Friday, March 8

Matthew 16:1-4: The tension between Jesus and His antagonists rises to a new height in chapter 16, beginning with their renewed demand for a sign (verses 1-4; cf. 12:8). This demand is the occasion of the Lord’s criticism of them (verses 5-12) and the first prophecy of their role in the Passion (verse 21). In demanding this sign, these enemies copy the example of the devil (4:2,6). In contrast to the faith of the recent Canaanite woman (15:28), this demand indicates unbelief.

We likewise note here Matthew’s inclusion of the Sadducees among the enemies of Jesus (verses 1,6,11,12). Once again Matthew’s text here reflects certain concerns that arose in Judaism (and consequently among Jewish Christians) after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Foremost among the Jewish groups who lost credibility in the aftermath of that event was the party of the Sadducees. This group, it was generally believed, had been excessively compliant with the Roman powers for over a century, too compromising, too little disposed to speak up for the people as the Pharisees had done. Consequently, after the year 70 the Sadducees came into bad odor among rank-and-file Jews.

Moreover, this party was bound to lose power, because their power had been concentrated in the temple priesthood, which was put out of business by the destruction of the temple.

Proverbs 14: Wisdom is the foundation of homes and households (verse 1). This is the inherited wisdom of the ages, conservatively handed down in the tradition of “families and villages” (to borrow Aristotle’s coupling).

Since the experience of family necessarily involves the transmission of identity, the tradition or inherited wisdom is not peripheral to family life. Unassailable tradition, based on perceived absolutes, is not something with which a family can dispense. It is of the essence, and it is this sense of tradition’s essential character that injects a note of urgency into the rhetoric of the Book of Proverbs. The exhortations in Proverbs are matters of life or death. Hence, this sense of urgency goes far to account for the toughness of discipline inculcated throughout the book.

Consequently, moral indifference or relativism, based on skepticism and an overly critical spirit, spell the death of wisdom and therefore the death of family life (verse 11). Nowhere does the Bible tolerate the relativism and despair (including a sympathy for suicide) that characterized some primitive writings of Mesopotamia, such as the ancient Dialogue of Pessimism. The latter work, written over three thousand years ago, reads today like a work of recent Existentialism. If such attitudes were characteristic of the philosophy of Mesopotamia, it is no wonder that Proverbs 15 Abraham insisted that Isaac should not go back there (Genesis 24:5-6).

The Book of Proverbs, in mighty contrast, represents the voice of moral and metaphysical absolutes, a wisdom based on the sense of the scrutiny and presence of God (verses 2,26-27; cf. 13:14; 15:39,11,29).

Saturday, March 9

Matthew 16:5-12: Jesus criticizes the apostles, who are described as “of little faith” (verse 8), in spite of having witnessed two miraculous provisions of bread (verses 9-10). These disciples of the Lord do not yet “understand” (verse 8) the implications of those miracles in the wilderness. The Lord’s reproach brings them to some level of understanding (verse 12). At least in some measure, the sown seed is beginning to fall on good ground. Nonetheless, this will not be the Lord’s last reproach against the apostles in the present chapter (cf. verse 23).

Proverbs 15: This chapter contains several references to the acceptance of correction (verses 5,10,12,31,32). Among a young man’s worst enemies is his innate resistance to correction, a resistance spawned of rebellion and an independent spirit. Giving in to such a spirit generally produces three results, all of them bad: First, it strengthens a man’s spirit of rebellion. (A rebel’s spirit is useful in the face of oppression; otherwise, it is a counterproductive trait in a man. A sustained spirit of rebellion, a spiritual chip on the shoulder, renders a man useless for any purpose.) This leads to hardness of heart and self-absorption.

Second, refusal to accept correction deprives a man of instruction about some point on which at least one other person thinks he needs instruction. Third, it discourages that same person from making some attempt at correction and instruction in the future. Thus, many valuable lessons will be lost if the young man does not early recognize and deal with these inner impulses of rebellion. Following such impulses is not the path to wisdom.

A Christian reading of this theme in Proverbs should see more in the Sacred Text, not less, than a merely Jewish reading of it. Even the simplest, plainest reading of Proverbs, based on the most literal sense of the Text, shows the importance of being open to correction. The Christian reader, however, reading the Scriptures through the lens of Christ, will recognize God the Father as the True Parent who speaks in these lines.

Thus, the submission that all children owe to the discipline of their parents becomes the symbol of a greater docility that God’s children owe to their heavenly Father. That is to say, the Christian reader should see more in the meaning of Proverbs in this regard: “Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them reverence. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live?” (Hebrews 12:9)

Sunday, March 10

Matthew 4:1-11: The tempting demon is not permitted to dictate what is or is not appropriate to God’s Son. The Slanderer knows nothing about it. Jesus does not argue the point with him. Eve, we recall, did argue with the demon (Genesis 3:1-5), and things did not go very well. For Jesus, this demon is not important; he is powerless, a nobody to be dismissed with a backhand brush-off from Deuteronomy.

Jesus is no invulnerable, unthreatened superman. What authority (exsousia) and power (dynamis) he has as Son of God, is for the benefit of other people, not himself. He will not “cash in” for personal advantage.

Jesus uses Holy Scripture as a weapon against temptation. This rabbinic use of the Bible—as a weapon in the hour of trial—was taken up as an ascetical practice, which passed, in due course, to the Christian Church and come to the special attention of the ancient Desert Fathers.

Romans 14:14-23: Paul exhorts believers to peace-making and edification (verse 19). In these verses, however, his exhortation is directed to the stronger, more confident Christians who may, even by mere inadvertence, create crises of conscience for their fellow believers.

The example chosen by Paul to illustrate this point is the eating of certain foods, particularly meats, which the Mosaic Law classifies as common (koinon) or unclean, foods that are not kosher. Paul is certain that Christians may eat such foods with a safe conscience (verses 1-5; Acts 10:9-15).

The Apostle recognized, nonetheless, that some Christians, from habits long adhered to, could not really eat such food with a safe conscience, because they had not arrived at a level of faith and Christian maturity that would enable them to do so. (Here he is not talking about the faith through which a Christian is justified, of course, but of faith as an effective principle in making moral decisions.)

If these latter Christians, then, were recklessly to follow the example of stronger, more mature believers, there was a genuine danger of their violating their own consciences. They would be eating for some reason other than faith, perhaps human respect or perceived social pressure, and this would constitute sin (verse 23). In short, it is never a safe of laudable thing to act against one’s conscience.

Monday,

Mathew 16:13-20: This text presents the definitive answer to the major and defining question of the Christian faith, the true identity of Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Because this confession of faith was (and still is) regarded as the foundation stone of the Christian Church, the nickname “Rock” (perhaps closer to “Rocky” in English) was given to the man who made it, Simon Bar Jonah (or, in English, “Simon Johnson”). It was in Simon’s fishing boat that Jesus was earlier confessed to be “truly the Son of God” (14:33), so that his boat becomes in the gospels a great symbol of the Church.

The great prominence of this “Rocky Johnson” (Kephas in Aramaic and Petros in Greek) among the Twelve Apostles is indicated by the fact that his name appears first in every single New Testament list of the Twelve. Those early churches most closely associated with the Apostles Peter and Paul enjoyed a singular eminence and spiritual authority among all the early Christians. Chief among them were the churches at Antioch and Rome.

When Peter identifies Jesus, Jesus goes on to identify Peter (verse 18). This identification is very important, because it has to do with the foundation of the Church. We have already learned in Matthew (10:2) that Simon’s nickname was “Kephas,” meaning “rock.” This nickname comes into play as the foundation stone of the Church. Indeed, this is the first of only three times—all of them in Matthew—that the word “Church” is found in the Gospels. What Jesus says is, “You are the Rock, and on this Rock I will build My Church.”

This pronouncement is related to Peter’s Christological confession. The rock on which the Church is built is, first of all, the confession of Jesus’ true identity as Son of the Living God. The Lord’s pronouncement to Peter, therefore, must not be separated from Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Son of God. That confession is the foundation stone on which the Church is built. This was, it would seem, a common metaphor. Indeed, this is how St. Peter himself interpreted the Lord’s words here; cf. 1 Peter 2:4-8 (also 1 Corinthians 3:11).

The first meaning of the Rock, then, on which the Church is to be built, is Christological. It is the confession of Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God.

Proverbs 17: Wisdom is learned and practiced in the home and the community (or the village, as Aristotle would say). It has to do with simple, quotidian experiences, both domestic and immediately social. Consequently, a number of these maxims are concerned with man’s life in his home and in society: the blessings of a quiet household (verse 1), the raising of children (verses 21,25), dependable servants (verse 2), reverence for the younger and older generations (verse 6), the maintenance of friendships, even the friendships of others (verses 9,17), the resolution of conflicts (verse 14), and respect for the poor (verse 5).

The perfect man, we are told, is the one who “does not stumble in word” (James 3:2). Because a man’s speech is his chief means of associating with his family and his community, his ability to govern his tongue will chiefly determine the quality of his social relationships. It is a man’s speech that will make or break him in the moral and social orders. Without proper control of his tongue, a man is of no decent use to either God or his fellow men. It is not surprising, therefore, that this chapter on man’s domestic and social life should contain several references to the power of speech, not only good speech (verse 7) and controlled speech (verses 27-28), but also perverse speech (verse 20) in a number of forms, such as mendacity (verses 4,7), ridicule (verse 5), and gossip (verse 9).

Tuesday, March 12

Proverbs 18: Many commentators have spoken of the “pragmatic” motive in much of the Book of Proverbs. That is to say, very often what are recommended in this book are things that have been proven to work; these things get good results. Or, to borrow the expression of William James, they have “cash value.” Such things have been tried for generations, and only a fool would abandon them.

We should be cautious about this approach to Proverbs, however, because the pragmatic motive in this book is not identical to that of William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey, and their kindred spirits. The pragmatism of these men rested on a fundamental agnosticism with respect to ultimacy. Persuaded that the correct answers to ultimate questions (“Does God exist?” “Is man’s willed activity free?”) must remain unknown to the human mind, these pragmatists recommended that human endeavor, including human thought, should follow only such lines of action as would prove to be useful and productive, such lines of action as would “get good results.” That is to say, human beings should do and think only such things as really work. If a thing or a thought does not work — if experience shows a thing or a thought to be unproductive — prudence dictates that it should not be pursued. (Thus, for instance, William James rejected the theory of atheism because it does not lead anywhere. Atheism promises nothing and delivers nothing. It is not a useful idea. The idea of God’s existence, on the other hand, has proved itself a very useful and productive idea.)

The problem with this brand of pragmatism is that it separates human activity from human knowledge. It is based on agnosticism with respect to the most important philosophical questions ever posed to the human mind, and it attempts to formulate a manner of life and thought divorced from real answers to those very real questions. How, after all, can I know whether something really “works,” if I have no idea what it is supposed to do? How can I know whether or not I am making “progress” (John Dewey’s favorite word), if I do not know where I am going? How can I seek the human good, if I have no idea what “good” means or the purpose of human existence?

Quite different is the pragmatism of the Book of Proverbs. It does not rest on an agnosticism about the fundamental questions in life, but on discerned and solid answers to those questions. For Proverbs it is not the case that (to use William James’s expression) “truth happens to an idea.” Truth abides, rather, in the structure of reality, and a truthful idea is not the creation of the human mind at all. It is an idea created in the mind by the very truth that inheres in reality. Men are said to live wisely if their minds and activities are shaped by the truth that God placed in the structure of reality.

At the same time, this discernment of truth in the structure of reality does not come solely from theorizing about reality. Sometimes, and perhaps frequently, it comes from the godly effort to deal with the concrete exigencies of human life. For this reason, perhaps, the deepest insights into the reality of life in this world often come to very practical men as they grapple with the shape of history by making godly decisions in difficult and trying circumstances. It may be the case that sometimes a philosopher/king must first be a king in order to become a philosopher.

Wednesday, March 13

Romans 15:14-21: Paul commences these remarks with a polite and positive sentiment about the congregation at Rome (verse 14), an approach that he employs elsewhere in his letters (2 Corinthians 8:7; 9:2-3; Philippians 4:15). In the present case such an approach is particularly appropriate, because is conscious of writing to a church that he had no hand in founding (1:5,13). Because of this latter circumstance, Paul does not enjoy the advantage of immediate paternity and familiarity that he enjoys in the churches of Syria, Asia, Macedonia, and Greece.

Up to this point in his ministry, the extreme limits of Paul’s evangelizing have been Jerusalem in the southeast and Illyricum, or Dalmatia (Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo), in the northwest. It has ever been Paul’s goal to preach Christ where He has not been hitherto preached (verse 20; 2 Corinthians 10:15-16; 1 Corinthians 3:6).

He feels compelled to write to the Romans, however, because he senses a responsibility that he has toward all the Gentile Christians (verse 16 [Note the Trinitarian structure]; 1:5; 12:3; 1 Corinthians 4:6; Galatians 2:7-8).

Proverbs 19: Circumspection, not haste, is the way of correct action (verse 2); this is a warning against precipitous and impassioned reactions (cf. 18:13; 21:5; Romans 10:2). When swift action is called for in circumstances that do not permit the taking of adequate counsel, such action will be more safely and prudently taken by the man who normally does not act precipitously. That is to say, a person who normally takes adequate counsel before acting on his decisions is the one most likely to react wisely when he does not have opportunity to take counsel. He is the one who will not lose his head under pressure. He will keep his emotions at bay and not act on the basis of them (verse 11), knowing that acting on passion tends to become a habit (verse 19).

Verse 7 should not be understood in a sense that would treat all friendships with skepticism. It is simply a realistic warning that not all friends, after all, can be relied upon all the time. The person who believes otherwise will soon be embarrassed (cf. 25:19).

A gift given to the poor is a loan to God (verse 17; cf. 14:31; 17:5; 22:9; Matthew 10:42). We do well to bear in mind that God pays a generous interest on such loans.

Perhaps the Book of Proverbs contains no more important a sentiment, a conviction strongly to be maintained in the heart, than “a prudent wife is from the Lord” (verse 14; cf. 18:22).

Thursday, March 14

Matthew 17:14-23: Like Solomon at the dedication of the Temple, then, the man kneels before Jesus in prayer. Here we have the second of two consecutive scenes in Matthew (the first being the Transfiguration in 17:6) that portray the believers before Jesus on bended knee.

This kneeling down, or prostration, in prayer is not simply a generic act of worship. It is specified by its Christological reference. Indeed, in the former scene, the Transfiguration, the disciples fall into this posture when they hear the voice of the Father identifying Jesus as His Son. Their posture is a theophanic response (cf. Revelation 1:16-17). Here in Matthew (verse 15) the man bends the knee Avton–“towards Him.”

And in kneeling down he addresses Jesus as “Lord”–Kyrios. We should contrast this with Mark’s account, which addresses Jesus here as “Teacher”–Didaskalos. Matthew, that is to say, uses the full confessional word of the Christian faith (cf. Philippians 2:11; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 12:3).

Proverbs 20: This chapter contains sound counsel about the avoidance of useless problems. It is folly, for example, to provoke those in authority (verse 2). It is equally imprudent and useless to engage in unnecessary strife (verse 3).

Especially to be avoided is the exacting of revenge (verse 22; cf. 25:21-22). Of all human pursuits, revenge is the most unprofitable, seldom or almost never to the advantage of the one who exacts it. There is, moreover, a distinct likelihood that the one seeking revenge may be putting himself secretly in the place of God. This truth does not deny, of course, the valid claims of justice, exacted by proper legal authority. Still, the wrath of man is not to be identified with the justice of God (James 1:20). The Bible’s condemnation of revenge pertains less to the valid claims of legal and civil justice than to the emotional sense of satisfaction derived from inflicting personal retribution. The latter, let it be said, is a pursuit devoid of blessing. Much better is it to leave all vengeance to the God who neither deceives nor can be deceived (verse 24). For this reason, vengeance is strictly discouraged in both the Old Testament (24:29; Sirach 28:1) and the New (Matthew 5:39; Romans 12:17,19; 1 Peter 3:9).

This chapter also devotes attention to the importance of steady labor and the sustained application of effort (verses 4,13), as well as to integrity in commercial dealings (verses 10,23).

Friday, March 15

Romans 16:1-27: When the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in A. D. 49 (Acts 18:2), that expulsion also included many Christians. Many of these came east and settled in cities that Paul evangelized. This is how they came to be the friends of Paul and even his coworkers. However, with the death of Claudius in the year 54, about three and a half years before the composition of Romans (January to March of 58), some of these Christians naturally returned to Rome, where they owned homes and other property. Paul’s greetings here, then, are directed to those who had returned to Rome over the previous forty-two months. This suggestion, I believe, reasonably explains how Paul came to know twenty-eight Christians at Rome personally.

This suggestion is especially clear in the case of the first two whom Paul greets, Prisca and Aquila (verses 3-4), whom he had first met as exiles from Rome in Greece in the year 49 (Acts 18:2). It is significant that the next one named, Epenaetus, who is also from Greece (verse 5). Moreover, it is reasonable to think that Phoebe herself, who is described as a “patroness” (prostates, or Latin patrona) of Paul (verse 2), is another of these exiled Romans returning home.

Proverbs 21: A wise man will learn, not only when he submits to reprimand, but also when he sees others appropriately chastised (verses 11-12). This truth points us to one of the great advantages of studying history, because history is, among other things, the chronicling of God’s judgments against fools and scorners, and a wise man will take these lessons of history to heart.

We recently learned that a prudent woman is a gift from the Lord (19:14); a contentious wife, on the other hand, is a curse beyond human endurance (verses 9,19; cf. 25:24; 27:15).

God’s assessment of a man’s heart is not to be identified with a man’s assessment of his own heart (verse 2; cf. 16:2). “Feeling good about yourself” (Also known as “It works for me) is the most deceptive of feelings and keeps the soul forever immature and self-centered.

The “king” in verse 1 is any king. Since kings, holding sway over nations, are in an excellent position to influence the paths of history, God may be said to follow a certain economy of effort by using the decisions of kings to bring about His own purposes. God does not have to do this, obviously, but Holy Scripture indicates that He does.

On the other hand, while kings have their own projects and programs that affect the lives of many, the Bible (including Proverbs) is persuaded that God’s plans are not identical with those of the king, even when He employs the king’s decisions to bring them about. Ultimately, then, it is not the great men of the earth who determine the destinies of nations, but the Lord, who sees and knows all things, even those events that lie in the contingent future. God’s will prevails (verses 30-31).