Friday, January 19

Mathew 7:1-6: Just as the preceding verses told us not to worry about ourselves, these verses tell us not to worry about others. In neither case are we to take the place of God. This chapter, then, continues the theme of freedom from distraction, so that God receives our entire attention. One will also observe an irony in these verses. Immediately after being told not to “size up” others (7:1-5), we are exhorted to size them up! (7:6)

Psalms 35 (Greek & Latin 36): In this psalm, the characteristics of the lawless man are contrasted, not with those of a just man, but with the boundless divine mercy: “Your mercy, O Lord, is in the heavens. . . . How precious is Your mercy, O God. . . . Oh, continue Your mercy to those who know You.” This is not a psalm about human morality, but about the metaphysics of mercy.

The qualities of divine mercy are indicated by the various words with which it is set in parallel—faithfulness, righteousness, judgments: “Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the great mountains; Your judgments are a great deep.” Gazing out on the vast expanse of sky, mountains and sea, the psalmist contemplates the multidimensional mercy of God: “that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:17–19).

When we pray this psalm, therefore, we do not need to go outside of our own souls to discover the identity of the “lawless man,” before whose eyes “there is no fear of God.” That lawlessness is a deep dimension of ourselves that is recalcitrant to God’s infinite mercy and the righteousness of His judgments. This lawless man lives in his own little world, its chief characteristic being that it is so terribly, so pitifully little.

The sole cure for this rebellion in our hearts is the divine gift of mercy. Only God can heal our blindness: “For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light we see light.” Knowing that all is His gift, we ask only the maintenance of God’s mercy: “Oh, continue Your mercy to those who know You, and Your righteousness to the upright in heart.”

Hebrews 9:16-28: For the ancients, blood was not simply a bodily fluid. It was the source of the body’s life. It was, for all practical purposes, the soul: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul” (Leviticus 17:11).

For the ancients, blood was a thing of the spirit. As the source of man’s life, it was the blood that joined man to his Creator. Blood was fleshly, but it was also godly. It was the link between man and his Creator. When it flowed out of his body, man died. He was no longer linked to his Creator, so he died.

This intuition explains why, in the Bible, all sacrifices of atonement are blood sacrifices. All sin offerings involve the shedding of blood. Only blood can mediate atonement. Whenever the link between God and man has been sundered, there must be the shedding of blood.

In the case of Jesus, however, the blood is “godly” in a new sense, because of the Incarnation. If the shedding of human blood, according to Genesis 4, cries out to God, how much more the blood of God’s Son. Inasmuch as the “life is in the blood,” the pouring out of Jesus’ blood is the pouring out of the life that God assumed in our flesh. This is the sacrifice by which we have access to God.

Saturday, January 20

Matthew 7:7-8: The triple exhortation to prayer contains what may be understood as a kind of regression. By this I mean that the situation or locus of the person praying is pictured as increasingly more distant from God.

First, man is told to “ask.” This command presupposes that he has ready access to God. All he needs to do is ask, because God is at hand. Isaiah tells us to “call upon Him while He is near” (55:6). And the Psalmist boldly asserts, “The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth” 145:18).

The man who receives the exhortation to “ask” is so familiar with the Lord that his prayer is nearly effortless, as it were. He is accustomed to prayer. He prays continually. God is ever at hand and simply waits for him to pray. It is a prayer of familiarity.

Second, man is told to “knock.” Between him and God there is a closed door. The Lord does not seem to be so near. The prayer, therefore, must become more vigorous and insistent. Knocking is a step beyond asking, because a closed door stands in the way. The prayer is not so familiar.

At the same time, the one who knocks at least knows the location of the door. That is to say, he still remembers where the Lord is to be found. He is clear about where to knock. He may not be on familiar terms with the Lord, but he has not lost sight of the right door. His prayer is more distant, but it is no less certain. Like the younger son who strayed far from home in Luke 15, he still knows where the Father lives.

Third, man is told to “seek.” In other words, he is not only not on familiar terms with the Lord, he is not really sure about the location of the door. Such a one is not told to ask, nor does he even know where even to knock. His immediate task is, rather, to seek. His prayer will take the form of a quest. He must first discover the door on which to knock.

Not all men are in the same place with respect to prayer, but all are told to pray, and a like promise attends them all. The difference is in the form of the prayer, not the manner in which God hears the prayer. None of these prayers are refused. To one it will be granted, to another it will be opened, and the third is sure to find.

Men experience God at various distances, but in truth He is nigh unto them all. The differences in prayer are differences among men, not a difference in God, who graciously hears every voice directed to Him, whether by a close friend, an occasional acquaintance, or a distant seeker. The Lord is a God of universal suffrage. He is eager to hear from all of us.

Sunday, January 21

Matthew 7:13-23: Here begins a series of contrasts: two different ways and gates (7:13f), two kinds of trees and fruits (7:15-20), two sorts of people (7:21-23), two contrasted builders (7:24-27), two opposed styles of teaching (7:29). The references to plants and fruit in 7:16-19 are paralleled in 12:33 (cf. also Luke 6:43f; John 15:4f). Because of the risks involved in all agriculture, there are clear threats in verses 13 and 19, which will be paralleled in verses 23 and 27.

Matthew 7:22 closes the Sermon on the Mount with a reference to the day of judgment, which will also be the case in the fifth and last of the Lord’s great sermons in Matthew, the discourse on the Last Things (25:31-46).

Hebrews 10:1-10: The obedience of Jesus is a matter of considerable importance in the New Testament. He Himself declared that He came, not to seek His own will, but the will of the Father who sent Him (John 5:30). This doing of the Father’s will bears particular reference to His Passion, in which “He . . . became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8). This was the obedience manifested in our Lord’s prayer at the very beginning of the Passion: “Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will” (Mark 14:36).

The body “prepared” for Christ in the Incarnation became the instrument of His obedience to that “will” of God by which we are redeemed and rendered holy: “By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. . . . For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (vv. 10, 14).

The “He” of this psalm, then, according to the New Testament, is Christ the Lord. We pray it properly when we pray it as His own words to the Father. The “will” of God to which He was obedient was that “will” to which He referred when in the Garden He prayed: “Not my will, but Yours be done.”

This self-oblation of our Lord’s obedience to God is not simply a feature of this particular psalm; it is the interpretive door through which we pray all of the psalms. The “Your will be done” of the Lord’s Prayer is likewise the summation of the entire Book of Psalms, and what ultimately makes Christian sense of the Psalter.

Monday, January 22

Matthew 7:24-29: The reference to the building by a wise man puts the reader in mind of Solomon, remembered in Holy Scripture as both a wise man and a builder. It is the day of judgment which will reveal whether or not a man has wisely built on a strong foundation (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

The contrast between the prudent man (phronimos and the fool (moros) is later repeated in the parable of the five maidens awaiting the arrival of the Bridegroom in the middle of the night. They, too, are divided between the phronimai and the mori (cf. Matthew 25:1-13).

Hebrews 10:11-18: Citing Jeremiah 31, which he quoted at greater length in chapter 8, the author contrasts the sacrifices of the Mosaic Law with the sacrifice offered in the Passion of Jesus.

There are several points of contrast:

First, the Old Testament priest “stands,” whereas Jesus is enthroned: “And every priest stands ministering daily . . . But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.” From the very beginning of this work, Jesus is portrayed as “seated” in glory: “when He had purged sins, [He] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3). Later on the author will say of Jesus that He “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2).

This image of Jesus seated in glory is drawn mainly from Psalm 109 (110), cited at the beginning of this work (1:13) and obviously much favored in the early Church (cf. Mark 16:10; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Revelation 3:21).

Second, the Old Testament sacrifices were many, whereas the New Testament sacrifice is unique: “And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices . . . But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.” In the previous chapter we read that “Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many” (9:28). This word “once” (hapachs) is found in Hebrews 8 times, more than all the other New Testament books put together.

This hapachs, “once,” is contrasted with pollakis, “many times” (9:25-26).

This “once” contrasted with “many” is related to the “seated” contrasted with “standing.” The “once” and “seated” indicate finality and fulfillment—the end of history—whereas the “standing” and “many” suggest an ongoing process.

Third, the Old Testament sacrifices were unable, of themselves, to atone for sins and purify the heart: “And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins, and “by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.”

Implied in the development of this theme is an underlying judgment on the Jewish religion itself: Now that the fulfillment of its history has come in Christ and His redeeming work, the Jewish religion no longer represents God’s will for history. This is why it is called “the old covenant: “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (8:13). The continued existence of a “Jewish religion” alongside the Christian Gospel remains an anomaly yet to be resolved.

Tuesday, January 23

Matthew 8:1-4: Here is the first of the Ten Miracles that Matthew, following his standard pattern of comparing Moses and Jesus, sets in parallel to the Ten Plagues visited on Egypt. In the first of these, the curing of the leper, the Lord invokes the authority of Moses (8:4), and in the second he extends the blessing of the Chosen People to the faith of the Gentiles (8:11). And so forth.

Hebrews 10:19-25: What the Jewish high priest could do only once a year—enter the Holy of Holies—the Christian can do everyday, by reason of the blood of Christ. It is the blood of Christ that gives the believer intimate access to God.

The author begins by speaking of boldness—parresia, an expression of which he is fond: “having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus.”

In context, this boldness comes from the full certainty of faith: en plerophoria pisteos: “having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, . . . let us draw near with a true heart in full certainty of faith.”

This word, plerophoria is found four times in the New Testament, two of them in Hebrews. The other place is 6:11—“and we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full certainty of hope [plerophoria elpidos] until the end.”

And what does “full certainty” bring? Boldness—parresia. The full certainty of faith finds expression in boldness of the heart.

Whereas the Acts of the Apostles had used this word, parresia, to describe the proper tone in Christian preaching (Acts 4:13,28,29,31), St. Paul used the expression to speak of our relationship to God. He wrote that in Christ, “we have boldness [parresia] and access with confidence by the faith of Him” (Ephesians 3:12).

This is the normal sense of the word also in Hebrews, which is similar, in this respect, to Ephesians. Thus, our author says that we are the house of Christ, “if we hold fast the boldness [parresia] and the rejoicing of the hope firm to the end” (3:6). Again, he exhorts his readers, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:16). And somewhat later in the present chapter, he further exhorts, “Therefore do not cast away your boldness [parresia, which has great reward” (10:35).

Wednesday, January 24

Hebrews 10:26-31: Here we find one of Holy Scripture’s most solemn declarations of judgment. Having exhorted his readers to boldness in their access to God (verses 19-22), our author now describes the alternative in frightening terms.

In both instances—the exhortation to confidence and the warning of judgment—he uses the description “living, declaring that we have a new and living way,” and then reminding his readers, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” In both cases the modifier serves to put the reader on notice that these things are not matters of theory and abstraction. “Living,” in each of these contexts, indicates real, actual, existential. It means that both salvation and damnation are worthy of our most serious attention.

These verses depict the gravity of falling away from God. The author recalls that such falling away, even at the time of Moses, was dealt with in a radical manner—namely, those who rejected the rule of Moses were devoured with fiery indignation (verses 27-28). Our author, who has been at pains to emphasize the superiority of Jesus over Moses, argues here that this superiority implies a greater severity in those who fall away: “Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be deemed worthy who has trampled underfoot the Son of God” (verse 29). He had earlier contrasted Moses and Jesus, call the first God’s servant and the second God’s Son (3:5-6). How, he asks, which of them is it more dangerous to abandon?

Our author used this same argument in chapter 2, where he contrasted the word given by angels to the message given by Christ: “For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him?” (2:2-3)

In chapter 2, and again here, our author treats such apostasy as a sin against the Holy Spirit. Here he speaks of insulting the Spirit of grace (verse 29), and in chapter 2 he spoke of “the gifts of the Holy Spirit” as pertinent to the message of salvation (2:4).

When our text describes the just recompense of apostasy as “a certain fearful expectation of judgment and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries” (verse 37), the reader is put in mind of the rebellion against Moses, narrated in Numbers 16. According to that account, certain of the Reubenites—including Korah, Dathan, and Abiram—revolted against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Their punishment, we recall, consisted in being devoured by the earth, as fire from heaven descended upon them (Numbers 16:31-35).

Now, our author contends, if such was the retribution allotted to those who fell away from Moses’ Law, what should we expect for him who has “trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?” This is the sustained threat, he says, against anyone who sins willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth.”

Thursday, January 25

Hebrews 10:32-39: In a sense, this section of Hebrews is a synopsis of the whole, or at least a summary of its thesis. That is to say, it is an exhortation to patience.

An initial motive for patience, says our author, is the active recollection of those things endured immediately after conversion and baptism (verse 32). This is not simply a remembrance, but an intentional recollection: anamimneskesthe.

In those earlier days, he goes on, his readers experienced an áthlesis. This noun, obviously the root of the English “athletics,” is perhaps best translated as “struggle.” The present text is the only place where this word appears in the New Testament, though St. Paul uses similar metaphors drawn from sporting competition. Athlesis suggests that the Christian life carries within itself the character of contention, in the sense that either victory or defeat is still possible.

That struggle, says Hebrews, came in the aftermath of baptism: photisthentes—“you were enlightened.” We recall the same metaphor for baptism was used in 6:4.

It is important to recognize the relationship between baptism and struggle, such as we see here. Indeed, the three accounts of our Lord’s contention with the demon all come right after the story of His baptism.

In what was were these Christians tried after their baptism? They “were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations,” and they joined themselves to those “who were so treated” (verse 33). They suffered both psychologically and financially (verse 34), and they endured each thing in view of the greater treasure awaiting them in heaven.

The remembrance of these things—the active recollection of the many sufferings they had already endured—would strengthen the readers to brace themselves for whatever lay ahead. The message is clear: “Don’t give up now! Don’t waste the great investment already made.”

This passage is concerned with what I have called an “aftermath,” a term that literally means “what is learned (mathein) afterwards.” This word testifies that education is existential. In the present context it refers to the period after baptism. One does not learn to be a Christian until one has already become a Christian. The real study of the Christian life is post-baptismal. The life in Christ does not commence until a person is in Christ. Baptism is called “illumination,” because it is the introductory step. Only then can there be an “aftermath.

And this, says our author, is learned through patience, which is an exercise of faith. It is at this point that he quotes that famous line from Habakkuk, so dear to Paul: “The just shall live by faith” (verse 38; Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11). This prophetic citation about faith lays the basis for the long account of the heroes of faith in the following chapter.

Friday, January 26

Hebrews 11:1-7: To begin his history of the heroes of faith, our author goes to Creation itself. More specifically, he commences his consideration of history by appealing to a principle transcendent to history, supported by an experience common throughout history—to wit, the strong sense that the concrete, physical world, the world subject to experiential verification, is not self-explanatory. To put this thesis in other words, the world around us testifies to a spiritual domain beyond itself, a spiritual domain on which the physical world is dependent for its very existence. In our author’s own words; me ek phainoménon to blepómenon gegonénai—“what is seen does not come from visible things.”

All the saints of old, he says, bore witness to this: en tavte gar emartyrethesan hoi presbyteroi. This conviction of things unseen is the feature held in common by the sundry believers listed throughout the present chapter—from saints as learned as Moses (verse 24) o saints as simple as Samson (verse 32). They all lived their lives in the conviction that the present world presupposes a better one. This was true of the ancient patriarchs, who “looked for a city that has foundation” (verse 10), as well as those later saints who “were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection” (verse 35).

Man’s adherence to the world’s invisible source, says our author, is called faith; specifically it is faith in God’s creating word: “by faith we know [nooumen] the world were framed by the word of God [rhémati Theou].”

In speaking of the word of God in Creation, this author puts a great gulf between himself and Platonic philosophy, even when he uses words characteristic of Platonism (such as demiourgos in verse 10). The single link between the invisible and visible world is the word (rhema) of God. In making this assertion, the author of Hebrews relies entirely on the narrative in Genesis 1—Day by day during the first week of history, God spoke, and various creatures came into being. Over and over, the Lord said, “let there be,” and each time something visible—to blepomenon—suddenly appeared.”

In speaking of faith in these terms, the author is describing, rather than defining, his subject. He especially relates it to hope, or, more accurately, to “things hope for” (elpizoménon). That is to say, it looks to the future and, especially, the end of history.