Friday, February 2

Luke 2:22-40: Since the presentation of our Lord in the temple is an account found only in the Gospel of Luke (2:22-40), it seems reasonable to look at that narrative through the lens of Luke himself.

It is not hard to do. This is the story, after all, of the Messiah’s first visit to the temple in Jerusalem, a site that Luke makes a foundation stone of his literary structure. Indeed, he begins and ends his Gospel in the temple (1:5-9; 24:52-53).

Moreover, near the end of Jesus’ first visit to the temple, Luke remarks that the prophetess Anna “spoke of Him to all those who looked for the redemption in Jerusalem” (2:38). The real “redemption in Jerusalem” takes place, of course, in the last pages of Luke, describing the sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. These are the events included in what Luke’s original Greek text calls Jesus’ exodos, “which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (9:31).

Luke’s story takes for granted the full significance of the temple. He presumes that the reader is familiar with the Lord’s assumption of “residence” there shortly after its completion (1 Kings 8), His departure from it at the time of its destruction (Ezekiel 10), and His return there when the temple was rebuilt (Haggai 2:1-9; Zechariah 8-9).

Luke especially presumes the prophecy of the Messiah’s coming appearance at the temple, an oracle found near the end of the last prophetic book of the Hebrew Scriptures: “And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming, says the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 3:1).

According to that same prophecy, the purpose of the Messiah’s coming to the temple was to purify its priesthood: “He will purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer to the Lord an offering in righteousness” (3:3).

It was those very priests, however, who failed to recognize the Messiah’s arrival. On His final recorded visit to the temple, in fact, Luke tells us that “the chief priests and the scribes, together with the elders, confronted Him” (20:1). Their confrontation came in response to the purging of the temple in the scene immediately preceding (19:45-48).

Those sons of Levi wanted nothing to do with any purging. They had no use for what Malachi called the “refiner’s fire” and “launderers’ soap” (3:2). What, then, resulted from their confrontation with the Messiah? Luke tells us, “the chief priests and the scribes that very hour sought to lay hands on Him” (20:19). The temple was the site where this messianic drama was decided. It is surely significant, therefore, that Luke, in describing Jesus’ words about Jerusalem’s coming destruction, places that prophecy in the temple itself (21:20-24; contrast Matthew 24:3; Mark 13:3).

Such is the full literary context of Luke’s story of the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple. It is a prophetic preparation for the redemptive events that will culminate at the end of the Gospel. The Lord is met by Simeon, an elderly man whom Luke describes with references to the Holy Spirit in three successive verses (2:25-27). Cast in the role of a prophet by these references, the inspired Simeon, after a canticle of praise, prophesies the drama that will ensue in the temple toward the end of the Gospel: “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that will be spoken against” (2:34).

It was “in that instant” that Simeon was joined by “Anna, a prophetess,” who spoke of this Messiah “to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (2:36-38). This too, as we have seen, was a prophecy of the Lord’s death and resurrection, for those things brought about that “redemption in Jerusalem.”

Such, at the beginning of Luke, is the small company that welcomes the Messiah on His first visit to the temple. Upon these two old people comes an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, much as Luke describes in the beginning of Acts. Here too the Spirit descends upon a son and a daughter, a manservant and a maidservant, and they prophesy (Acts 2:17-18). Israel is well represented by these two figures who foster in their hearts the ardor of ancient hopes. But Simeon and Anna, even as they gave thanks to God for the Messiah’s arrival (2:28-29,38), dimly foretell the drama that will later unfold in the courts of the temple.

Saturday, February 3

Luke 2:41-52: Although the story of Jesus lost and found in the Temple is chiefly significant for its Christological import, its narrative structure conveys the “action” through the eyes and understanding of Mary. Luke invites us to take this approach in his final comment: “His mother continued to keep all these things in her heart.” Indeed, unless the reader approaches the story through Mary’s perception, he will miss much of its drama.

The introduction to the narrative, taking us readers along with it, first moves north. The storyteller and his readers travel towards Galilee with Mary and Joseph. The evangelist speaks of their worried search, though he does not directly mention their anxiety—indeed, it is made explicit only by Mary herself in the closing dialogue (Luke 2:48)—because the anxiety is implied in the details of the search.

Not finding the boy Jesus after a day’s journey, Mary and Joseph return south to Jerusalem—and we go back with them, of course—to continue their pursuit in the same place they last saw Jesus: “Now so it was that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions” (2:46).

Jesus, we all discover, is the center of attention: “And all who heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.”

The boy’s parents are bewildered: “So when they saw him,” writes Luke, “they were amazed.” Every parent comprehends their amazement: This was the child they had raised for a dozen years. Yet, he did not accompany them back home after the Passover, as he had done on every prior trip. Mary and Joseph searched for him frantically, but even when they find him, the child displays not the slightest remorse or concern for their anxiety. The mother of Jesus finds this insouciance on the part of her twelve-year old a bit more than she is disposed to accept without complaint: “Son, why have you done this to us? Look, your father and I have sought you anxiously” (Luke 2:48).

Then, the boy, instead of apologizing and promising it will not happen again, turns the question back on his mother: “Why did you seek me? Did you not know that I must be about the things of my Father?” From any other twelve-year old, this kind of answer would be called “back talk” and treated as impertinent.

Mary is portrayed as “anxious”—her own word—amazed, and confused. Considered from her perspective—as Luke clearly intends—the story is most noticeable as a test of Mary’s faith.

The angel Gabriel had spoken to her nearly thirteen years earlier, when she was perhaps half of her present age. At that time, indeed, she may not have been much older than Jesus was when they found him in the Temple. From that day when the angel visited her, it appears, Mary has understood rather little of what transpired. Like Abraham her father, she followed God’s will in faith but can hardly guess where it was all leading. She walked obediently, day by day, not knowing whither she went.

Luke’s story, which chronicles Jesus’ growth in wisdom, is told here through the person who witnessed that growth, and was obliged, in a very personal way, to explore its meaning. It was certainly from her that Luke learned the facts of the case.

Sunday, February 4

Matthew 9:27-38: The healing of two blind men in these verses parallels a very similar account in 20:29-34. This earlier healing of the two blind men stands in contrast to the growing spiritual blindness of Jesus’ enemies in these two chapters, terminating in 9:34.

The healing of blindness is a manifestation of the messianic era foretold in a number of Old Testament texts, notably Isaiah 29:18; 35:5; 42:7. This messianic note is particularly emphasized by the blind men calling Jesus “son of David.”

The Lord’s answer, “Let it be!” (genetheto), by which the light floods into the eyes hitherto blind, repeats the verb in Genesis 1:3, “Let there be light!” (genetheto phos). It is also worth mentioning that this cure of blindness, which is the ninth of Matthew’s series of ten miracles in chapters 8 and 9, is parallel to the ninth plague of Egypt, the darkness.

The account of the ten miracles terminates with the Pharaoh-like hardness of heart on the part of Jesus’ enemies (9:34). Very much as Matthew 4:23-25 set the stage for the Sermon on the Mount, the closing part of this section, verses 35-38, sets the stage for the calling of the Lord’s first missionaries and the missionary discourse of Matthew 10.

Indeed, Matthew 9:35 repeats 4:23 nearly word-for-word. This early mission-circuit of Jesus (periegen in verse 35, “He went around”) was stern work. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that there were 204 villages in Galilee. It was a foreshadowing of the Great Commission to “all nations” with which Matthew’s gospel ends.

Hebrews 13:16-25: The closing verses of Hebrews contain two parts: First, there is a blessing, which invokes Jesus as the Great Shepherd (verses 20-21). This blessing closes the body of the work, which is here called a “word of exhortation.” Second, there is a very brief “cover letter,” or postscript, which follows the book itself (verses 22-25). The latter describes this work as a as a sermon, “the word of exhortation”—logos tes parakleseos, a term drawn from the synagogue service. It means the regular sermon that followed the prescribed readings from the lectionary from “the Law and the Prophets.”This term was taken over into the normal Christian gatherings, whether at the Sunday Eucharist or at the canonical hours during the week. An early witness of this Christian practice is St. Justin Martyr, First Apology 67.

This verse in the Epistle to the Hebrews indicates that such a sermon was sometimes written out and sent to a congregation.

Monday, February 5

Matthew 10:1-15: Before sending out His missionaries in Matthew 11:1, Jesus gives a lengthy discourse on the structure and dynamics of mission; this is the second great sermon of the Gospel of Matthew. This initial mission, unlike the Great Commission at the end of Matthew, is directed only “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The disciples are endowed with exsousia, “authority” (10:10:1), which we have seen to be a characteristic of Jesus’ own ministry in deed and word.

Sometimes the shaking-off of dust from the feet has been taken very literally by Christian preachers; cf. Acts 13:51. Among many curious features of this list of the twelve apostles, it is instructive to note that the list includes someone who worked for the Roman government (Matthew) and someone sworn to its overthrow (Simon the Canaanite; cf. Luke 6:15). Much of this chapter will be concerned with the resistance that the world will offer to the proclamation of the Gospel. This message has been prepared by Chapter 8-9, where Jesus’ own ministry was constantly resisted by those who felt it to be a threat.

Psalms 80 (Greek & Latin 79): Three times in this psalm we find the refrain that makes the same prayer: “Convert (epistrepson) us; show forth Your face, and we shall be saved.” The order in this refrain is important, in that God shows His face only to the converted—“when one turns [or “is converted” (epistrepse)] to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (2 Cor. 3:16). So, the psalm prays for a conversion, a change in our hearts, that we may behold the glory of God and thereby be saved.

But it is important to note that this is a prayer of the Church, a petition for conversion made by those who are, presumably, already converted and already have been enlightened and tasted the heavenly gift, and already were made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and already have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the world to come. Even these, our psalm is saying, still need even further to be converted and further to be saved.

In Holy Scripture, the often-repeated command to “repent” appears invariably in the Greek present imperative tense. This grammatical form means something much closer to “keep on repenting.” According to the sustained exhortation in Hebrews, those who have already repented should still be careful about “the sin which so easily ensnares us” (12:1).

Similarly, with respect to “being saved”; in the Bible words about salvation are more often used in the future tense than in a past tense. Thus, this prayer—“O Lord of hosts, convert us; show forth Your face, and we shall be saved”—is always appropriate to our state. The Church is the body of those who are constantly being converted and saved.

This psalm uses two metaphors for the Church: the flock and the vine. First, the Church is a flock. Thus, we pray: “Attend, O Shepherd of Israel, You who herd Joseph like sheep.” Holy Church is called “the flock of God,” awaiting the day “when the chief Shepherd appears” (1 Pet. 5:2, 4), who is elsewhere called “that great Shepherd of the sheep” (Heb. 13:20). Our psalm is the flock’s prayer for the appearing of that Shepherd. Left to their own devices, sheep have been known to get themselves terribly lost, and, as our psalm suggests, they are vulnerable to many predators.

Second, the Church is a vine: “You transplanted a vine out of Egypt; You drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the way before it; You planted its roots, and it filled the earth.” It is a catholic plant, this vine, for its branches spread everywhere: “Its shadow covered the mountains, and its boughs the cedars of God. It stretched out its limbs to the sea, and its tendrils to the rivers.”
The vine, however, is at least as vulnerable as a flock of sheep: “A boar from the forest has ravaged it, and a wild beast has eaten it up.” Such things do happen to the Church, of course, whether from imprisonment at Philippi, beatings and dissensions at Corinth, heresy in Galatia, the synagogue of Satan at Smyrna, or the deeds of the Nicolaitans at Ephesus and Pergamum. It is against such beastly ravages that the Church prays this psalm.

Tuesday, February 6

Matthew 10:16-26: Four animals are mentioned in the first verse, all of them for their symbolic value.

Although this initial mission is only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” it is significant that the “nations” are mentioned in 10:18; again, this foreshadows the Great Commission given at the end of Matthew.

These verses make it clear that the proclamation of the gospel by the Church will be met with resistance. Like Jesus, the disciples will be “handed over” to “councils” (synedria). This description, contained here in prophecy, was very much the experience of the Christians whom Matthew knew when he was writing these words. Similar experiences are recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.

Romans 1:18-32: In order to assess the “power” (dynamisI) of the Gospel, Paul now describes the human state without the Gospel. Neither Judaism nor classical paganism, the Apostle argues, whatever their other accomplishments, have been able to attain or preserve moral integrity. If the Jew, enlightened by God’s Law, has been unable to do this (as Paul will argue in chapter 2), much less could the Greek or Roman.

Paul begins with these pagans, providing a stunning description of the depravity of his age. This description is colored by Paul’s perception as a Jew (indeed, we note his interjection of a standard Jewish doxology in verse 25), because his comments coincide with the assessment that other Jews of antiquity rendered with respect to paganism. In these lines of the epistle, we hear the voice of the Maccabees two and a half centuries earlier. Paul, like most Jews of his time, regarded the pagan world as “abandoned,” “handed over,” “forsaken” by God (verses 24,26,28).

The moral depravity of the age was a revelation (apokalyptetai) of the divine wrath against idolatry (verse 18; Isaiah 30:27-33). Following the argument in the Book of Wisdom (Wisdom of Solomon) 13:1-9, Paul insists that “something” about God is knowable in the works of Creation (verses 19-20). Indeed, this something is not only knowable, it is also “known” (to gnostonI), so that man is inexcusable in not recognizing it.

This idolatrous darkening of the heart begins with the entertainment of deceptive thoughts (verse 21), but it soon finds expression in man’s very body. It leads directly to sexual immorality (verse 24; Wisdom 14:22-27). That is to say, the mendacity and illusions of the human mind produce a mendacity and illusion in the human flesh, and this corporeal untruthfulness, this fleshly illusion, is the very essence of homosexuality. Those unable to recognize the intelligent design of nature can hardly be expected to honor the most elementary markings of the human body (verses 26-28).

Wednesday, February 7

Matthew 10:27-31: This section continues to portray the resistance with which the proclamation of the Gospel will be met. In His exhortation to confidence in the face of such adversity, the Lord takes up an image from the Sermon on the Mount, God’s care of the birds (verses 29-31). Will He not be even more solicitous on our behalf, if He displays such regard toward the tiny sparrows? (Cf. 6:26)

Romans 2:1-16: Having described the moral failings of paganism, Paul now turns to the Jews. Woe to them if they pass judgment (verse 1), because they too have failed to measure up. Jew and Greek stand before God on level ground, in fact (verses 9-10). The Jew’s possession of the Torah, in which God reveals His moral will, is no guarantee that the Jew is superior to the Greek (verses 12-16).

Here Paul twice addresses the Jew as “man,” anthropos (verses 1,3), indicating that he too is of the common clay, an heir of Adam, that first and fallen anthropos. Jewish blood is no guarantee of moral superiority over other men (cf. Matthew 3:8; John 8:39; Galatians 2:15). The Jew too, says Paul, is called to repentance, metanoia (verse 4; Wisdom 11:23), because his own heart is just as “impenitent” (verse 5).

In this epistle, the theme of which is justification through faith, the Apostle insists that the Lord “will render to each man according to his deeds” (literally “works,” erga—verse 6; Psalms 62 [61]:13; Proverbs 24:12), and he goes on to speak of “the patience of good work” (verse 7). Even this early in the epistle, then, Paul closes the door to any antinomian interpretation of it.

Those who do good works are said to be seeking (zetousin) “glory and honor and incorruptibility” (verse 7). This incorruptibility, aphtharsia, is to be contrasted with the corruption of death, introduced into the world by sin (5:12).

The translation of the word aphtharsia as “immortality” (as in the KJV) is misleading, because immortality suggests something immaterial and essentially spiritual (as when we speak of “the immortality of the soul”). Aphtharsia, in contrast, refers in this context to the spiritual transformation of matter itself, of which the formal and defining example is the resurrected body of Christ. “Incorruptibility” is a property of the risen flesh of the Christian (1 Corinthians 15:42,50,53,54). Introduced into human experience by the resurrection of Christ, this incorruptibility reverses the power of death. Indeed, the resurrection of the body is the final act in man’s salvation and the great object of his hope. (This is also the reason why, as we have seen, sentences about “salvation” normally appear in this epistle in the future tense. The fullness of salvation comes in the resurrection of our bodies.)

To those who are seeking salvation Paul contrasts those who are only seeking themselves, searching for some kind of self-fulfillment (eritheia) outside of God’s will (verse 8).

In verse 10 Paul returns to the importance of good works (literally “working the good”—ergazomenos to agathon). Salvation through faith is not for the lazy. Grace is free, but it is not cheap.

In chapter one Paul had spoken about the revelation of God’s existence through nature. Now he writes of the revelation of God’s moral law through nature (verses 14-15). His juxtaposition of Natural Law with the Mosaic Law does not mean that every particular of the latter can be discerned in the former; he means simply that the Natural Law can be known by man’s conscience and that those who have only the Natural Law will be judged according to that law, just as the Jew will be judged according to the Mosaic Law.

With respect to this revelation of God’s moral will through nature, the third-century Christian apologist Origen wrote: “There is nothing amazing about it if the same God has implanted in the souls of all men the same truths which He taught through the Prophets and the Savior. He did this in order that every man might be without excuse at the divine judgment, having the requirement of the law written in his heart” (Against Celsus 1.4).

Thursday, February 8

Matthew 10:32-42: As we face the animosity of the world, the Lord warns us, there is the real danger that we will end by denying Him. Indeed, confessing and denying, the two verbs spoken of in verses 32-33, are both illustrated in the case of Simon Peter, who both confessed Jesus (16:16) and then denied Him (16:22f; 26:31-35,69-75).

The New Testament provides a number of stories in which entire households accepted the Gospel, which then became the basis of a whole new way of family life. Matthew 10:34-39 affirms that such is not always the case. The Gospel proclamation can divide as well as unite, and family unity has sometimes been destroyed by the Gospel’s acceptance by some family members and its rejection by others. This is a matter of history experience.

Consequently, there is the principle announced in verse 37 about the priorities of love. This “he who” sentence becomes the first of a series of ten such sentences that close out the chapter on the more positive note of those who actually accept the Gospel. In this series of short sayings we particularly observe the emphasis on the first person pronoun, “Me” or “My,” with reference to Jesus. It appears seven times.

The “little ones” in verses 40-42 are to be identified, not only as little children, but also as other Christians, those “babies” to whom the Father reveals His Son (11:25), and who welcome Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (21:16). It will be the thesis of the last part of Chapter 25 that the charity shown to these “least of My brethren” is actually shown to Christ. Here in Chapter 10 the context of this reference suggests that the “little ones” (mikroi) are especially to be identified as those who proclaim the Gospel.

Romans 2:17-29: Paul continues talking to the imaginary “man” that he earlier addressed (verses 1,3). This man calls himself a Jew (verse 17). This man, whom he had earlier reprimanded for judging others, Paul now taunts with a series of claims that were commonly made by the Jews: knowledge of the true God and His will, confidence in the Law, a superior moral insight, and the consequent right to provide guidance to the rest of the world (verses 18-20).

Paul does not deny the validity of any of these claims, but they do raise in his mind a series of concomitant questions that he now puts to the Jew (verses 21-23). The latter’s behavior, after all, leaves a lot to be desired. Indeed, the bad conduct of the Jew, as Isaiah had long ago remarked, has brought reproach of the God of the Jews (verse 24; Isaiah 52:5 in LXX). Their defining sign, circumcision, has been rendered morally meaningless by their insouciance to the rest of the Torah (verse 25).

Friday, February 9

Matthew 11:1-19: This first verse brings Jesus’ second discourse to a close (Compare 7:28). Presumably the apostles now go out to do the ministry for which Jesus was preparing them in Chapter 10 (cf. 10:1).

While they are gone, Matthew introduces a “John the Baptist interlude,” a literary construction (paralleled in the structure of Mark 6:7-30) to indicate the passage of time while the apostles are gone. This is the story of the apparent despondency of John in prison.

There are two things particularly to observe in this story. First, Matthew clearly relies on his readers’ familiarity with the entire career of John the Baptist. Although he refers here to John’s imprisonment, the circumstances of that imprisonment are not narrated until Chapter 14. Second, the signs of the Messiah, listed here by Jesus in 11:5f, are not at all similar to those earlier enunciated by John the Baptist himself in 3:10-12. This dissimilarity may have been the cause of John’s evident misgivings, as he languished in his prison cell.

Romans 3:1-8: To say (as Paul has been saying) that both the Gentile and the Jew are called to repentance is not to deny the historical advantage of the Jews, because “to them were committed the oracles of God” (verse 2). Later in this same epistle (11:11-23) Paul will argue at greater length that God still keeps His eye on the Jews; they will still have their important role to play in the outcome of history. The Jews’ current displacement from their native root (which is Christ, we perhaps need to insist, and not real estate in the land of Palestine) is only temporary, “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (11:25).

Meanwhile, in fact, only “some” of the Jews have failed (verse 3), only “some of the branches have been broken off” (11:17). In these assertions Paul seems to have in mind not only his contemporary situation but all of Jewish history. That is to say, the Old Testament itself testifies that there have always been both faithful and unfaithful Jews. Those very “oracles of God,” which were committed to the Jews, also bear witness to the failure of some Jews to take God’s word seriously. No matter, says Paul, because God Himself is faithful, even to an unfaithful people (verses 3-4).

The divine fidelity also is recorded in the “oracles of God.” This expression, ta logia tou Theou (Psalms 107 [106]:11; Numbers 24:4,16), includes the whole corpus of Sacred Scripture, not simply the prophetic utterances (Hebrews 5:12; 1 Peter 4:11). The whole Old Testament testifies to God’s fidelity in the face of man’s infidelity (3:26; Exodus 34:6; Numbers 23:19; Isaiah 55:11; Hosea 3:26).

Paul’s quotation from Psalm 51 (50):6 in verse 4 is based on the Septuagint, not the Hebrew text, and its entire context, which is one of repentance, is worth considering here. David himself, to whom this psalm is attributed, had been unfaithful to God through the sins of adultery and murder, but his own unfaithfulness did not eliminate the faithfulness of God. Indeed, with an oath God swore that He would never be false to David (Psalms 89 [88]:35). This divine “oracle” bears witness to the very point that Paul is making—the fidelity of God to His pledged word,