Friday, January 18

Matthew 5:33-48: Whereas the Mosaic Law prohibits perjury—an imprecation in testimony to a lie (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11)—Gospel righteousness forbids oaths in testimony to the truth.

The examples given in these verses, particularly that related to one’s own head (verse 36), contain some measure of disguise or subterfuge, to avoid using God’s name explicitly (“heaven,” “earth,” “Jerusalem”—verse 34; cf. 23:16-22). This suggests an “unofficial” context for the prohibition. In solemn and more formal settings, after all, such as a courtroom, there would be no such disguising of the references to God’s holy name.

In fact, this is how the ethical tradition of the Church has interpreted the prohibition of oaths—that is, as pertaining to ordinary conversation, not a more solemn setting in which an oath is reasonable and expected. Thus, we observe the Apostle Paul’s complete lack of scruple in this matter (cf. Romans 1:9; 2 Corinthians 1:23; Philippians 1:8; 1 Thessalonians 2:5). The Church has followed suit, not understanding this prohibition in the same strict sense as the prohibition against divorce.

The point of the prohibition is to avoid frivolous, unnecessary, and irreverent appeals to God, no matter how such appeals may be disguised. Invocations of this sort encroach on the realm of the divine, and the biblical Lord would be treated with the same nonchalance that pagans felt toward the Homeric gods. Oaths of this kind are irreverent to the divine presence, much like the uncovered head of a woman in prayer. Such oaths—frivolous invocations to the divine truth as guarantor of human claims—demean the divine majesty by forcing God to participate in a merely human conversation. Gospel righteousness recognizes the insult implied in such behavior and such an attitude.

The Lord’s prohibition of oaths extends and perfects the Mosaic proscription against taking the Lord’s name “in vain” (that is, on behalf of a false assertion) and strengthens the Old Testament’s care to reverence the holiness of God’s name (Leviticus 19:12). In this sense Jesus’ prohibition goes to the root of the divine intention in the Torah, much as His prohibition of divorce and adulterous thoughts more profoundly asserts what the Old Testament says of the sanctity of marriage.

In addition, the Lord’s injunction here forces the believer to assume full responsibility for the “truth content” of what he says (verse 37; cf. James 5:12; 1 Corinthians 1:19). He cannot evade this moral responsibility by a casual invocation of the supernatural. Such invocations, says Jesus, are far from harmless; they come “from the Evil One” (ek tou Ponerou), from whom we pray to be delivered (apo tou Ponerou–6:13).

Saturday, January 19

1 John 5:1-13: John is interested in evidence and proof. Arguably more than any other New Testament author, John wants to know how we know certain things. He fears nothing more than self-deception and walking in the dark: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1:8). And again, “He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (2:4). Furthermore, “He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now” (2:9). Moreover, “But he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (2:11). In addition, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar” (4:20).

If we are to avoid darkness, mendacity, and self-deception, then, just how do we know? Or, by what means do we know? John answers this question repeatedly: “Now by this we know [en touto ginoskomen] that we know Him, if we keep His commandments” (2:3). Again, “But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know [en touto ginoskomen] that we are in Him” (2:5). And again, “even now many antichrists have come, by which we know [hothen ginoskom en] that it is the last hour” (2:18). Furthermore, “by this we know [en touto gnosometha] that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him” (3:19). Moreover, “And by this we know [en touto ginoskomen] that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us” (3:24). Further yet, “By this you know [en touto ginoskete] the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God” (4:2). Indeed, “He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know [ek toutou ginoskomen] the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (4:6). Furthermore, “By this we know [en touto ginoskomen] that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit” (4:13).

This preoccupation continues into the present text: “By this we know [en touto ginoskomen] that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments” (verse 2). True agape, says John, is impossible without the full Christian faith and life, including the observance of the commandments.

We say that we love one another, says John, but how do we really know that we do? This question would not even occur to a modern person, who would answer the question simply with reference to his impressions. To this kind of person, I love someone if I feel a certain way about that person. John knows nothing of reasoning like this, because John is not the sort of person who would take subjective feelings so seriously, much less base his whole life on them.

How can I be sure that I truly God’s children? John asks. Well, he answers with another question, Are we observing God’s commandments?

Thus, for John, the validating sign of agape is faithfulness to the commandments: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (verse 3). This teaching is consonant with that in John’s Gospel: “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). And “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me” (14:21).

Sunday, January 20

Matthew 6:16-24: It should first be noted that Christians are given no discretion on whether or not to fast. It is when you fast, not if you fast, and the early Christian would have been astounded at any notion that fasting was not required of him. Indeed, the Christian was certain he was expected to fast no less frequently than did the devout Jew.

The Jew at that time, as we know, fasted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. These two days, equally distant from the Sabbath, marked the first and last days of the forty-days fast of Moses on Mount Sinai. The twice-weekly fast, therefore, served to honor the Torah, on which all of Jewish piety was based.

The early Christians, on the other hand, not to be mistaken for Jews, but certainly determined to fast no less often, the changed those days to Wednesday, the day the Lord was sold for thirty pieces of silver, and Friday, the day that the Bridegroom was taken away. This discipline was common and in place well before the year 100 and possibly several decades earlier. Unlike the weekly fast days of the Jews, therefore, the two Christian fast days were concentrated on the Passion and Death of Christ. Their observance was a way of honoring the mystery of the Cross.

Genesis 20: This chapter sounds rather familiar to the story in Genesis 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 either a great deal of Sarah’s beauty or Abimelech’s preferences in women.

The attentive reader of Genesis has 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” (verses 3,7). And, indeed, “Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech” (verse17).

Monday, January 21

Genesis 21 and Galatians 4:21-31: 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 (verse 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.

Paul appeals to the story of barren Sarah in order to illustrate the Christian covenant. He writes, “it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic” (verses 22-24).

The Greek word translated by the NKJV as “symbolic” is allegoroumena, which literally means “things said in allegory.” This is our first instance of the work “allegory” in Christian thought, where it properly means the New Testament meaning of the Old Testament text. Indeed, this is why Paul brings up the subject of barren Sarah—her historical and symbolic relevance to the Christian covenant.

Paul’s insertion of this image into his exposition of the Christian covenant prompts us to reflect more in detail on what the story of ancient Sarah means to the Christian mind. She wanted a son, and she was willing to do just about anything to get one. We all know the story of her attempt to use ancient Middle Eastern adoption laws to have her handmaid act as her surrogate. We recall how she urged Abraham to father a child with that servant, Hagar. We also remember that the arrangement did not work out very well.

This should not have been surprising. God alone gives life, and human life in particular is not just a matter of biology. Sarah stands in history as an excellent example of those who tried to take the place of God with respect to their offspring. In the case of Hagar, this was very much a “planned pregnancy.” Forgetting that children are a gift and a blessing from God, Sarah contrived to impose her own will on the order of nature in order to achieve what she wanted. “Planned parenthood” is a very bad way to start raising children, because it treats those children as the products of a human strategy instead as precious gifts from the creating hand of God.

She stands, then, as an early example of all attempts to produce human life by medical contrivances, to overcome human barrenness through artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, and all other mechanical attempts to produce a baby, to make a child as a merely human product, something other than a pure gift from God.

Tuesday, January 2

Matthew 7:1-12: The Lord’s triple injunction to pray (verses 7-8) what may be understood as a kind of regression. By this I mean that the situation or locus of the person praying is pictured as increasingly more distant from God.

First, man is told to “ask.” This command presupposes that he has ready access to God. All he needs to do is ask, because God is at hand. Isaiah tells us to “call upon Him while He is near” (55:6). And the Psalmist boldly asserts, “The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth” 145:18).

The man who receives the exhortation to “ask” is so familiar with the Lord that his prayer is nearly effortless, as it were. He is accustomed to prayer. He prays continually. God is ever at hand and simply waits for him to pray. It is a prayer of familiarity.

Second, man is told to “knock.” Between him and God there is a closed door. The Lord does not seem to be so near. The prayer, therefore, must become more vigorous and insistent. Knocking is a step beyond asking, because a closed door stands in the way. The prayer is not so familiar.

At the same time, the one who knocks at least knows the location of the door. That is to say, he still remembers where the Lord is to be found. He is clear about where to knock. He may not be on familiar terms with the Lord, but he has not lost sight of the right door. His prayer is more distant, but it is no less certain. Like the younger son who strayed far from home in Luke 15, he still knows where the Father lives.

Third, man is told to “seek.” In other words, he is not only not on familiar terms with the Lord, he is not really sure about the location of the door. Such a one is not told to ask, nor does he even know where even to knock. His immediate task is, rather, to seek. His prayer will take the form of a quest. He must first discover the door on which to knock.

Not all men are in the same place with respect to prayer, but all are told to pray, and a like promise attends them all. The difference is in the form of the prayer, not the manner in which God hears the prayer. None of these prayers are refused. To one it will be granted, to another it will be opened, and the third is sure to find.

Men experience God at various distances, but in truth He is nigh unto them all. The differences in prayer are differences among men, not a difference in God, who graciously hears every voice directed to Him, whether by a close friend, an occasional acquaintance, or a distant seeker. The Lord is a God of universal suffrage. He is eager to hear from all of us.

Wednesday, January 23

Matthew 7:13-20: Here begins a series of contrasts: two different ways and gates (7:13f), two kinds of trees and fruits (7:15-20), two sorts of people (7:21-23), two contrasted builders (7:24-27), two opposed styles of teaching (7:29). The references to plants and fruit in 7:16-19 are paralleled in 12:33 (cf. also Luke 6:43f; John 15:4f). Because of the risks involved in all agriculture, there are clear threats in verses 13 and 19, which will be paralleled in verses 23 and 27.

Genesis 23: We come now to the death and burial of Sarah. In a rather gentlemanly fashion, Holy Scripture is generally reluctant to give women’s ages (Luke 2:36-37 being an exception), but here we are told that Sarah was 127 years old when she died (thus making Isaac 37 years old at the time). This is the first death mentioned in the family since Abraham began his travels.

At Sarah’s death Abraham appears a broken man, as it were. In spite of his gift of haggling over prices, as we have seen, he here allows a local chieftain to charge him an excessive price for Sarah’s burial place. He would not dishonor Sarah’s memory by displaying a mercenary spirit in the transaction. There are two things especially to be noted about this purchase of the plot.

First, this is the first instance in which the Hebrews legally own a piece of land, as distinct from simply herding their livestock on it. The purchase of that burial cave at Hebron, then, gave the Israelites an initial claim on the Promised Land, as it were. At a later period, this same land will be the land of the giants, the sons of Arba, of whom the Israelites would stand in great terror (Numbers 13:22,33). These are the very giants who would be defeated, in due course, by the tribe of Judah, which would claim Hebron for its own possession (Judges 1:9-10).

Second, this purchase of the burial plot introduces the biblical theme of the graveyard and the biblical mandate that the dead must be buried (not cremated, like the Hindus and other pagans who do not believe in the final resurrection and the transformation of the physical order). This prescribed custom of burial, followed likewise in the case of the One who was laid to rest in a tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, found its theological foundation in the biblical belief in the resurrection of the dead. After Sarah, Abraham would be buried there, along with his son, his grandson, and their wives; all of them rest there still, awaiting the return of the One who, for a short spell, occupied the grave of the Arimathean.

Thursday, January 24

Matthew 7:21-29: Matthew 7:22 closes the Sermon on the Mount with a reference to the day of judgment, which will also be the case in the fifth and last of the Lord’s great sermons in Matthew, the discourse on the Last Things (25:31-46). The reference to the building by a wise man puts the reader in mind of Solomon, remembered in Holy Scripture as both a wise man and a builder. It is the day of judgment which will reveal whether or not a man has wisely built on a strong foundation (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

The contrast between the prudent man (phronimos and the fool (moros) is later repeated in the parable of the five maidens awaiting the arrival of the Bridegroom in the middle of the night. They, too, are divided between the phronimai and the mori (cf. Matthew 25:1-13).

Psalms 37 (Greek & Latin 36): This psalm has close ties to the Bible’s Wisdom tradition. If it were not part of the Psalter, we would expect to find it in Proverbs or one of the other Wisdom books. It appears to be a kind of discourse given by a parent to a child, or a wise man to a disciple. It is full of sound and godly counsel: “Fret not thyself because of evildoers . . . Trust in the Lord and do good . . . Cease from anger and forsake wrath . . . Wait on the Lord and keep His way,” and so forth. Such admonitions, along with the psalm’s allied warnings and promises, are stock material of the Wisdom literature.

Hebrews 12:3-11: Christians are called, in some measure, to the habit of critical thought: “Consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.” The opening verb here (the 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.”

Friday, January 25

Genesis 25: Abraham, having spent most of his life childless, seems to have overdone it a bit toward the end. He married a woman named Keturah, who bore him quite a family (verses 1-6). This brief account sits somewhat outside of the central core of the biblical narrative, almost as an afterthought. Although it may have taken place prior to the marriage of Isaac in the previous chapter, the story is told at the very end, just before Abraham’s death. Its insertion into the Bible manifests a concern to show that the Israelites were related by blood to other peoples who lived in the region, particularly the Midianites and Kedemites (“Easterners”), nomadic tribes of the Arabian and Syrian deserts.

At the same time, however, care is taken to show that Abraham kept this later family separate from Isaac (verse 6), who alone was the heir of the divine promises.

At Abraham’s death, he is buried in the same plot that he purchased earlier at Hebron for the burial of Sarah. Ishmael and Isaac join to bury their father, a fact apparently indicating that some contact between the two household had been maintained (verses 7-11). The scene of Abraham’s burial, uniting these two peoples of the Middle East, seems especially poignant in our own day.

Now that Abraham has died, the Bible’s interest will go to the history of Isaac and his family. This is not done, however, until the author had tidied up Ishmael and his own progeny (verses 12-18). Here we observe that twelve tribes trace their lineage back to Ishmael, a parallel to the twelve tribes that will spring from the seed of Jacob later on. Various of these Arabian tribes will be mentioned again in Holy Scripture, in Exodus and Chronicles for example.

The latter part of this chapter concerns Isaac’s own sons, twins who begin to fight even in Rebekah’s womb (verses 22-23). These men were already rivals, and, according to Romans 9:10-13, God had already chosen one of them in preference over the other. Just as God chose Isaac in preference to Ishmael, He chose Jacob in preference to Esau. “Choice” in this context does not pertain to eternal salvation, but to the role that Jacob was destined to play in the history of salvation. God’s “rejection” of Esau means only that he was not chosen to play that role; in the same sense, God will “reject” the older brothers in favor of David (1 Samuel 16:5-12).

There is nothing in the Sacred Text, either in Genesis, Malachi 1:1-5, or Romans, even faintly to suggest that Esau was predestined to hell. No more than the brothers of David was Esau “rejected” in the sense of being damned to hell. (Moreover, “predestination” in Holy Scripture is always an aspect of divine grace; we are “predestined” only in Christ. Holy Scripture knows no other meaning of the word. Thus, to speculate about a “predestination to hell” is to speculate without biblical support and at variance with a biblical concept.) The important point is that Jacob was chosen for this role in the history of salvation, not because of any merits of his own, but solely by the grace of God.