Friday, January 15

Hebrews 6.13-20: What was arguably the best fiction work in English in the 19th century was also, perhaps, one of the best treatises in philosophy during that century. It is a lengthy account of a sea voyage on a ship called the Pequod. This whaling vessel, manned by an international crew, set sail on Christmas Day.

The first mate of the Pequod, Starbuck, was a quiet, conservative Christian, who he relied on his Christian to determine his actions and interpretations of events. The second mate, Stubb, was a sort of fatalist, persuaded that things happen as they are supposed to, so there was little that he could do about it.

Near the end of this long story, there was a brief discussion between Stubb and Flask about anchors. In the course of that discussion, Stubb inquired, “I wonder, Flask, if the world in anchored anywhere; if she is, she swings with an uncommon long cable, though.”

Is the world anchored anywhere? We may address this question in the light of today’s reading from Hebrews. In response to the query Stubb put to Flask—“I wonder if the world in anchored anywhere”—our epistle answers,: “This [hope] we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters behind the veil, where the forerunner has for us entered—Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

Christian theology insists that the true anchor is hope. This is the reason the depiction of the anchor appears everywhere in Christian art. Alone among the peoples of the Greco-Roman world, the early believers knew the origin of stability and the source of hope. In the words of this text, they “laid hold” on the hope set before them.

This is why the anchor—along with the cross and the fish—portrayed everywhere in the Christian catacombs. It symbolized the hope that held Christians in place in the midst of a tempestuous and unstable world.

Hebrews describes this anchor of hope as “firm and secure”—asphale kai bebaia. The first of these adjectives, asphalewhich means “firm”—is the root of our English word “asphalt.” As an adverb we find it in the first Christian sermon: ““Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly (asphale) that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

The second adjective describing this anchor of hope is bebaia, meaning “secure.” Our author used it earlier to describe the Christian conviction: “we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence bebaia to the end” (3:14).

The entire efficacy of the anchor depends on the ship’s not losing contact with it. Hope cannot be hypothetical. We must be tied to it.

Saturday, January 16

Genesis 16: Like the precedent referred to in 15:2-4, the “legal fiction” found here in verses 1-3 (and later in the Jacob cycle) was never part of Israelite law, though both customs are well attested otherwise in Mesopotamian literature of the first half of the second millennium before Christ — that is, the very period under discussion. This fact is irrefutable evidence of the historicity of both of those narratives.

Hagar was one of the Egyptian slaves that Pharaoh gave to Abram back in 12:16. The idea of Abram’s begetting children by this younger woman was Sarai’s, but when things backfire (verse 4) Sarai lays all the blame on Abram (verse 5)! The latter just shrugs his shoulders and tells his wife to handle the matter (verse 6).

The slave Hagar, being an Egyptian, heads south in her flight, though we know from another contemporary document, Hammurabi’s Code, that she endangered her life by running away. She travels the many miles from Hebron to Shur, southwest of Beersheba, which was a pretty good distance for a pregnant woman to walk, and there she encounters the “angel of the Lord” (malek Adonai), an expression that appears here for the first time in Holy Scripture (verse 7). The angel’s promise to Hagar (verses 10-12) stands parallel to the promises that Abram himself received in the Chapters 13 and 15. Although she herself is a slave, the angel tells Hagar that her son will not be.

It is a source of wonderment to this slave that she has been noticed by God (verse 13) in this story of God’s concern for the poor, the simple, and the persecuted. Hagar discovers her worth, when God’s sends His angel to care for her. God appears already as the champion of the downtrodden, as He will be especially portrayed in the Bible’s great social prophets.

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 a prefiguration 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).

Sunday, January 17

Matthew 16.16-24: 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.

In addition, Christians fasted at other times, such as during the period before baptisms in the congregation. Gradually, these became the standard seasons of fasting in the Christian calendar, the major one being Lent.

The absolution of the apostles from the duty of fasting (9:14-15) pertained only to the period prior to the Lord’s Passion.

Dominating the early part of Matthew 6 (the triad of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting) was the warning not to work for an earthly reward. These next verses (verses 19-24) maintain that theme, exhorting us not to burden our hearts with divided loyalties.

Hebrews 8.1-13: What Jesus had to say about the coming destruction of the temple prompted Christians to think more deeply about the transitory nature of any shrine or sanctuary that men might build. In their reflections on this point, they reviewed the biblical teaching that even the tabernacle constructed by Moses had been modeled on a heavenly type revealed to the prophet on Mount Sinai. That sanctuary on high—in the very heavens to which Jesus had ascended—was the authentic model.

These early theological reflections form much of the argument made in the Epistle to the Hebrews, as we see in the present text. Our author describes the Mosaic tabernacle as “the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed.” This earthly copy he contrasts with “the sanctuary and . . . the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man.”

Monday, January 18

Psalm 45 (Greek & Latin 44): “The kingdom of heaven,” we are told by a uniquely reliable source, “is like a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son” (Matt. 22:2), that marriage’s consummation being the definitive aim of our destiny, and all of history constituting the courtship that prepares and anticipates the yet undisclosed hour of its fulfillment. Thus, the end of time is announced by the solemn proclamation: “Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!” (Matt. 25:6).

This interpretation of history as the preparation for a royal wedding ceremony is so pervasive and obvious in Holy Scripture that we Christians, taking it so much for granted, may actually overlook it or give it little thought. Indeed, in this modern materialistic world there is a distinct danger that we too may forget that the present life is but the preparation for another, its many and manifold efforts only a provisioning for the greater future, its varied blessings but rehearsals for the greater joy.

God’s Holy Writ repeatedly reminds us of that coming wedding day of the King’s Son: “Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready. . . . ‘Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!’” (Rev. 19:7, 9).

Thus too we are warned against the grave danger courted by those who refuse their wedding invitations (Matt. 22:3–10; Luke 14:17–24), as well as the exclusion awaiting those improvident souls presumptuous of entrance without preparation (Matt. 22:11–14; 25:7–12).

Psalm 45 is the psalm that anticipates and most descriptively foretells that future royal wedding. Its lines describe the “bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2): “The royal daughter is all glorious within the palace; her clothing is woven with gold. She shall be brought to the King in robes of many colors; the virgins, her companions who follow her, shall be brought to You. With gladness and rejoicing they shall be brought; they shall enter the King’s palace.”

There is even more description of the King’s Son, however, that Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world: “You are fairer than the sons of men. Grace is poured out upon Your lips. Therefore God has blessed You forever. Gird Your sword upon Your thigh, O Mighty One, with Your glory and Your majesty. And in Your majesty ride victorious because of truth, humility and righteousness.” This Son’s riding forth in victory is similarly described in the Bible’s final book: “Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. . . . And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (Revelation 19:11, 12, 16).

We need not guess at the identity of this Bridegroom nor be in doubt of His divine dignity, for the New Testament quotes our psalm when it speaks of the Son’s anointing by His Father: “But to the Son He says: / ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; / A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom. / You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; / Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You / With the oil of gladness more than Your companions’” (Heb. 1:8, 9). This ‘anointed one’ (for such is the meaning of the name Messiah, or Christ) is Jesus, of whom the Apostles preached: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38).

Inasmuch as “the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31), then, a certain measure of detachment is necessary to prepare ourselves for the wedding feast of the King’s Son, a certain using of this world as though not using it, a refusal to take seriously its unwarranted claims on our final loyalty. So our psalm once again warns us: “Listen, O daughter. Consider and incline your ear; forget your own people also, and your father’s house. So the King will greatly desire your beauty. Because He is your Lord, worship Him.”

Tuesday, January 19

Genesis 19: To the fine example of hospitality shown by Abraham and Sarah in the previous chapter of Genesis 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).

Throughout Holy Scripture, Sodom will be remembered as a very bad place that got exactly what it deserved (Deuteronomy 29:23; Isaiah 13:19; Jeremiah 49:17-18; 50:40; Ezekiel 16:46-48,55-56; Matthew 11:23-24; Revelation 11:8).

There are striking similarities between Psalm 11 (10) and this chapter’s description of the overthrow of Sodom. Consider the psalm: “Snares will He rain upon the sinners — fire, brimstone, and windstorm — these are their portion to drink.” And Genesis: “Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven.” Or, again, in the psalm: “In the Lord have I trusted. How say to my soul, ‘Fly to the mountains like a sparrow’?” And the angels say to Lot in Genesis: “Escape for your life; look not behind you, neither stay in the plain; escape to the mountain lest you be consumed.” To which Lot answers: “I cannot escape to the mountain, lest some evil overtake me, and I die.” And yet again in the psalm: “For the Lord is just, and justice He loves. His face beholds what is upright.”

But according to the Apostle Peter, this explains precisely what transpired in the present chapter of Genesis, where God is “turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, condemning 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 2:7f). And the psalm once more: “The Lord is in His holy temple. The Lord! His throne is in heaven. His glance regards the poor man; His eyes will examine the sons of men. The Lord will test the just man and the unjust. The lover of evil hates his own soul.” And once again Peter, commenting on the present chapter of Genesis: “For the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of trials, and to reserve the unjust unto punishment on the day of judgment” (2:9).

Similarly, 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 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 round about them in a similar manner to these” (Jude 7).

Wednesday, January 20

Hebrews 9,11-22: Because the blood represented life at its deepest contact with God, all the Old Testament sacrifices prescribed for sin were blood sacrifices. Other sorts of sacrifices were offered, but for the sin offering only blood would suffice. As Hebrews will say a little later on, “without the shedding of blood is no remission” (9:22).

The shedding of the blood of the sacrificial victim was the symbolic gift of self to God on the part of the sinner. He was reconciled to God—found atonement with God—through the symbolic shedding of the animal’s blood in place of his own. Whenever the relationship between God and man was disrupted by sin, it was required that that disruption be mended by the total gift of self, symbolized in the mactation of the sacrificed animal.

Because the sacrifices of the Old Testament were only symbolic, it was “not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (10:4). As we read here, “if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (verses 13-14)

It is in this sense that the blood of Christ is the price of our redemption: Jesus poured out His inner being in loving adoration to His Father on our behalf. The image of Christ’s blood in the New Testament always implies the understanding of the blood in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, in which the shedding of the blood means the restoration of the sinner to friendship with God.

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.

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” (verses 3,7). And, indeed, “Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech” (verse17).

Thursday, January 21

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 21: 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 (verse 4), commanded in Genesis 17:9-14), would be explicitly mentioned by St. Stephen in Acts 7:8.

In Genesis 16 we already learned that all was not well between Sarah and Hagar after Ishmael was born. At that time, however, Hagar enjoyed the advantage that she had borne a son, and Sarah had not. In the present chapter that advantage is a thing of the past, and we are not surprised to see that now Hagar and Ishmael are regarded as the mere slaves that they were. Ishmael is accused of “scoffing” at the younger child Isaac, perhaps a reference to the kinds of teasing that younger children have been known to suffer from older children. Indeed, one may reasonably speculate that Ishmael had heard disparaging remarks about Sarah and Isaac from his own mother and was simply acting them out. At the very least, Sarah does not want her son playing with a mere slave boy.

So Hagar must go. Ishmael’s true situation is revealed in the fact that he is not even named; he is simply “that slave girl’s son” (verse 10). In Sarah’s eyes he has become a non-entity. Abraham is faced with a new problem, therefore. Although Ishmael is not Sarah’s son except in a purely legal sense that no longer bore legal significance, the older boy is still Abraham’s son, and Abraham loves him.

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.

The biblical text 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 verses 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.

Friday, January 22

Matthew 7:21-29: 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).

Genesis 22: We come now to Abraham’s greatest trial of faith. Indeed, the reader is informed, right from the beginning of this story, that Abraham is being tried (verse 1). In this respect there is a great similarity here with the entire premise of the Book of Job, where the reader, but not Job, is instructed that a trial is taking place. In the case of Abraham, this notice to the reader is absolutely essential, because the Jew and the Christian both know that the God of the Bible hates human sacrifice. A trial of faith, on the other hand, is exactly what we should expect from the God of the Bible (cf. 1 Peter 1:6-7).

In the preceding chapter God had promised that Abraham’s true posterity would come through Isaac (Genesis 21:12), but not Abraham is commanded to offer up his “only son” as a holocaust (verse 2). His obedience is immediate. Abraham, as we have seen, was not the least bit bashful about speaking his mind to God. On the other hand, when he receives from God a direct order, his obedience is invariably prompt and unquestioning (cf. Genesis 12:1-4). It is the same here. The trial of faith always has to do with obedience (cf. James 2:20-24).

The two of them, father and son, climb the mountain of sacrifice (verse 6). Since Melito of Sardis in the mid-second century, Isaac’s carrying of the wood has always signified to Christians the willingness of God’s own Son to take up the wood of the Cross and carry it to the place of sacrifice. In the enigmatic conversation between the two climbers (verses 7-8), we observe the rich mystery inherent in Abraham’s reply that God Himself would provide the victim for the sacrifice; truly He would! Isaac himself says nothing in replay (verses 9-10). He is entirely silent. He is like a sheep led to the slaughter that opens not his mouth. Although the concentration of the story is directed at Abraham, we must not lose sight of Isaac, who prefigures the mystery of our redemption.

The substitute for Isaac, the ram caught by its horns, prefigures the paschal lamb of the Mosaic Covenant, who would be slaughtered in place of Israel’s firstborn sons on the night of the Exodus. We are dealing here in Genesis 22, then, with the Bible’s earliest configuration of the mystery of the substitutionary sacrifice, which is one of the most important categories in the biblical theology of our redemption.

According to Hebrews 11:17-19, Abraham’s willingness to offer Isaac displayed his faith in the resurrection. In receiving his son back again, moreover, he enacted a “parable” of the future. (By translating en parabole as “in a figurative sense,” the New King James Bible distorts the intent of the text. Abraham did not receive Isaac back in a figurative sense, but in a literal sense. The “parable” of the event indicates its prefigurative sense, in which God Himself received back (alive!) His only Son whom He had handed over in sacrifice for our salvation.