Friday, January 16
Hebrews 10:11-25: Citing Jeremiah 31, which he quoted at greater length in chapter 8, the author contrasts the sacrifices of the Mosaic Law with the sacrifice offered in the Passion of Jesus.
There are several points of contrast:
First, the Old Testament priest “stands,” whereas Jesus sits enthroned: “And every priest stands ministering daily . . . But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.” From the very beginning of this work, Jesus is portrayed as “seated” in glory: “when He had purged sins, [He] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3). Later on the author will say of Jesus that He “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2).
This image of Jesus seated in glory is drawn mainly from Psalm 109 (110), cited at the beginning of this work (1:13) and obviously much favored in the early Church (cf. Mark 16:10; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Revelation 3:21).
Second, the Old Testament sacrifices were many, whereas the New Testament sacrifice is unique: “And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices . . . But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.” In the previous chapter we read that “Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many” (9:28). This word “once” (hapachs) is found in Hebrews 8 times, more than all the other New Testament books put together.
This hapachs, “once,” is contrasted with pollakis, “many times” (9:25-26).
This “once” contrasted with “many” is related to the “seated” contrasted with “standing.” The “once” and “seated” indicate finality and fulfillment—the end of history—whereas the “standing” and “many” suggest an ongoing process.
Third, the Old Testament sacrifices were unable, of themselves, to atone for sins and purify the heart: “And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins, and “by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.”
Implied in the development of this theme is an underlying judgment on the Jewish religion itself: Now that the fulfillment of its history has come in Christ and His redeeming work, the Jewish religion no longer represents God’s will for history. This is why it is called “the old covenant: “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (8:13). The continued existence of a “Jewish religion” alongside the Christian Gospel remains an anomaly yet to be resolved.
Genesis 16: What should be said about Abram’s taking of this slave girl as a sort of second wife? We observe that God did not tell him to do this. It was Sarai’s idea. The whole project, that is to say, was of the flesh, not of the Spirit. It is no great thing for a young woman to conceive and bear a child, but a great thing is what God had in mind to do. Sarai’s plan was a classic case of man interfering with the plans of God. This was simply a work of the flesh, as St. Paul observed (Galatians 4:21–25).
In this respect, furthermore, the Apostle to the Gentiles saw an allegorical prophecy of the situation of the Jews and Christians with regard to Abraham. The Jews, he argued, were children of Abraham is a fleshly way, unlike Abraham’s spiritual paternity of Christians (4:26–28). Christians, not being slaves, are not children of Hagar, whereas the Jews, unfamiliar with freedom in Christ, are still slaves to the flesh and the Law (4:31). They are the children of Hagar! This idea closes off a chapter of Galatians that began with the transformation from slavery to freedom (3:29—4:7).
Saturday, January 17
Genesis 17: Isaac was named for laughter, because that name, formed from the verbal root shq, literally means “he will laugh.” When Abram learns that he, at age 100, and his wife, at age 90, will be the parents of this little boy, what else can he do but laugh (v. 17)?
No one felt the irony of their situation better than Sarah herself, however, who will learn of this divine plan in the next chapter, where she will discover the news while eavesdropping, from within the tent, on a conversation between her husband and the Lord whom he hosted outside. “Sarah your wife shall have a son,” she will hear the Latter say. Her response? “Sarah laughed within herself,” asserts the Sacred Text, a reaction she will be a tad too quick to disavow when questioned on the matter. “I did not laugh,” she will insist. The Lord will press the point, “but you did laugh” (18:9–15).
According to the full Christian understanding of the Holy Scriptures, the joy of Abraham and Sarah at the promised birth of Isaac was burdened with prophecy, for his miraculous begetting foretold a later conception more miraculous still. Isaac was, in truth, a type and pledge of “Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). And Mary, mother of this Newer Isaac, having conceived him in virginity just days before, made perfect her responding song of praise by remembering the mercy that God “spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever” (Luke 1:55).
Did not Abraham himself anticipate with joy the later coming of that more distant Seed? Surely so, for even our Newer Isaac proclaimed, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). Like Moses (5:46), Isaiah (12:41), and David (Matthew 22:43), Abraham was gifted to behold, in mystic vision, the final fulfillment of that primeval word, “But My covenant I will establish with Isaac” (Genesis 17:21).
In the second century, St. Irenaeus of Lyons expressed thus the mystery inherent in the figure of Isaac:
Abraham, knowing the Father through the Word, who made heaven and earth, confessed Him as God, and taught by a vision that the Son of God would become a Man among men, by whose arrival his seed would be as the stars of heaven, he longed to see that day, so that he too might embrace Christ, as it were; and beholding Him in the Spirit of prophecy, he rejoiced. (Against the Heresies 4.7.1)
Sunday, January 18
Genesis 18: Abraham receives the Lord in the guise of “three men,” whom the Christian Church has always pictured as three angels. These Three were either the prophetic prefiguration or the appearance of the Persons of the Holy Trinity in human/angelic form, according to the earliest Christian readings of the text. Because the prophetic promise given about Isaac in this chapter is definitively fulfilled only in the New Testament, it was appropriate that on that occasion God should appear as that Trinity of distinct Persons, as the New Testament proclaims.
St. Ambrose of Milan thus commented on this scene in the second half of the fourth century:
Prepared to receive strangers, faithful to God, dedicated to ministering and prompt in His service, Abraham beheld the Trinity in a type. He supplemented hospitality with religious fealty, when beholding the Three he worshipped the One, and preserving the distinction of the Persons, he addressed One Lord, offering to Three the honor of his gift, while acknowledging but a single Power. It was not learning that spoke in him but grace, and although he had not learned, he believed in a way superior to us who have learned. Since no one had distorted the representation of the truth, he sees the Three but worships the Unity. He offers three measures of fine meal while slaying but one victim, considering that a single sacrifice is sufficient but a triple gift; a single victim, but a threefold offering. (Faith in the Resurrection 2.96)
Knowing that the Lord is prepared to destroy that city for its wickedness, and fearing for the welfare of his nephew and his family, Abraham bravely endeavors to arrange a deal with the Lord, in hopes of having the city spared. In one of the most colorful scenes in a very colorful book,
Abraham plays the part of the Bedouin trader, a type commonly met in the Middle East, attempting to arrange a lower price by the process of haggling. Particularly good in this art, Abraham works from a “price” of fifty just men down to a mere ten. He thus serves as the very model of fervent intercessory prayer, unafraid of pressing a point with God. Alas, Abraham knows that there are not even ten just men left in Sodom. Before he can suggest a lower figure, however, the Lord abruptly breaks off the negotiations and departs. Sodom is doomed.
Monday, January 19
Genesis 19: When Jesus would tell us of the final and catastrophic times, it is to Sodom that He sends us: “Likewise as it was also in the days of Lot: They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; but on the day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. Even so will it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed” (Luke 17:28–30). Indeed, “even so,” for we ourselves yet abide in the cities of the plain, “as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them in a similar manner to these” (Jude 7).
To the fine example of hospitality shown by Abraham and Sarah in the previous chapter we now find opposed the terrible example of hospitality shown by the residents of Sodom. Although their failure in the matter of hospitality may not have been the worst of their sins, it was sufficiently serious for Jesus to speak of it in the context of the hospitality that he expected his own apostles to receive when they entered a town (Matthew 10:11–15).
There are striking similarities between Psalm 11 (10) and this chapter’s description of the overthrow of Sodom. Consider the psalm: “He shall rain down snares upon sinners; / Fire and brimstone and a raging wind shall be the portion of their cup.” And Genesis: “Then the Lord rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah from the Lord out of heaven.” Or, again, in the psalm: “In the Lord I trust. How will you say to my soul, / ‘Flee to the mountains like a spar- row’?” And the angels say to Lot in Genesis: “Escape for your life! Do not look behind you nor stay anywhere in the plain. Escape to the mountains, lest you be overtaken.” To which Lot answers: “I cannot escape to the mountains, lest some evil overtake me and I die.” And yet again in the psalm: “The righteous Lord loves righteousness; / His face beholds the upright.”
But according to the apostle Peter, this explains precisely what transpired in the present chapter of Genesis, where God, “turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, condemned them to destruction, making them an example to those who afterward would live ungodly; and delivered righteous Lot, who was oppressed by the filthy conduct of the wicked (for that righteous man, dwelling among them, tormented his righteous soul from day to day by seeing and hearing their lawless deeds)” (2 Peter 2:6–8).
Tuesday, January 20
Hebrews 11:30-40: The faith of Rahab is contrasted with the unbelief of those other citizens of Jericho, who for seven days beheld the Ark of the Covenant circling their city and listened to the blast of the warning trumpets. They thus had ample opportunity to repent before it was too late, remarked St. John Chrysostom, more than twice as long as the citizens of Nineveh! (On Repentance 7.4.14)
Nonetheless, in the wider context of the Epistle to the Hebrews, it may be the case that the saving faith of Rahab is being contrasted with the unbelief of the Israelites themselves, those who failed to reach the Promised Land. Of those inexcusable unbelievers the author asks, “Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief” (3:17–19).
Genesis 20: This chapter sounds rather similar to the story in chapter 12, where we also learned of the beauty of Sarah and the disposition of men to look upon her with a measure of “coveting.” In the present instance, we may bear in mind, Sarah is almost ninety years old and pregnant. This fact says a great deal either of Sarah’s beauty or of Abimelech’s preferences in women.
We already learned a great deal about Abraham’s powers of persuasion when he turned to God in prayer. This was hardly surprising, because the Scriptures call him “the friend of God” (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; Daniel 3:35 [LXX]; Judith 8:22 [Vulgate]; James 2:23), and God, like the rest of us in this respect, delights in doing favors for His friends. As God’s friend, Abraham was blessed with what the Bible calls parresia, confidence or even boldness (Ephesians 3:12; Hebrews 4:16), in his approach to the Lord on matters of concern.
Like the stalwart widow in the Gospel parable on this subject (Luke 18:1–8), Abraham could be rather persistent, perhaps a tad nagging, when he brought some point of concern to the attention of the Almighty. Accustomed to that mercantile dickering ever common in the Middle East, Abraham knew how to chaffer his way to a bargain, and he incorporated this skill too into his prayer, as it were. We saw this power of his intercessory prayer in Genesis 18:16–33.
Thus in the present chapter, even after God declared to Abimelech, “Indeed, you are a dead man,” He went on to promise that Abraham “will pray for you, and you shall live” (vv. 3, 7). And, indeed, “Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech” (v. 17).
Wednesday, January 21
Genesis 20: We come now to the long-awaited birth of Isaac, concerning which the New Testament says, “By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars in the sky in multitude—innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore” (Hebrews 11:11–12). While the author of Hebrews praises the faith of Sarah in this respect, the apostle Paul tends rather to stress the faith of Abraham (Romans 4:19–22). The circumcision of Isaac (v. 4), commanded in Genesis 17:9–14, would be explicitly mentioned by St. Stephen in Acts 7:8.
Whatever Sarah’s reasons for expelling Hagar and Ishmael, God had His own reasons, and He permitted Sarah’s plans to succeed in order for His own reasons to succeed. This is true rather often; God permits evil to prevail for the sake of a greater good that only He can see and plan for. Had Hagar and Ishmael stayed on in Abraham’s household, they would have remained slaves. By their departure Ishmael was able to become the father of a great people on the earth (v. 13), a great people with us to this day, the great people of Arabia, for whom God manifested a special providential interest in this text. We will meet this theme of divine providence abundantly in the Joseph story toward the end of Genesis.
The Bible tends to lose track of Hagar and Ishmael once they arrive in the Negev Desert. The legends of the Arabs tell their own story of how far the mother and child reached in their journey, namely, Mecca. The spring in vv. 14–19 the Arabs identify as the spring of Zamzam, found near the Ka‘ba at Mecca, which spring allowed human life to flourish in that place. Thus, Ishmael is credited with the founding of Mecca, which is a religious shrine vastly older than Islam. Thus, according to the Bible, the Arabs too are a great nation, close relatives of the Jews and regarded as their rather bellicose cousins (16:11–12). Indeed, much of the later history of the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean Basin has been dominated by a single idea: how to restrain the ancient and native bellicosity born in Arabia. This effort has not been consistently successful.
Thursday, January 22
Matthew 3:13-17: Matthew’s account of this scene includes a brief discussion between Jesus and John, just prior to the baptism:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and are you coming to me?” But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him.
This hesitation on John’s part serves to emphasize Jesus’ superiority to John. Because this baptism was a sign of repentance, John himself sensed an incongruity in Jesus’ submission to it. Nonetheless, Jesus accepts this service at John’s hand, “to fulfill all righteousness.” Recognizing John’s baptism to come from God (Matthew 21:23-27), Jesus gives it his public endorsement. In submitting to it, the Sinless One places himself among the sinners he came to redeem.
This baptismal revelation is Trinitarian: the Father is revealed in the voice from heaven, the Son in the person baptized in the Jordan, and the Holy Spirit in the descending dove. In a parallel to this baptismal revelation, given at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Matthew places a corresponding “baptismal” scene at the end of it. This one is also Trinitarian: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
When the Father announced Jesus to be His “beloved Son” and declared Himself “well pleased,” these expressions were not entirely—if the word be allowed—original. On the contrary, these words doubtless evoked two biblical texts, with which Jesus was already familiar from those years of study in the synagogue. It is important to consider them in detail:
The first Old Testament text recorded the electrifying word spoken by God to Abraham:
Take now your son, your only one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.
The memory of this dramatic story, evoked by the “voice from heaven,” beckoned Jesus—at the moment of his baptism—to assume in his own life the sacrificial role of Isaac. Thus, at the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus was already summoned to consider the coming tragic events that would, in due course, put an end to it. Prior to proclaiming a single word of the Gospel, he received an early intimation of the mystery of the Cross.
The implicit reference to Isaac and Abraham, in the baptismal scene, is even more apparent if we consider the Greek (Septuagint) version of Genesis 22:2, where the Hebrew word for “only” (yahid) is changed to “beloved” (agapetos): “Take your beloved son, whom you love . . .”
A second biblical text, also familiar to Jesus, was evoked by the “voice from heaven” at the baptism. This one came from the Book of Isaiah and introduced the mysterious appearance of God’s Suffering Servant. Indeed, this passage stands at the beginning of the Isaian Servant Songs: “Behold! My Servant whom I uphold; / My soul delights in My chosen one. / I have put My Spirit upon him” (42:1).
Friday, January 23
Hebrews 12:1-11: Even in advance of the darkness of the Passion, the celebration of Palm Sunday gives Christians a vision of the glory that will follow the Cross. They are not expected to step into the dark corridor without knowing where that corridor will lead.
Jesus Himself knew exactly where he was going when he began Holy Week and the Way of the Cross. Indeed, it was his vision that strengthened him to walk that path. He, “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame.” He did not suffer the Cross for the sake of the Cross, but because of that final joy.
Christians, likewise, are not called to endure for the sake of endurance, but for the sake of glory. In this, they are to be modeled on Jesus: “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus.” Several translations (Phillips, NIV, NEB, NAB) render this last expression as “our eyes fixed on Jesus,” which perhaps better catches the sense of aphorontes. We are, in fact, dealing with a fixation.
In the Christian life, very much depends of where we look, where we direct our attention. Recall Peter’s attempt to walk on water: “And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid” (Matthew 14:29-30).
This fixation is a function of concentration: “Consider him who endured such hostility from sinners against himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.” The opening verb here (its only place in the New Testament) is the imperative form of analogizomai, which refers to critical, discursive thought—the labor of the mind.
In fact, one sees in this verb the same root found in the English “analogy.” This is all the more curious inasmuch as our author proceeds immediately to provide an analogy: “It is for discipline that you endure. God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not discipline?”
These reflections touch the very purpose of the Epistle to the Hebrews: to encourage Christians who had become despondent because of the difficulties attendant on the life of faith. The author endeavors to fix their attention on those considerations that provide strength for the struggle. His model, in this respect, is Jesus Himself, who “endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”