Friday, October 10

Luke 13:18-21: Because the great similarity between Luke’s version of the parable of the mustard seed and that of Matthew (13:31-32), it appears that they derived it, not from Mark 4:30-32, but from some other common source that would explain the similarity. In each of its versions this story emphasizes the contrast between the tiny seed and the large size of the plant into which that seed grows.

The second parable here, again common to Luke and Matthew, continues the theme of growth, but this time the point of similarity does not come from the forces of nature but from the human labor that causes the increase. Both parables illustrate the dynamism of the Kingdom.

Ezra 7: Now we come to the ministry of the man for whom this book is named. There are two parts to this chapter. The first (verses 1-10) is a summary of Ezra’s journey, and the second (verses 11-26) the original letter of authorization for his mission.

Our treatment of this section will follow the traditional view that Ezra arrived at Jerusalem in 458, thirteen years before Nehemiah. Those historians who date his arrival thirty or even sixty years later are obliged to presume that there are mistakes in the transmission of the text, along with other hypotheses that seem improbable to me. I believe that the traditional date, 458, is the safest and most likely date for the events narrated in the present chapter. Accordingly, we are going to presume that the Artaxerxes in these texts is Artaxerxes I (465-425), not Artaxerxes II (404-358). Thus, the “seventh years of Artaxerxes” was 458. Thus, there is a lapse of 57 years between chapter 6 and chapter 7.

Ezra came to Jerusalem with a retinue of clergy for the temple worship (verse 7), authorized by a letter from the emperor (verses 11-28), as well as arrangements for finances and appointments for the temple. Ezra was not the high priest, but he was of a priestly family. He was, in fact, a descendent of Seriah (verse 1), the last high priest to die at Jerusalem prior to the Captivity. His own son, Jehozadak, was deported to Babylon 120 years before Ezra’s journey to Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 6:14).

It is clear from this letter of Artaxerxes that the Persian government expected Judea to be ruled according to the Law of Moses (verses 25-26). An important and explicit item in that authorization exempted the temple and its clergy from royal taxation (verse 24). This should not surprise us, because we know that Darius made a similar exemption for the priests of Apollo at the temple in Magnesia.

Throughout the present chapter Ezra acts alone. In the next chapter he will be joined by other leaders who will accompany him.

Saturday, October 11

Philippians 1:19-30: In his earlier epistles, it appears, Paul expected still to be alive on this earth when the Lord returned (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:15,17). Now however, for what appears to be the first time in his letters, he refers to the possibility of his death (verse 20). Things look pretty dangerous at Ephesus (1 Corinthians 15:32).

The doctrine most clearly taught in these verses is that of an immediate “afterlife” of the believer with Christ, and this is the source of Paul’s own comfort and strength as he faces the possible prospect of death at Ephesus. We may contrast this perspective with that of Paul’s earliest epistle, First Thessalonians (4:13-18), where the source of Christian comfort is not an immediate afterlife but rather the final resurrection.

This is not to say that in Philippians Paul is no longer concerned with the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead. On the contrary, he explicitly speaks of it (1:6; 2:16; 3:20). There is no sense in which we can say that Paul, in Philippians, discards the doctrine of the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead.

Here in Philippians, however, the expression “with Christ”—syn Christo (verse 23)— refers to an immediate afterlife, whereas in 1 Thessalonians 4:14,17 it had referred to the time of the final resurrection. The emphasis is on union with Christ in the here and now (verse 21; 3:7-12). The believer is already united with Christ, a truth that Paul will also stress in his next epistle, Galatians (2:20; 3:27; 4:19).

Paul’s hope for an immediate afterlife with Christ, therefore, is based on the experience of his union with Christ already in this world.

Because Christ is already his life, death will be for Paul an advantage, a step forward, a kerdos. “For Paul to live is Christ, and this is a life which by death will be set in full communion with the One who lives in him,” writes one commentator (in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 9.547). There are similar sentiments throughout early Christian literature, especially in the context of martyrdom (cf. Ignatius of Antioch, Romans 5.3; 6.1-2; 7.2). In Christ Paul is possessed of a life that he cannot lose by death (cf. Romans 6:11; Colossians 3:3; John 11:23-26; Ignatius of Antioch, Ephesians 3.2; Magnesians 1.2).

Unlike the Platonic tradition, Paul does not call death a “release” or “escape,” but a “gain.”

When he wrote Philippians, then, Paul had come to the persuasion that an immediate afterlife with Christ follows the death of those who have died in Christ.

It is important, however, that we do not misinterpret this observation. Individual union with Christ after death never becomes the goal of Paul’s ultimate striving. Jesus dies to save the whole man, not just man’s soul. Until the body itself is raised in Christ, the Christian hope remains unfulfilled. Paul never wavers in this affirmation, not even in the present epistle (3:10,11,21; cf. Romans 8:11,23; 1 Corinthians 15:51-55). Death in Christ, then, is not our goal; it is only a step towards that goal, a “gain.”

Sunday, October 12

Philippians 2:1-18: There were forces of disunity active in the Philippian congregation. These seem to have been based on differences of personality and temperament (cf. 4:2), rather than doctrine, but they were nonetheless disruptive and painful. Paul was especially sensitive to these Philippian problems, because he was also suffering from similar difficulties, such as jealousies and rivalries, at Ephesus (1:15-17,29-30).

In the present chapter, therefore, Paul exhorts the Philippians to unity. This unity, based on “communion of the Spirit” (koinonia Pnevmatos), is expressed in “the comfort of love,” with “affection and mercy” (literally “heart and mercies”—splanchna kai oiktirmoi, words that the early Christians liked to join. See verse 1; Colossians 3:12; James 5:11). Paul is asking the Philippians to consult their experience of God in comfort, consolation, communion, and mercy, and then to live accordingly.

All the Philippians must cultivate the same set of mind (to avto phronete, have the same love (ten avten agapen), be of one soul (sympsychoi), and “think the same thing” (to hen phronountes). It has long been recognized that all four of these expressions mean the same thing. Thus, in the fourth century St. John Chrysostom commented, posakis to avto legei, “he several times says the same thing.”

Twice in the list Paul uses the verb phroneo, meaning “to think,” or perhaps better “to have in mind,” “to dwell on in thought.” The verb has as much to do with attitude and sentiment as it does with thought or reason. In this epistle uses this verb ten times (cf. also 1:7; 2:5; 3:15,19; 4:2,10), more than in any other of Paul’s epistles.

The attitude encouraged by Paul is opposed to all forms of “selfish ambition or conceit” (verse 3). The first of these words, eritheia, is perhaps better translated as “factiousness” or “party spirit.” In the first chapter Paul had used this same word to describe the problems at Ephesus (1:17), and he writes of the same evil elsewhere (Romans 2:8; 2 Corinthians 12:20; Galatians 5:19-20). Other early Christians warned about this evil as well (cf. James 3:14,16; Ignatius of Antioch, Philadelphians 8.2). It refers to partisan attempts to gain power and control in the Church. The presence of this word (which before Christian times is found in only one pagan Greek writer, Aristotle (Politics 5,1302b4 and 1303a14) in so much earlier Christian literature suggests that this was an ongoing problem.

The opposite of this vice is tapeinophrosyne (recognize here the root we just looked at?), which means lowliness, the internal sense of humility, personal modesty, humbling oneself (thus Jesus, in verse 8, “humbled Himself”—etapeinosen heavton).

It is instructive to note that this word is never found in pagan Greek literature. It conveys an ideal and state of mind alien to pagan culture. It is a distinctly biblical word. Indeed, the word had to be made up by the first Greek translators of the Hebrew Scriptures to express the sense of Proverbs 29:23 and Psalms 130 (131):2.

This humility means self-abnegation in the sight of God, the chief example of which is God’s Son, who emptied Himself and took the form of a servant and then humbled himself in obedience unto death. This is the model that Paul holds out to the Philippians (verses 5-11).

In verses 12-18 we discern a ringing resemblance to the farewell discourse of Moses in Deuteronomy 31—32. In that passage, where Moses reprimanded the Chosen People for their disobedience, we note an emphasis on “rebellion” (erethismon in the Septuagint of Deuteronomy 31:27), an idea very close to Paul’s warnings against “partisanship” (eritheia; cf. 1:17; 2:3).

Monday, October 13

Philippians 2:19-30: What sort of man was Timothy? Well, we know what Paul thought of him. In today’s reading he tells the Macedonians, “I have no one like-minded, who will sincerely care for your state” (Philippians 2:20), and goes on to speak of his “proven character” (2:22).

Indeed, Paul refers to Timothy as “our brother” (2 Corinthians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 3:2; Philemon 1), “as a son with his father” (Philippians 2:22), and “my beloved and faithful son in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 4:17). Paul addresses him, moreover, as “son Timothy” (1 Timothy 1:18), “Timothy, a true son in the faith” (1:2), and “Timothy, a beloved son” (2 Timothy 1:2).

Paul knew that Timothy had been raised in a devout, believing family
(2 Timothy 1:5), where he was trained in the Holy Scriptures (3:15).
Still young, Timothy had joined Paul’s company during the second missionary journey (Acts 16:1–3) and remained with him through the ensuing years, carefully following his “doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra” (2 Timothy 3:10–11).

Along the way, Paul found that he could entrust Timothy with important responsibilities in the ministry. The young man had not been a missionary even a year before Paul sent him from Athens to Thessaloniki for a needed pastoral visit (1 Thessalonians 3:1–5). Later, from Ephesus, Paul sent Timothy to visit the Macedonians (Acts 19:22; Philippians 2:19–23) and the quarrelsome, spiteful congregation at Corinth (1 Corinthians 4:17; 16:10). It was to Timothy, finally, that Paul wrote the last letter of his life, asking him to “be diligent to come to me quickly” (2 Timothy 4:9).

Epaphroditus is the second of Paul’s companions mentioned today. A member of the parish in Philippi, he had been sent to bring assistance to Paul during the time of his imprisonment at Ephesus. Epaphroditus, however, falling sick, needed Paul to care for him. Indeed, Paul remarks, this loyal churchman had nearly died. More recently he has recovered his health, so Paul is able to share this good news with the Philippians, who had been worried by a report of the illness. It is he who will carry this epistle to Philippi, to the great joy and relief of the congregation in that city.

Tuesday, October 14

Nehemiah 1: The lengthy confession in this chapter is our first example of Nehemiah in prayer; we will have frequent occasion to observe this recourse to prayer as an habitual and sustained practice on his part. Nehemiah’s prayer in the present case (verses 5-11) is full of Deuteronomic vocabulary, a characteristic shared with other late books of the Old Testament, such as Ezra and Daniel. Nehemiah based all his hope on God’s fidelity to Israel, manifested during the Babylonian Captivity. Such prayers may be described as doxologies of judgment. As in the prayer in Ezra 9 (and later on in Nehemiah 9 and in Daniel 9:4-19), this prayer identified Nehemiah with the people for whom it was offered.

Philippians 3:1-1: I have argued that Philippians was written relatively early in Paul’s ministry, some time during his three years (52-55) in Ephesus. This dating would put it close to the composition of Galatians.

In the present section of Philippians, in fact, the reader is much reminded of the double principal theme of Galatians, salvation by faith and freedom from the works of the Mosaic Law. For example, in Paul’s comments about his communion with Christ, one can hardly fail to observe the resemblance between verses 8 to 10 and Galatians 2:20.

There is a difference between Philippians and Galatians in this respect, however: Whereas Galatians was written for a congregation that had already begun to succumb to the teachings of the Judaizers (namely, that the Gentiles were obliged to be circumcised and to observe the Mosaic Law), in Philippians this teaching is regarded as a threat only, not as presenting an immediate and critical danger. The Judaizing errors that had already reached Galatia had not yet found their way to Philippi.

Hence, there is a difference in tone between these two epistles; nor do we find in Philippians the shock and harshness of reprimand characteristic of Galatians. One thinks of Paul’s “foolish Galatians” (Galatians 3:1) in contrast to the Philippians, whom he calls “my brethren dearly beloved and longed for, my joy and my crown” (Philippians 4:1).

In discussing the Judaizers in each of these epistles, Paul waxes autobiographical, but here too there is a difference between the two works. In Galatians Paul narrates the circumstances of his conversion, particularly his relationships to the other apostles (Galatians 1:17—2:17), a motif rendered necessary by the way in which the Judaizers in Galatia claimed the authority of those apostles. It is not necessary for Paul to go into these particulars at Philippi, where he was the only apostle known to the congregation. Instead, Paul concentrates his biographical comments on a contrast of “before” and “after” his conversion. The tone is accordingly more serene in Philippians than in Galatians, though he does use some pretty tough language to describe the Judaizers themselves (verse 2).

Wednesday, October 15

Luke 14:7-14: This section of Luke has no parallel in any of the other gospels. There are two distinct sections:

The first is a parable illustrating Jesus’ logion</> on the exaltation of the humble and the humbling of the self-exalted (verses 7-11). This logion, which he shares with Matthew (23:12), receives extra attention in Luke; it is implied in the canticle of Mary (1:52) and further illustrated in the parable of the Publican and Pharisee (18:14).

The second section (verses 12-14) expresses Luke’s emphatic and abiding concern for the poor and disadvantaged

Philippians 3:12-21: Especially among converts from paganism (which was by and large the case at Philippi, where there was not even a synagogue), there was a great need for types and models of behavior. More than for Jews who accepted the Gospel, conversion for the gentiles was bound to entail a more radical—even dramatic—change in personal behavior. Whereas good Jews already lived lives in conformity with God’s Law, especially in the areas of sex and economics, this was often not true of gentile converts (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Hence the need for role models in this latter group.

The elaboration of a Christian lifestyle, after all, cannot be accomplished from scratch. It is largely put together by the imitation of other Christians. (Indeed, it is imperative that all Christians live in such a way as to serve as models for one another. What we do as Christians we do not do for ourselves. How we speak, how we conduct ourselves, the moral choices we make — all of these things have to do with the spiritual benefit of our brothers and sisters.) Christians learn how to be Christians by observing other Christians whom they believe to be better at it.

Paul especially plays this theme when writing to his converts in Macedonia (verse 17; 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:6-7; 2:14; 3:12; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9), though he touches it elsewhere as well (Galatians 4:12; 1 Corinthians 4:14-16; Acts 20:18-21,31-35).

Paul’s exhortation that the Philippians imitate him means more than choosing him as a model because he happens to be available. We should bear in mind that this was something Paul had taught the Philippians long before he sent them epistles (2 Thessalonians 2:17). Paul emphasized that, not only had the congregations learned from watching him, but that he had intentionally given them an example (2 Thessalonians 2:19). His example was part of the “tradition” that he had bequeathed to them (2 Thessalonians 3:6).

This is also the point here in Philippians. It is not that Paul happened to be a good Christian worthy of imitation. His role as a model is part of his authority. He is a “type” by reason of his ministry. The congregation’s imitation of him pertains to their recognition of his authority over them. The imitation is based on paternity (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:14-15). In the sense that Paul speaks of it here, Christian imitation is not simply the replication of a model; it is the enactment of obedience to a standard.

Thursday, October 16

Nehemiah 3: This chapter describes the organized building of the wall, a task that could only be undertaken while the opposing party was caught off-guard, uncertain of its authorization.

From the beginning of the Book of Ezra, we have seen numerous examples of the resistance of the native population of the Holy Land, those who had not gone into exile. That opposition expressed their resentment at being excluded from the inheritance of Israel, and now, in the Book of Nehemiah, we observe that their resentment has not abated. It is grown stronger, rather, over the ensuing decades. It will greatly increase with Nehemiah’s construction of the city walls. More than any other project, those walls symbolized their exclusion from Israel.

Nehemiah had already arranged for the building material in 2:8; by late summer they were ready to start. For a man accustomed to dealing with the administration of an empire that stretched from the Khyber Pass to Macedonia, the modest organization required for this work was hardly much of a challenge.

Sections of the wall were apportioned to various families, villages, and professions. Nehemiah’s distribution of the work was not only an efficient use of the labor force, it also subtly encouraged rivalry among the builders, each team endeavoring to surpass the efforts of the others. (Some commentators have also observed the curious similarities of this description to the wall construction of Themistocles in Thucydides, History 1:89. There should be nothing surprising in this similarity. There are only so many ways to build a wall.)

Five of the building groups were composed of families listed in Ezra 2, while several others were based on various localities in the region. Merchant groups (verse 32) and certain guilds were also represented, such as apothecaries and goldsmiths (verse 8). The entire organization bore no slight resemblance to an urban softball league, in which various merchants or other organizations sponsored the different teams. The various teams of builders appear to be listed counterclockwise around the city wall. The priestly team, not unexpectedly, consecrated the parts of their sections as they were finished.

Friday, October 17

Philippians 4:10-23: Right from the beginning Paul had experienced the generosity of the Macedonian Christians (verses 15-16; 2 Corinthians 8:1-5), and now once again, a further opportunity being provided, they have not failed him (verses 10,18).

For his part, Paul has learned to be content with whatever circumstances the Lord sees fit to provide for him (verses 11-12), confident that he can do all things in Christ who strengthens him (verse 13; 2 Corinthians 12:10; 2 Timothy 4:17; Acts 18:9-10). This is not self-sufficiency but an ongoing dependence on Christ, a difference that separates Christian contentment from Stoic contentment.

We observe that Paul employs the language of sacrifice to describe the generous gift of the Philippians (verse 18; Ephesians 5:28; Romans 12:1).

Following the doxology that could form an appropriate ending to the epistle (verse 20), there is added a series of personal salutations which we are probably correct in suspecting to have been written in Paul’s own hand (verses 21-23). This interpretation corresponds to what we know to have been Paul’s practice (cf. 2 Thessalonians3:17; Galatians 6:11; 1 Corinthians 16:21; Philemon 9).

The reference to “Caesar’s house” (Kaisaros oikia—verse 22) means those who work for the Roman government. (The expression “house of” with the name of a king normally carries this meaning in Holy Scripture, as it does throughout the ancient literature of the Middle East.) Ephesus, as the regional capital of Asia, was the site of a great deal of Roman officialdom (Acts 19:38), and Paul’s mention of “saints” inside it shows that some Christians were already finding their place in the Roman government. This is ironical, of course, for this was the same government that was keeping Paul imprisoned. Indeed, it may have been Paul’s own example that led to the conversion of these people (1:13).

Nehemiah 4: Meanwhile the frustrated opposition party was holding an impromptu powwow about what to do next (verses 1-2). Sanballat was aware that the emperor had forbidden the building of the walls, but here was the highest non-royal official in the realm, with full knowledge and cooperation of the governing satrap, doing that very thing. The situation left him angry and confused. He dared not complain to the capital, of course, because Persian monarchs tended to react in dangerous ways if stimulated by incautious questioning (cf. Ezra 6:11), to say nothing of deliberate provocation (cf. Esther 7:10). Nehemiah was completely familiar with the workings of the court, whereas Sanballat and the opposition folks were just a bunch of yokels. They found themselves now completely out of their political depth.

Their frustration could be expressed only in ridicule (verse 3), but their mirth rang hollow, because the wall in question was growing huge. Dr. Kathleen Kenyon’s excavations show it to have been 2.75 meters thick—roughly nine feet—and in Chapter 12 we will read of a lengthy dedicatory procession conducted on top of the wall!

Since Sanballat’s people could do nothing in the open, their opposition took the form of surprise raids by small gangs. The list of opponents in verse 7 indicates that Jerusalem was literally surrounded by enemies. There follows (verses 13-23) an account of how the builders, like Minute Men, simultaneously prayed and defended themselves during the construction. Verse 10 seems to be a snatch of a song that they sang while working.

Much of this chapter is resonant with the themes and vocabulary of Israel’s ancient warfare stories from the Pentateuch, Joshua, and Judges: the threat of the enemies (verses 7-8), the strategic disadvantage of Israel (verses 10,13), the preliminary prayer before arming (verse 9), the arrangement of the forces by families (verse 13), the declaration of divine help (verse 20), the summons to bravery and fidelity (verse 14), the Lord’s frustration of the enemies (verse 15), and the bugle call to battle (verses 18-19).