Friday, February 8

Hebrews 10:19-39: 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).

This attitude of boldness in the Epistle to the Hebrews is not limited to the four times when the word is used in this book. The boldness of the Christian soul in approaching God is, rather, a presupposition of the whole book. We find it later, in chapter 12, where the author contrasts Mount Sinai with Mount Zion. Mount Sinai, he says, “burned with fire, and . . . blackness and gloom and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet” (12:18). It was a very scary place, of which Moses said, “I am exceedingly afraid and trembling” (12:21). This was the kind of place where no one could safely feel bold.

It is not to Mount Sinai, however, that Christians are called, but to a gentler mountain: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel” (12:22).

Saturday, February 9

Hebrews 13:7-25: The “altar” of Christians is the Cross, on which the sacrifice of Christ was offered for the sins of the world. The author of Hebrews is implicitly contrasting this altar with that in the temple at Jerusalem. It was not the altar of the temple, wrote Leo I of Rome, but the altar of the world itself: Crux Christi non templi esset ara, sed mundi.”

Nonetheless, we are said to eat from this altar, in the sense that we participate in the sacrifice of Christ by our sharing in the mystery of His body and blood. This corporate sharing is a proclamation of the Lord’s death. According to St. Paul, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim [kataggellete] the Lord’s death till He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). This proclamation of the Lord’s death is the Eucharistic rite itself. Through it, we become “partakers of Christ” (3:14).

This altar of the Cross, our author says, goes on to say, stood outside the walls of the city, meaning that Jesus became an “outcast” from the perspective of the Jews. In this respect, the sacrifice of the Cross was prefigured by the sacrifices of the Old Testament: “For the bodies of those animals, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore, Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate.” This comment refers to the sin offerings on the Feast of the Atonement, of which we read: “the bull for the sin offering and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the Holy Place, shall be carried outside the camp” (Leviticus 16:27; cf. 24:14; Numbers 15:35; John 19:17).

Christians must “go out” to Christ, in the sense of leaving behind all other hope. Going outside the gate, to the area of Calvary, they are to share in His humiliation and rejection: “Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach.” Inasmuch as Jesus died as a criminal, rejected by the world, Christians should anticipate no better fate in this life. They can expect to be no better received than was Christ Himself. Thus, the altar of the Cross is not only the source of the Christian life; it is also the standard by which Christians live. The blood of Jesus is at once the cause of their sanctification—“that He might sanctify the people with His own blood”—and their call to live a sanctified life.

The author continues the list of very simple obligations and practices that comprise the Christian moral life. In these verses he speaks of four such duties: the constant praise of God, deeds of charity, cooperative docility to the pastoral authority of the Church, and intercessory prayer.

Sunday, February 10

Romans 1:1-17: Even by the turn of the first century it was already common to speak of Peter and Paul as the “founders” of the Church at Rome, but this designation should be understood as indicating Rome’s special apostolic authority among the churches,25 not in the usual historical sense of the word “founder.” Neither Paul nor Peter can be understood of “founders” in the latter sense.

With respect to Paul, the present epistle testifies that the Church at Rome had existed “many years” (15.23) and already enjoyed a favorable reputation (16.19) “throughout the whole world” (1.8), long before his arrival in the city. With respect to Peter, it is nearly impossible to explain why he is not named among the Roman Christians listed in chapter 16 of the present epistle, if he were already at Rome at the time. Indeed, the lack of any mention of Peter in Acts 28 makes it difficult to argue that he was present there when Paul arrived about the year 60.

With respect to the historical roots of the Roman church, therefore, we must content ourselves with the reasonable presumption that the Roman pilgrims to Jerusalem, who had been present when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Church on the morning of Pentecost (Acts 2.10), formed the first congregation when they returned home to the city on the Tiber.

The Epistle to the Romans is a sort of theological treatise on the theme that had been thrust toward the center of Paul’s interest and concern during the previous six or so years, ever since the Galatian crisis during the early fifties. His concentration on this theme justification by faith in no way indicates, however, that the Church at Rome was subject to the same or a similar crisis.

This longest of Paul’s letters seems to have been written during his leisured residence at Corinth from January to March of the year 57 (Acts 20.3). Abiding at that time in the home of his friend Gaius (Rom 16.23), who we know lived at Corinth (1 Cor 1.14), Paul’s mind is full of plans.

Paul’s eloquent introduction (verses 1–7) is easily the longest, most elaborate, and most detailed in all his writings. This feature reflects the fact that Romans, unlike Paul’s earlier letters to Thessalonica, Galatia, Philippi, and Corinth, was not composed for the purpose of addressing questions and problems in the congregation to which it was sent. Although Paul evidently had several friends in Rome (as we see in the greetings sent to many individuals in chapter 16), this epistle does not show him familiar with the specific situation of the church in that city nor intent on dealing with particular problems there.

Paul’s name is the only one that appears as an author of this epistle, even though he actually dictated it to Tertius (16.22). We may contrast this feature with his earlier inclusion of Timothy, Silvanus, and Sosthenes as joint “authors” (1 Cor 1.1; 2 Cor 1.1; Phil 1.1, 1 Thess 1.1; 2 Thess 1.1) and his later inclusion of Timothy in the letter to the Colossians (1.1).

Monday, February 11

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.

Paul is not talking here about a personal knowledge of God, which requires faith (cf. Hebrews 11:3,5-6; 1 Corinthians 1:21), but a factual knowledge of God’s existence and certain of His predicates (verse 20; Acts 14:15-17). Such factual knowledge about God is ineluctable except to those who have completely blinded their hearts (verse 21; Ephesians 4:17). These latter refuse to acknowledge what they cannot help knowing. Therefore, they decline to praise God or to thank Him, turning instead to false gods (verse 23; Psalms 106 [105]:20; Deuteronomy 4:16-18). These are gods of their own making, to whom, they are aware, they will never have to render an account

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).

Thus, homosexual behavior, which is “against nature” (para physin, contra naturam—verse 26), is the social and cultural progeny of an engendering idolatry. Other sexual sins, such as fornication, at least show deference to the structure of nature. The homosexual vice, however, by refusing to do so, is particularly vile. It is the very embodying of a lie.

Besides sexual turpitude, idolatry leads to all sorts of their sins (verses 29-31). Paul is not speculating here. Having traveled through the cities of the Greco-Roman world, having heard the confessions of his converts (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11), the Apostle is immediately familiar with these sins.

We should bear in mind that Paul, in his assessment of the world of his time, is speaking of society as a whole, not every single individual within it. He is not saying that every single pagan in the world is morally depraved. He is saying, rather, that pagan society is morally depraved.

Tuesday, February 12

Matthew 12:1-8: These two narratives, both of which concern the observance of the Sabbath, appropriately follow the previous sayings about “rest” and the “yoke.” Matthew’s version of the first of these stories is longer than Mark’s, augmented by the reference to the priests who serve in the Temple on the Sabbath. The Lord’s reasoning here is as follows: If the servants of the Temple may work on the Sabbath, how much more the servants of the One who is greater than the Temple. The argument here is similar to that in 5:17-48; namely, Jesus’ superiority to the Mosaic Law.

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.

Wednesday, February 13

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).

Now, asks Paul, how is the circumcised Jew who disobeys the Law of Moses morally superior to the uncircumcised Gentile who observes the Natural Law written in his heart (verses 26-27)?

Throughout this diatribe the Apostle is continuing the very argument that the Old Testament prophets had directed to the Chosen People ever since Amos and Isaiah eight hundred years before—namely, that a strict adherence to the prescribed rituals is no adequate substitute for the moral renewal of the heart and a blameless life pleasing to God. Far from rejecting the Old Testament here, Paul is appealing to one of its clearest themes (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Micah 6:6-8; Jeremiah 4:4; 9:24-25; Ezekiel 44:9).

The true circumcision is internal. This is the “secret” (krypton) that the Lord sees (verse 16). It is the heart that must be circumcised (verses 29-30; Acts 7:51). The true moral renewal of man, then, is not the fruit of a greater and more intense moral effort. It comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit in the circumcised heart.

In his contrast of two circumcisions, Paul invokes the distinction between letter and Spirit that he had used a year earlier to describe the difference between the Old Testament dispensation and the Christian Gospel (2 Corinthians 3:6). The circumcision or pruning of the human heart places that heart under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whose grace causes the human being to become a child of God (8:15; Galatians 4:6). The Gospel, then, is not simply a source of new moral information; it is the internal principle of a new mode of life.

Paul’s distinction between a Jew in the flesh and a Jew in the Spirit puts us in mind of Jesus’ insistence, in the Sermon on the Mount, that a believer’s existence is defined, not by his external observance of a religious code, but by his internal relationship to the heavenly Father (Matthew 6:1,4,6,8,14,18). Indeed, the same expression “secret” (krypton) is used in both places (verses 16,29; Matthew 6:4,6).

In spite of the historical advantage that God has given the Jew over the Gentile (verses 9-10; 1:16), they are both called by the Gospel to the same repentance.

Thursday, February 14

Romans 3:1-8: To say 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.

On the other hand, when God manifests His wrath (orge, a word that appears in Romans twelve time, more often than in any other book of the New Testament), He can hardly be called evil for doing so (verse 5). In other words, God’s use of man’s sin as an occasion of manifesting the divine mercy cannot be thrown back at God as an excuse for continuing to sin.

It is most instructive to observe that even during Paul’s own lifetime, some Christians have already accused Paul of saying just that. In this text we learn that the Apostle’s earlier statements about justification by grace through faith (especially in Galatians, it would seem) were already being misinterpreted. His affirmation of the freedom of Christians from the precepts of the Mosaic Law were already being interpreted as a declaration of freedom from all law, all moral responsibility, all personal effort. Paul here bears witness to this distortion of his teaching by those who claimed him as their authority.

It was arguably to refute this misinterpretation of Paul that James insisted that “a man is justified by works, not by faith only,” and that “faith without works is dead” (James 1:22,26).

Friday, February 15

Matthew 12:22-30: The Lord’s work of driving out of demons is once again (cf. 9:32-34) the object of controversy, as His enemies allege that this power comes from Jesus’ collusion with the dark forces themselves. Among the Synoptic accounts of this controversy (cf. Mark 3:2030; Luke 11:14-23) only Matthew records a healing from blindness in the context.

This liberation of a man from satanic darkness is contrasted by the example of those who remain steadfast in their own blindness of heart. Having made up their minds to destroy Jesus, they become ever more inveterate in their sins. Hence, this story leads immediately to the theme of the unforgiven sin, the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

Romans 3:9-20: After the diatribe that begins this chapter (verses 3-8), Paul returns to the theme introduced in chapter two, the alleged moral advantage of the Jew over the Gentile. Even though God’s fidelity to the Jews, in spite of their infidelities to Him, does ironically manifest the privileged position of the Jews in salvation history, from a moral perspective this fact hardly warrants any boasting on the part of the Jews. Indeed, it shows them up rather badly. In short, Paul is arguing, “we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin” (verse 9).

This is, in truth, man’s concrete position under God—he is “under sin” (hyph’ hamartian). Such is Paul’s repeated contention in Romans (verse 23; 5:5:12). Let us note he uses the word “sin” here for the first time in this epistle.

In support of his thesis about man’s subjection to sin, Paul quotes (along with other sources) the Book of Psalms 14 (13):1-3; 53 (52):1-3. These two psalms both begin with the fool’s assertion that “there is no God.” In citing these psalms, therefore, Paul is once again taking up, from chapter one, the denial of God by the “fools” (1:22), whose “foolish hearts were darkened” (1:21). The “fools” in these psalms, Paul is suggesting, are not simply Gentiles, because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (verse 23).

The totality, the completeness, of man’s sinful condition is indicated here by Paul’s scriptural references to the various body parts that contribute to the sin: throat, tongue, lips, mouth, feet, eyes (verses 13-5). Man is, in short, completely sinful, sinful in all his parts.

What “man” in this context? Well, the Old Testament passages cited by Paul seem to refer to the Jews, after all (verse 19), so the Jew can claim no moral superiority over the Gentile. In verses 19-20 the totality of man’s sinful state is accented by the triple use of the word “all” or “every” (pas).

In short, man is not justified before God by the works of the Law, because “by the Law is the knowledge of sin” (verse 20). This expression, “works of the Law,” does not refer to good works generally; it refers, rather, to those commandments (including, ironically, a certain abstention from “work” on the Sabbath) laid down in the Law of Moses. Paul is not contrasting faith with works; he is contrasting the Gospel with the Law of Moses. The latter, he says, does not justify man; it gives man, rather, the knowledge or consciousness (epignosis) of sin.

Here again the apostle cites the Book of Psalms (143 [142]:1-2), where the inspired psalmist insists that “all flesh ” (pasa sarxs) fails to be justified (dikaiothesetai) before God. How, then, is a man to be justified, to be rendered righteous? The psalmist himself answers, “In Your faithfulness hear me, in Your righteousness.” That is to say, even according to the Old Testament, it is God who justifies; it is God who makes righteous.

Paul thus introduces a theme that will be developed at greater length in chapter seven, namely, man’s consciousness of sin made more manifest by the Law. The function of the Law, in this context, is to prove to man just how rebellious, how depraved, how immoral he is (4:5; 5:13). If in this sense the Law makes sinners of us all, surely this is even more the case for the Jew, after all, to whom the Law was given.