:18-22) and the gathering of the great multitude (4:23-25) that will hear the Sermon on the Mount in the next chapter.

In the present text Matthew sets the stage for this Galilean ministry by showing it as a fulfillment of prophecy, specifically Isaiah 9:1-2. This prophecy, having to do with Gentiles finding the light, takes up the same theme as the earlier story of the pagan Magi who followed the star.

This early emphasis on the Galilean ministry is important to the structure of Matthew. At the end of his Gospel (in stark contrast to Luke) the revelation of the risen Christ to the Church will take place in this same “Galilee of the Gentiles” (28:7,10,16). Matthew’s story of Jesus ministry thus begins and ends in Galilee, the place where Jews and Gentiles live together. Galilee is thus an image of the Church.

Titus 1:1-16: This very solemn introduction (verses 1-4) rivals those of the longer epistles, which were addressed to whole congregations. In this respect, the Epistle to Titus may be contrasted to the other epistles addressed only to individuals (Timothy, Philemon).

God’s promise was made at the dawn of history (verse 2), but now it is manifest in the preaching of the Gospel (verse 3). All of history was guided by that original promise, so the Gospel embraces all of history in its scope and interest.

Paul’s directions for the choice and ordination of ministers (verses 5-9) correspond to those that he had given to Timothy a year or so earlier (1 Timothy 3:1-7). Such a minister is called both an “elder” (presbyteros —verse 5) and an “overseer” (episkopos —verse 6). In these two Greek words we discern the etymological roots of the English words “priest” and “bishop.” Only in the very early second century, it would seem (for our first extant witness, Ignatius of Antioch, wrote in 107), did the two terms come to signify two distinct offices. (This reasonable hypothesis argues only that there was a development in terminology, not a development in the ministry itself.)

It is imperative to observe that the authority of these men comes from their choice and ordination by Titus (and Timothy and so on), who in turn were authorized by Paul. The New Testament knows of no legitimate ordained ministry except by an historical continuity traceable to those eleven men who received the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20).

That is to say, Christian ordination is an historical institution, literally “handed down,” conferred by the laying on of hands by those authorized to do so; the notion of a “succession” is essential to this ministry.

Tuesday, January 9

Matthew 4:18-25: The second pericope (18-22) about the ministry in Galilee, the calling of the first Apostles. As fishermen, these follow a profession with a playful analogy with the ministry of the Church. That is, they become “fishers of men,” drawing the whole world into the Holy Spirit’s net, which is the Church. In the third Galilean pericope (23-25), the fishing is extended to the larger region of the Decapolis and Syria. The Church’s fishing net is being spread to cover a larger area. This text is a step in preparation of the Great Commission, given in Matthew’s final chapter, about the disciplizing of “all nations.” The people are gathering here, of course, to hear the Sermon on the Mount, which will fill the next three chapters of Matthew.

Titus 2:1-15: Titus 2:1-15: In the previous chapter Paul had spoken about being “sound in the faith” (hygiainosin en tei pistei-—1:13). Such “soundness” is the mark that he further inculcates in the present chapter, exhorting Titus to “speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine” (hygiainousei didaskalioi-—verse 1), so that mature men may be “sound in faith” (hygiainantes tei pistei-—verse 2) and of “sound speech” (logon hygie-—verse 8). This “soundness” (in the Greek root of which, hygi, we recognize our English words “hygiene” and “hygienic”) is a noted theme also in the letters to Timothy (cf. 1 Timothy 6:3; 2 Timothy 1:13; 4:3). Christian teaching, that is to say, should carry the marks of intellectual, moral, and emotional health. It will not recommend itself if it encourages thoughts, sentiments, and behavior that are manifestly unhealthy.

In verse 2 we observe the triad of faith, love, and patience. This conjunction, common to the letters to Timothy (cf. 1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 3:10), is also found earlier in Paul (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:3-4).

In verse 5, as elsewhere in Paul (1 Corinthians 14:35; Ephesians 5:22; Colossians 3:18; 1 Timothy 2:11-14), wives are exhorted to be subordinated (hypotassomenas, from the verb tasso, “to set in order,” “to arrange”) to their husbands. With respect to this exhortation, the Baptist exegete E. Glenn Hinson observes: “The initiative is to be with the wife. . . . Paul did not tell husbands to subdue their wives.” Even with this sage caveat, nonetheless, it is obvious that Paul’s exhortation runs directly counter to the contemporary egalitarian impulse.

Wednesday, January 10

Matthew 5:1–12: The Sermon on the Mount begins with two very solemn verses, as though to allow everyone to sit down and get settled for a long discourse. The Sermon functions in more than one way to serve the structure of Matthew’s entire composition. For example, taking place on a mountain at the very beginning of the Lord’s ministry, it is the initial component of a parallel with the mountain at the end of the Gospel, the mountain from which Jesus sent the Apostles to teach what he had taught (28:20).

Again, the Sermon is the first of the five great discourses—a New Testament Chumash as it were—which are the didactic backbone of Matthew’s Gospel. Functioning thus, it stands in chiastic correspondence to the last of these five discourses, the lengthy sermon on the Last Things (chapters 23–25).

Titus 3:1-15: As always, Paul is solicitous for the good reputation of Christians, knowing that the fortunes of the Church’s evangelism and ministry in this world depend, in no small measure, on that reputation. Thus, in the previous chapter he urged that the conduct of Christian women be such as not to hurt God’s cause (2:5).
Now, following that same solicitude in the present chapter, he urges Christians “to be subject [hypotassesthe, the same verb as in 2:5] to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, . . . showing humility to all men” (verses 1-2; cf. verse 8). Few things, surely, would more seriously impede the cause of the Gospel than the impression that Christians are contentious, rebellious, disobedient, and unpatriotic (cf. also Romans 13:1-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; 1 Peter 2:13).

The doctrine of baptismal regeneration in verse 6 (cf. also Romans 6:4; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15; Ephesians 5:26; Colossians 2:11-13), and the expression “renewing of the Holy Spirit,” used in conjunction with this reference to Baptism, seems to refer to the post-baptismal laying on of hands (cf. Acts 8:14-17; 19:5-6; Hebrews 6:2).

It is possible that the phrases in verses 4-7 were taken from a hymn or other liturgical prayer that Titus would recognize. This would explain Paul’s affirmation, in verse 8, that “this is a faithful saying” (cf. also 1 Timothy 1:15; 3:1; 4:9; 2 Timothy 2:11).

The unrepentant “divisive man” in verse 10 is literally the “heretical man”—haeretikos anthropos; the adjective appears only here in the New Testament. Paul’s counsel that such a one be avoided after, at most, two admonitions was understood rather strictly by the early Christians (cf. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 1.16.3; Tertullian, De Praescriptione 16).

Thursday, January 11

Matthew 5:13-20: We start with the metaphors of salt and light, both of them referring to Christians. In each case the beneficiary of these two blessings is the earth (ge) or World (kosmos), meaning those who are not Christians (verse 13). Salt and light describe the very people that the world persecutes and maligns (verses 11–12). No amount of persecution justifies the forfeiture of the Christian vocation to be salt and light to the rest of humanity. Neither salt nor light exist for themselves. Should Christians fail in this vocation, they are no longer of any use. They are to be “thrown out,” like the tares (13:40) and the inedible fish (13:48).

The metaphor of light on a lamp stand is transformed into a city seated on an acropolis, where it is visible to everyone (verse 14). Neither can Christians be concealed if they do the “good works” (ta kala erga) that their heavenly Father expects of them (verse 16). Those who see these good works belong to the same “earth” or “world” that persecutes the Christians. The world is to be enlightened by the very people it persecutes.

What Matthew has in mind here is the Christian vocation to holiness, by which the world is instructed in the ways of God. This holiness, according to the present passage, pertains to the missionary mandate of the Church. It is the way the Church shares the Gospel with “all nations” (28:19–20). This is the light that shines on those sitting in darkness (4:16).

Matthew has already begun to say a great deal about Jesus’ fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Now he starts to speak of Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law. Indeed, the word “prophets” in the present passage (verse 17) does not refer to the fulfillment of biblical prophecies in the Old Testament. It refers, rather, to the prophets in their role as interpreters of the Law—the prophets as moral teachers. The sense of this verse, then, is that Jesus completes, or brings to fulfillment, the moral doctrine of the Law and its continuation in the Prophets. Throughout the rest of this chapter, therefore, Matthew speaks simply of the Law, not mentioning the Prophets again.

Hebrews 6:1-12: This work, apparently a sort of sermon (logos parakleseos—13:22), was composed for a congregation in fairly dire straits. This work contains several warnings about the dangers of apostasy. To find anything comparable to this in the New Testament, we must go to the letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in the Book of Revelation. Certainly we don’t find this level of warning in any of Paul’s letters to the churches, not even in the epistles to the Galatians and the Corinthians.

The author, however, adopts a tack that may appear surprising: Instead of reviewing the fundamentals of the Christian faith, he determines to take the congregation into deeper waters. He says to them, “let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity” (ESV). He explains what he means by referring to the earlier catechesis offered to the congregation at the time of their reception into the Christian Church.

He does this by way of reminding them of the components of that catechesis: “repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.” In the Acts of the Apostles we find all these subjects as matters of instruction when people were brought to the Christian faith.

Our author refers to them here just in passing, as it were, by way of reminding the congregation briefly of things they already know.

He then reminds them of the sacred mysteries by which they were received into the Christian Church. He reminds them of their enlightenment in Baptism—indeed, he actually uses this ancient expression for Baptism: “those who were once enlightened.”

Likewise, he mentions the Holy Communion, which was part of their reception into the Church: “have tasted the heavenly gift.” He speaks of the gift of the Holy Spirit, conferred by the laying on of hands: “have become partakers of the Holy Spirit.” He briefly mentions the understanding of God’s Word imparted to those who join the Church: “have tasted the good word of God.” And finally, refers to all of these experiences as a foretaste of heaven: “the powers of the world to come.”

The author intentionally does not dwell on these things; it is sufficient merely to mention them. Indeed, he mentions them to support a warning against apostasy. He says that those who have experienced such abounding grace must not come short, because it is unlikely they will ever get such a chance again. In fact, he does not even use the word “unlikely.” He says “impossible.”: it is impossible . . . to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.”

This is a very strong warning, obviously. Indeed, some readers of Holy Scripture have taken this warning in a very literal sense, interpreting it to mean an actual theological impossibility.

I do not read the text this way. The interpretive Tradition of the Church understands this “impossibility” in an exhortative sense, indicating the author’s intention to put the fear of God in his listeners.

We recall that Jesus also used rhetorical expressions of this sort, referring to cutting off one’s hand, gouging out one’s eye, and even making oneself a eunuch. Rhetorical expressions of this sort have the merit of gaining the full attention of the listener, which they certainly do.

In short, those original listeners to the Epistle to the Hebrews knew themselves to be hearing a final warning, before it was too late.

The author presses the point home: “For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by whom it is cultivated, receives blessing from God; but if it bears thorns and briers, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned.” There is only one possible meaning to this warning: the author is reminding his listeners that the fires of hell remain a distinct possibility, if they do not take his admonition seriously.

One suspects that some of them were unhappy with this sort of talk; there have always been Christians who resisted being told of the possibility of eternal damnation. Yet, when there is a clear danger of apostasy, the Christian preacher has the strict moral obligation to mention the matter to those who are in that danger.

So, what does our author propose? He proposes what he calls “going on to perfection,” “going on to maturity.” Rather than return to subjects they already know, he determines to take his listeners into deeper waters, to consider things they have not yet considered, to meditate on a subject of great moment: the more profound significance of the mystery of Christ.

This sermon, or logos parakleseos, accordingly, deals with the mysteries of the Incarnation, the Redemption purchased on the Cross, the exaltation of Christ to God’s right hand, and the dynamics of history.

In the face of a possible defection from the faith, our author resolves to make his listeners familiar with more profound dimensions of the faith. This is the substance of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Friday, January 12

Matthew 5:21-30: The first of Matthew’s five contrasts has to do with the Lord’s understanding of the Torah’s prohibition, “Thou shalt do no murder” (verse 21). Here, as in the next examples, Jesus responds, “but I say to you,” a formula indicating that His own understanding of the Law is superior even to that of Moses.

There is an irreducible claim in these sustained assertions—namely, that Jesus, being the very Lawgiver of Mount Sinai, has the authority to speak for the Law’s intention. This claim is based on the standard legal principle: “the meaning of a law is determined by the intention of the lawgiver.” Moses, after all, was only the promulgator of the Torah, not its author. Jesus implicitly makes the latter claim for Himself, which is the reason He is speaking from the mountain (verse 1).

Thus, Jesus understands the prohibition against murder not simply as an injunction against taking someone’s life, but as an interdiction excluding all acts of anger and violence, including speech and even thought (verse 22). This teaching is given in detail and at some length, as Matthew portrays Jesus as the Teacher of the Church. He teaches with authority (7:29).

In the present case—dealing with anger—the teaching of Jesus is consistent with standard Old Testament moral doctrine, especially in the Wisdom literature (Proverbs 6:14, 34; 14:17, 29; 15:1, 18; 16:14, 32; 19:19; 27:4; cf. James 1:19–20).

The context of this prohibition against anger and violence is the Christian Church, a point indicated by the references to the “brother” (verses 22, 23, 24). Indeed, these admonitions are set within the context of the Church’s Eucharistic worship (verse 24). This is clearer, perhaps, in the Didache, a Syrian work roughly contemporary with Matthew: “But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned” (Didache 14). In short, love is superior to sacrifice (12:7; Mark 12:33–34).

Reconciliation must be made “quickly” (verse 25), so that the conflict does not grow out of hand. The “imprisonment” in this section refers to the divine judgment, as it does in the parable of the unforgiving servant (18:34–35).

The teaching of these verses implicitly contrasts contention with love. For Jesus and the New Testament, love is the true fulfillment of the Torah (22:40). For this reason, it is important to understand what is meant by love and not to be confused by its counterfeits. This consideration forms the sequence to the next contrast.