Friday, August 9

2 Peter 3:1-7: Since so many of the earliest Christians were of the opinion that the Lord would return during their own lifetime, His not doing so became for some an excuse for unbelief. It was only an excuse, however, not a justification, and Peter judged such unbelief to be prompted, not by what are called “sincere intellectual difficulties,” but by the lustful desires of those who wanted an excuse for unbelief (verse 3). Later in the century, Clement of Rome would address that same problem when he wrote to the Corinthians (23.3).

Such a misinterpretation of the world, Peter wrote, is willful (verse 5); it is deliberately chosen, not on the basis of evidence, but in order to loose those who hold it from accounting to a final judgment by God. That misinterpretation was also based, Peter went on to say, on a misunderstanding of what is meant by “last times.” This designation “last” is qualitative, not quantitative. It is not concerned with “how much,” but “of what sort.” The “last times” are not quantified; their limit is not known to us, but that limit is irrelevant to their quality. The last times are always the last times, no matter how long they last. Since the first coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are always within the eleventh hour, and this designation means only that it is the hour before the twelfth; it can last as long as God intends it to.

Numbers 33: As Israel’s long journey draws nigh to its end, the inspired author of this book thinks it an opportune time to recount the stages, since Egypt, that the Chosen People have traveled (verse 1). This list is based on Moses own “log” of the trip, but the Lord Himself directed this recording of it (verse 2).

For us readers, nonetheless, identifying each of these places is a far from certain exercise. When the desert is called a “trackless waste,” full consideration should be given to that description. Deserts and their shifting sands are notoriously deficient in stable landmarks, and this record antedates by far the art of calculating one’s precise geographical position by reference to the stars. In addition, archeology has not been able, in every instance, to identify the place names listed in this chapter. If it did, we could confidently map out the entire period of Israel’s desert wandering.

An illustration of our difficulty is immediately provided by the name “Sukkoth” (verses 456-6), which means tents or booths. It may be the case that this place received its name for no other reason than the fact that Israel pitched its tents there.

The place names in the list in verses 5-15 correspond very closely to the account in Exodus 12:37—19:2. Dophkah (12-13), a name not included in Exodus, seems to be what is now called Serabit el Khadem, a site of turquoise mining in the south of the Sinai Peninsula. One suspects that Alush, also missing from Exodus, gave its name to Wadi el‘esh, just south of Dophkah.

Kadesh, which Israel reaches by verse 36, is not desert at all. It is a lush valley with abundant spring water. The major spring was Ain el-Qudeirat, twelve miles from which is Ain Qudeis, which still preserves the name Kadesh.

Saturday, August 10

Mark 11:27-33: Jesus, upon entering Jerusalem, immediately began to behave as though the place belonged to Him. Right after His triumphal entry into the city with the acclamations of the crowd, He proceeded to purge the Temple and then curse the fig tree. All of this was an exercise of “authority” (exsousia).

His enemies, who have already shown themselves nervous about these events, now approach Him in the Temple to challenge this “authority” implicitly claimed in what has happened. The reader already knows, of course, the source of Jesus’ authority, so the Gospel writers do not tell this story in order to inform the reader on this point. The story is told to show, rather, the Lord’s complete control of the situation, especially His deft discomfiting of these hypocritical enemies. We earlier considered the Lord’s reference to this hypocrisy with respect to their relations to both Himself and John the Baptist (11:16-19).

The purpose of the hostile question makes it what is sometimes called “a lawyer’s question,” indicating a question asked for the purpose of making the respondent say too much, a question asked in order to find something recriminating to be used later in a courtroom.

Knowing this, of course, Jesus is not disposed to answer the question. He responds, rather, with a question of His own, along with a pledge to answer the first question if His opponents will answer the second (verse 24). This recourse to the counter-question is common in rabbinic style, and Jesus seems often to have used it.

Numbers 34: The present chapter may be read as a contrast with the chapter we have just finished, and this contrast pertains to both time and place. Having looked backwards in the previous chapter, the inspired writer now turns his attention to the future, and as the former chapter took the measure of the desert, the present chapter will measure the Promised Land.

The large territory considered in the first half of this chapter (verses 2-15) was not all conquered during Joshua’s period of conquest. Not until the monarchy in the tenth century before Christ did Israel occupy such a large area.

Nonetheless, the territory outlined here really does correspond very closely to the “Canaan” over which earlier Egyptian pharaohs had exercised dominion until the close of the fourteenth century before Christ. In this sense it would have seemed normal to Moses and his contemporaries to think of Canaan (verse 2) in these same dimensions.

The “sea” (verse 5) and “great sea” (verse 6) are references to the Mediterranean, Israel’s natural western border.

Sunday, August 11

Mark 12:1-11: The parable of the vine-growers—listed prominently in Jesus’ teaching during the last week of his earthly life—provides a sharp, defining outline of how he came to understand, not only his ministry to his contemporaries, but also his larger significance in the history of Israel. It illustrates how Jesus thought about his mission and destiny. No other of his parables, I believe, contains such an obviously “autobiographical” perspective.

This parable of the vine-growers, in which the sending of God’s Son is presented as the defining moment of history, may be regarded as an extension of what Jesus said when he first preached on Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). In the story of the vine-growers, we see the clearest evidence that Jesus addressed, in his own heart, the large dimensions of his destiny.

The parable’s identification of Jesus as Son and Heir—the fulfillment of prophetic history—passed into Christian theology very early, as we see in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by a Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things.”

It seems probable that this self-interpretation of Jesus had taken shape only gradually over the previous two years, as he continued to reflect on the prophets in the light of his own experience, especially the growing antagonism of his enemies. Jesus finally expressed this understanding during the last week of his life, in this dramatic parable.

Numbers 35: Part of the disposition of the Promised Land, a theme now continued from the previous chapter, is the arrangement for regional “cities of refuge.” These were special places of sanctuary for those whose lives were endangered by families seeking blood vengeance.

Since these assigned cities of refuge were all priestly cities, however, the chapter begins with the disposition of the priestly cities (cf. also Leviticus 25:32-34; Joshua 21:1-40). The tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe, was to inherit forty-eight cities, including the six cities of refuge, dispersed throughout the whole Promised Land (verses 6-7). Attached to this inheritance is pastureland in the vicinity of the priestly cities (verses 2-5).

Most of this chapter, however, is devoted to the cities of refuge themselves (verses 10-34). Because they were priestly cities, these cities of refuge had shrines and altars that would serve as precincts of sanctuary (cf. Exodus 21:14; 1 Kings 1:51).

Monday, August 12

Numbers 36: The Book of Numbers ends with a final determination about the property of five heiresses, the topic of an earlier discussion (27:1-11). The question raised in this chapter is directed to the inheritance of this property in the event that the inheriting heiress marries outside of her own tribe (verse 3). That is to say, what is needed is a further clarification of the earlier ruling, and Moses perceives the need for this clarification (verse 5).

The solution to the difficulty is a prohibition against these heiresses, if they do claim their inheritance, marrying outside their own tribe, lest the inherited property be lost to that tribe (verse 7). This solution is consistent with the intention of the earlier disposition-namely, to preserve in integrity the inheritance of each tribe and family (verse 8).

These heiresses dutifully conform to the prescribed arrangement (verses 10-13).

The last verse of this book asserts divine sanction for the decisions and judgments made throughout chapters 22-36, raising them to the same level of authority as the commandments received on Mount Sinai.

The legal determination in this chapter was consistent with an overriding preoccupation in the allotment of the Promised Land among Israel’s tribes: A concern to distribute the available real estate evenly, so that no one family or group should gain—at least initially—an undue prominence or advantage over the others.

This concern was the reason why, when the land was apportioned, the task fell to representatives of all the tribes (34:16-29). These men were to guarantee an equitable distribution, based on an elementary principle: “And you shall divide the land by lot as an inheritance among your families; to the larger you shall give a larger inheritance, and to the smaller you shall give a smaller inheritance; everyone’s shall be whatever falls to him by lot. You shall inherit according to the tribes of your fathers” (33:54).

This arrangement, bolstered by Israel’s jubilee rule (cf. Leviticus 25:10-34), encouraged a rough equality of resources in Israel, not only among the tribes, but also among individual households. The inspiration for this system may be described as a benign egalitarianism. It would distinguish Israel from the money-grubbing nations round about.

This egalitarianism, on the whole, lasted for centuries. Even as late as the reign of Solomon (961-922), it could be said, “Judah and Israel dwelt safely, each man under his vine and his fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25).

Afterwards, this benign egalitarianism was corroded by Israel’s commercial dealings with Israel’s neighbors, chiefly the Phoenicians. We detect an early example of this corrosion in the ninth century, in the case of the seizure of Naboth’s vineyard by Ahab and Jezebel. It is worth observing that the outspoken critic of this seizure was the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 21).

Tuesday, August 11

Joshua 1: We observe that, in this chapter, First, with respect to time: The death of Moses is a distinct dividing line in biblical history. The death of Moses marks the end of a specific era. All Israel was waiting for him to die; at last they were able to enter the Promised Land. Second, this division pertains to space, as well as to time; the Jordan River is a geographical boundary; its crossing meant the end of wandering and the commencement of geographical stability. Thus, the text presents a crossover (‘abar, the root word of “Hebrew”) in both time and space.

The details of the Lord’s command to Joshua convey the impression of “here and now”: Moses is dead. Now then—we’ttah—rise up, cross over. Although everyone is to go over the river, the Lord’s command is laid on Joshua specifically; this is conveyed by the singular imperative form of the verbs: ‘rise up, cross over” (qum ‘abor).

In the repetition of the adjective “this” (hazzeh) the reader senses a physical immediacy, as though the Lord, in the act of commanding Joshua, is actually pointing to “this Jordan,” “this people,” “this Lebanon.”

Within the Lord’s command, the reader feels a tension, as it were, between the established past and the still indefinite future. This is conveyed in the tenses of the two verbs: “I have given you every place that the sole of your foot may tread.” The “I have given” (netattiv) is a “perfect of certitude”; the gift of the Land has already been made. The “may tread” (tidrok) is an “imperfect of possibility.” An established past and a somewhat indistinct future are combined.

With respect to the past, this command to Joshua is based on the Lord’s promise to Abraham: “To your seed I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7; cf. 15:7; 17:8). Two qualifications attended that gift. First, it was not an untrammeled real estate endowment; it was a clause in a covenant. To understand the gift, it is essential to understand the covenant. Second, the sons of Israel could never possess the land except as tenants: “The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me. (Leviticus 25:23).

With respect to the future, as well, Israel’s possession of the land is still a covenantal clause, not a real estate bequest separable from that covenant. When Israel, under Joshua’s leadership, took possession of the land, it was to prepare for the covenant’s fulfillment, in which—as God told Abraham—all the nations of the world would be blessed.

Wednesday, August 14

Acts 18:12-28: We know, from an inscription found at Delphi, that L. Junius Gallio Annaeus, older brother to the philosopher Seneca, was the proconsul of Greece (Achaia) from the early summer of A.D. 51 to the early summer of the year 52. Along with Claudius’s expulsion of the Jews from Rome in 49, this inscription is one of our most important controls on the dating of the events narrated in the Acts of the Apostles. It enables us to “fix” the time of Paul’s appearance in the presence of Gallio, the story told in these verses, in May or, more probably, June of the year 51. The judgment place (bema) of Gallio, where Paul appeared, may be visited even now in the excavations at Corinth.

Concerned solely with the preservation of the civic order, Gallio is not impressed by the vague accusations brought against Paul by his Jewish detractors (verses 13-15). They, frustrated by the governor’s insouciance, begin to beat one of their own leaders, who had recently become a Christian (verse 17). This is Sosthenes, who will later serve at Paul’s secretary in the composition of 1 Corinthians (1:1).

Sometime after this incident, Paul goes to the nearby coastal city of Cenchrea (home town of the deaconess Phoebe, who several years later will carry the Epistle to the Romans to its intended destination — cf. Romans 16:1).

We may surmise that Silas (Silvanus) was left at Corinth, because at this point he disappears entirely from Luke’s narrative. He certainly left Corinth within the next five years, because he does not appear in the Corinthian epistles, a thing unthinkable if he were still in the city. We do not hear of Silas again until the early 60s, when we find him at Rome (cf. 1 Peter 5:12).

At Cenchrea Paul has his head shaved, part of the ritual in a thirty-days’ period of special fasting and devotion (cf. also 21:26; Numbers 6:1-21; Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War 2.15.1). Paul then boards a ship, along with Aquila and Priscilla, to journey to Ephesus, where after some days he leaves these two companions. He boards another ship that takes him south to the coastal city of Caesarea. There he pays his respects to the local church, the original nucleus of which consists in the family and friends of Cornelius. From there Paul goes overland to Antioch, the church that had commissioned his second missionary journey, which is thus brought to an end. Paul will remain at Antioch for the winter, until the spring of 52. Meanwhile, as we shall see, Aquila and Priscilla will be very busy with the ministry at Ephesus.

Thursday, August 15

John 2:1-12: According to this story, Mary with an implied request on behalf of some embarrassed newlyweds. If—as I guess—Mary assisted in the wedding preparations, it is not surprising that it was she who noticed the wine shortage.
Indeed, during the several days of feasting, this helpful wedding guest may occasionally have cast a wary eye at the beverage supply, growing a tad alarmed at its steady decline. At last it was gone, and Mary determined to speak with her son.

What prompted the mother of Jesus to take this step? What did she expect? John does not say, and Mary’s actual expectation remains one of the genuine mysteries of the story.

This does not mean, however, that we are totally at sea on the matter. We do know the substance of a message Mary received from an angel more than thirty years earlier: “ And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a
Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest . . . therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:31–32, 35).

Moreover, the birth and infant life of Jesus were attended by extraordinary, even miraculous, circumstances. In addition, Mary had heard her son—from tender years—speak of God as “My Father” (Luke 2:49).

How did Mary understand all these things? It is not at all clear that she did understand. At least, it would be silly to suppose that she thought of Jesus in formal creedal terms.

Mary’s knowledge of Jesus was not of this dogmatic sort. It was, first of all, a mother’s knowledge of her child, especially a child who had lived with her well into adulthood.

There was surely more, as well: It would be wrong to imagine that when the Holy Spirit, “the power of the Highest,” descended upon her to effect the conception of Jesus, the Spirit intended this descent as a transitory visit.
Mary was not just a temporary or purely physical conduit of the Incarnation. The relationship between Jesus and his mother was transpersonal and transcendent to biology. She was truly the mother, and not simply the “bearer,” of God’s Son. When, during her pregnancy, she declared, “He who is mighty has done great
things for me” (Luke 1:49), she was aware of at least this much. Day by day she measured, and now continued to measure, what this meant. If she knew Jesus at all, if being the mother of God’s Son meant anything, then it certainly meant she was entitled to speak to him about a shortage of wine.

Friday, August 16

Mark 12:35-40: No other line of the Book of Psalms enjoys, in the New Testament, a prominence equal to these opening words of Psalm 109. In the traditions reflected in the Synoptic Gospels, for example, Christians remembered that Jesus had quoted this verse in controversy with His rabbinical opponents and that the context for His citation was the decisive and great kerygmatic question of the Lord’s identity: “What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?” In these few words of the Psalter, “The Lord said to my Lord,” Christians learned that Jesus is not only David’s descendant but also his preexisting Lord. He is the Son, not only of David, but of God.

Having mysteriously addressed the identity of Christ, this same line of our psalm goes on to speak of His triumph and enthronement, with the solemn proclamation: “Sit at My right hand.” These majestic words were quoted in the first sermon of the Christian Church, that of Pentecost morning at the third hour (cf. Acts 2:34), and became the foundation of some of the most important Christological and soteriological statements of the New Testament (cf. Mark 16:19; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2.).

In this one line of the psalm, then, we profess, in summary form, those profound doctrines at the foundation of our whole relationship to God—the eternal identity of Jesus Christ, His triumph over sin and death, and His glorification at God’s right hand: “God . . . has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, . . . who . . , when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:1–3).

Acts 19:1-10: After Apollos leaves Ephesus for Corinth, Paul arrives at Ephesus in the summer of 52 (19:1). He finds more disciples of John the Baptist, whom he in turn brings into the fullness of the Gospel (19:2-6). There is reason to believe that some disciples of John the Baptist were to be found at Ephesus even for decades to come. When the apostle John wrote his gospel in that city near the end of the first century, he took special care to relate the ministry of John the Baptist entirely to Jesus, even informing us (nor would we otherwise know it) that some followers of John the Baptist were to be found even among the first apostles of Jesus (cf. John 1:29-37).

Although the explicit evidence is sparse, it appears that many of John the Baptist’s disciples, and perhaps most, joined the Christian Church within the next generation or so. Their presence in the Church would go far to explain the great reverence and devotion in which that greatest of the prophets has always been regarded in Christian piety from the earliest times. Without exception, an icon of John the Baptist is still found, up in front, in all the Eastern Orthodox places of worship.

Paul will spend the next three years (summer of 52 to summer of 55) in Ephesus, which becomes a center for the evangelization of neighboring cities in Asia Minor, such as Colossae, Laodicea (cf. Colossians 4:16; Revelation 3:14-22), Smyrna, Philadelphia, and elsewhere (cf. “churches of Asia” in 1 Corinthians 16:19). From Ephesus, during these three years, Paul will be directing the missionary activity of his associates, both in Asia Minor (such as Tychicus and Trophimus [Acts 20:4]) and elsewhere (such as Erastus [Acts 19:22; cf. also 2 Timothy 4:20], Epaphroditus [Philippians 2:25-30; 4:18] and Timothy [Acts 19:22; Philippians 2:19; 1 Corinthians 16:10]). He will write the Epistles to the Galatians in the earlier part of these three years and1 Corinthians toward the end (the spring of 55). These notes will also argue that he wrote the Epistle to the Philippians at some time during these three years.