Friday, January 4

Hebrews 9:1–10: Of the appointments of the ancient Sanctuary, the author says, “we cannot now speak particularly.” In fact, however, I do want to speak about three of these things in particular.

First, let us speak about the sanctuary itself. A cultured people, a civilized people, builds it entire life around its sanctuary. This is as it should be, for the simple reason that human beings are made to worship. and those who do not worship are living lives seriously less than human.

Worship is not simply one of the things we do. It is the most important thing we do. It is the activity that best defines us. Indeed, according to Holy Scripture, if we are pleasing to God, then we will spend all eternity in worship.

On the other hand, those who are not pleasing to God need not worry about it. Those who do not like to worship need not concern themselves. No one can force them to worship, either in this life or the next. If they don’t want to worship, no one will compel them. They will never have to worship again.

Since all human beings are designed—constructed—in order to worship, God sent His only Son into the world to make true worship possible, and it is only in this Son that we are able to offer to God that true worship for which we were created.

The Old Testament sanctuary, about which we read today, was constructed on a heavenly model, and it is in that heavenly sanctuary that the Son enables us to worship. Indeed, we already have access to that heavenly sanctuary. This same author says to us: “ye have come unto Mount Zion and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, who are written in Heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.”

He does not say, “Ye will come.” He says, rather, “Ye have come.” In Jesus our Mediator we stand already among the innumerable company of angels. It is already a fact. Because of His eloquent blood, we take our place already among the spirits of just men made perfect. This is why we invoke the saints in our worship of God: we are already in their presence, standing before the same Throne at which they worship.

People sometimes call the church and ask what time the service starts. I lie and tell them the times marked in the bulletin. Strictly speaking, these times are wrong, however, because the worship is already in progress before we get here. No matter how early we arrive, the worship has already started. The angels and the saints are already chanting the praises of God.

The Church of Jesus Christ does not offer a “worship service” distinct from the eternal worship already in progress. Eternity is now. Heaven is here. We have already come to Mount Zion.

Second, let us speak of the Bread that is central to biblical worship. In today’s reading there are two types, or pre-figurations, of this Bread: “the showbread . . . and . . . the golden pot that had manna.” These two forms of bread in the Old Testament sanctuary, the miraculous manna and the bread of the Presence, foreshadow the living Bread which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

In both the Old Testament and the New, some form of bread is central to the act of worship. Biblical worship is constructed around on the Bread. Indeed, the central act of worship prescribed in the New Testament is called simply “the breaking of the Bread.” It did not have to be defined further. Everyone knew what was meant.

Without this Bread, there is no Church. It is this Bread that makes the Church: “The bread which we break: is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, being many, are one bread and one body, for we are all partakers of that one Bread.” The bread that Jesus gives, He tells us, is His flesh, given for the life of the world. In our worship the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, comes in power upon a loaf of bread, bread baked in an oven in a kitchen in a home in the local church, and the Holy Spirit transforms that bread into a type of the eternal manna, on which the servants of God will feed forever.

It is of this bread that Jesus said, “Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the Bread which cometh down from Heaven, that a man may eat thereof and not die.” Our worship, then, is a foretaste of the mysterious bread which will sustain us for all eternity.

Third, there was a candlestick in the sanctuary. Why? Because the area would otherwise be dark. The worship of God is an exercise of light. Worship, according to the Bible, begins with light.

In our eternal worship, according to St. John, there will be no night. The difference between heaven and hell is a matter of light. Everlasting loss is described as darkness, but eternal life is described as light.

The lamp in the sanctuary had seven branches, which symbolizes the perfection of light. That is to say, it symbolizes the divine light, of which St. John said, “This then is the message which we have heard from Him and declare unto you: that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.”

We worship God in order to remain in the light and to drive all darkness from our minds and hearts. “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin.”

The light is also the first of God’s creatures, which is a good reason for worshipping on Sunday, the first day of creation. This is the day on which the Lord said, “let there be light.” This original light was not only a fact; it was also a promise, because it pointed toward a greater Sunday and a more glorious light.

Saturday, January 5

Matthew 3:1-12: Unlike the gospels of Mark and Luke, Matthew portrays John the Baptist as proclaiming the proximity of the Kingdom (3:2). In thus regarding the preaching of John as the beginning of the Gospel (cf. 11:13), Matthew’s perspective matches that of the earliest apostolic proclamation (cf. Acts 1:22; 10:37).

Even though the Sadducees and Pharisees were two distinct groups, often hostile to one another, Matthew here lumps them together (verse 7) for the first of five times. They are mentioned together because of their common opposition to Jesus. In this text, John is giving them an initial warning to repent.

The tense and mode used in this warning to repent are the aorist imperative, which means “repent” in the sense, not of continuing action, but of decisive action: “Do it!” It is the decisive conversion John has in mind, rather than an attitude or habit.

Even as an act of decision, however, the grace of repentance is not necessarily a once-saved-always-saved sort of thing. This truth is especially borne out in Revelation, where in all four instances the command “Repent!” is spoken to believers themselves, specifically the Christians in the churches at Ephesus, Pergamos, Sardis, and Laodicea (2:5,16; 3:3,19). When Christians start to think and act like unbelievers they, too, must be summoned to repentance, and exactly the same form of the command covers both cases.

As a matter of fact, the theme of repentance appears more frequently in Revelation’s letters to the seven churches than anywhere else. Of the 34 times that the New Testament has the verb metanoiein, eight are found in Chapters 2-3 of Revelation, all of them in reference to Christian believers. This is easily the highest concentration of the verb in the New Testament. That is to say, Christians themselves are more often called to repentance than anyone else!

Sunday, January 6

Epiphany—Matthew 2:1-11: There is an important parallelism between the story of the Magi and the account of the Great Commission; namely, the theme of the Church’s universal calling. Whereas Matthew ends his story with the Apostles being sent forth with the command, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (28:19), he begins his whole account with a kind of foreshadowing of that final mission by the arrival of the Magi, those wise searchers from the East who come to adore the newborn King of Israel. These two passages, then, thus embrace Matthew’s entire story of Jesus.

There is more suggested by the juxtaposition of these parallel texts, however; for the very purpose of the Great Commission is to transform the whole of humanity as the rightful heirs of the Magi. Like the stars themselves, the Apostles are sent forth to lead all nations into that path first followed by the wise men from the East.

Indeed, St. Paul compared the Apostles to those very heavens that “declare the glory of God,” quoting in their regard the Psalmist’s affirmation that “Their line has gone out through all the earth, / And their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm 18 [19]:4; Romans 10:18). The stars and the Apostles proclaim the same universal message, and that message is the Gospel.

Although the Magi were instructed by what they read in those heavens that ‘declare the glory of God’, they did not pursue their quest among the stars but upon the earth. They found the answer to their quest, that is to say, in a particular place and at a particular time. They accepted the spatial/temporal, fleshly limitations that God Himself assumed.

Monday, January 7

John 2:1–12: We come now to Cana, the third Galilean town mentioned in John (cf. 1:44–45) and the place where Jesus did “the first of His signs.” In this way “He manifested His glory, and His disciples came to believe in Him.” That is to say, Cana is the place where the Church was first formed, that initial body of believers to whom the Lord revealed His glory.

We observe that His Mother, His relatives, and His disciples were all present (verses 11–12; compare Acts 1:13–14). These gather at Capernaum, the fourth Galilean city named by John (verse 12).

In this story of Cana, John introduces the Mother of Jesus. She appears only here and at the foot of the Cross (19:26–27). These two portrayals, both found only in John among the evangelists, have several things in common. First, Mary does not appear in John’s Gospel outside of these two places. Second, in both places she is called only “the mother of Jesus” and is never named. Third, in each instance Jesus addresses his mother as “Woman” (gyne). Fourth, in both cases a “new family” is formed—in the first scene by the wedding itself, and in the second scene by a kind of adoption in which the beloved disciple “took her to his own home.”

John’s “mother of Jesus” thus plays an important part near the beginning of his account of the Lord’s ministry, in “the first of his signs,” wherein he “manifested his glory” at Cana (John 2:11). In the dialogue leading up to this manifestation, Jesus seems at first to bridle at his mother’s hint that he relieve the shortage of wine at the wedding feast. He explains to her, “My hour has not yet come” (2:4).

These words closely tie this scene at Cana to the scene at the cross later on. When the “hour” of the passion does finally come, it will once again be in reference to the manifestation of Jesus’ glory: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may also glorify you” (John 17:1). John uses similar language of Jesus’ mother, telling us that it was “from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (19:27). When the hour arrives for the King to be identified upon the throne of the cross (19:19), John is the only one of the evangelists to speak of the King’s mother standing beside it (19:26).

Tuesday, January 8

John 2:12–25: This is the first of three times John speaks of the Passover (verse 13; cf. 6:4; 11:55). John’s triple reference to the Pascha has always prompted Christians to picture Jesus’ public ministry as lasting three years. Since we know Jesus was about thirty years old when that ministry began (Luke 3:23), it is commonly calculated our Lord lived on earth to age thirty-three.

John’s account of the purging of the Temple occurs near the first of these three references to the Passover, two years earlier than in the Synoptic Gospels. Thus, John pictures the event as coming near the beginning of the Lord’s ministry, rather than one week before the end of it. This historical discrepancy is usually settled in John’s favor, since he is the only Evangelist easy to identify as an eye-witness of the events (cf. 21:24).

On the other hand, the settling of this historical question in no way impugns the veracity of the other Evangelists, who seem to be less guided by a concern for chronological precision on this point. Nor do the Synoptic Gospels themselves completely agree on the exact day when the purging of the Temple took place. According to Mark (11:1–15), it happened on Monday of Holy Week, whereas in Matthew (21:11–12) and Luke (19:45) it appears to have taken place on Palm Sunday.

Michael Grant (Jesus, page 151) speculated that the purging of the Temple was probably the act that sealed Jesus’ fate with His enemies, in the sense that it pushed the point of His own authority most firmly into the faces of Israel’s official rulers. Perhaps this is the reason the Synoptic Gospels tell the story much closer to the crucifixion: the two events were logically linked.

The unseemly display of commercial concern, which Jesus considered alien to the very purpose of the Temple, took place in the Court of the Gentiles. It was the very area where Jews and Gentiles met at God’s house, the sole enclosure where the Gentiles had access to the presence and worship of God. Mark seems to emphasize this point by speaking of the Temple as a “house of prayer” for “all nations” (11:17). Hence, this religious commercialism—the buying and selling of sacrificial animals—was destructive of Israel’s mission to the world and to the other nations.

John alone speaks of this as the occasion when Jesus enigmatically spoke of the destruction of the Temple (verse 19). John immediately explains that this was a reference to Jesus’ death. There is no small irony in the fact that this saying of Jesus is not mentioned in John’s account of the Lord’s trial before the Sanhedrin, whereas in Matthew and Mark, which do not record this saying of Jesus, this reference to the Temple become a pronounced point of accusation at His trial (Matthew 26:61; Mark 14:58).

Wednesday, January 9

Matthew 5:1–12: The Sermon on the Mount begins with two very solemn verses, as though to allow everyone to sit down and get settled for a long discourse. The Sermon functions in more than one way to serve the structure of Matthew’s entire composition. For example, taking place on a mountain at the very beginning of the Lord’s ministry, it is the initial component of a parallel with the mountain at the end of the Gospel, the mountain from which Jesus sent the Apostles to teach what he had taught (28:20).

Again, the Sermon is the first of the five great discourses—a New Testament Chumash as it were—which are the didactic backbone of Matthew’s Gospel. Functioning thus, it stands in chiastic correspondence to the last of these five discourses, the lengthy sermon on the Last Things (chapters 23–25).

Close readers of Matthew have long observed that this Sermon itself forms a commentary on the Beatitudes with which it begins (verses 2–10). This commentary is also chiastic, meaning that it reverses the order of the Beatitudes. Thus, for example, verses 11–12 form a commentary on verse 10, verses 13–16 are a commentary on verse 9, and so forth.

Compared to the shorter Beatitudes in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (6:20–22), we observe that, whereas Luke’s version contains only “situations” (poverty, hunger, etc.), Matthew’s version commends ethical norms (mercy, purity of heart, etc.). Luke’s version is entirely kerygma, or proclamation, whereas Matthew’s is also didache, or instruction. It includes a moral code, in addition to the proclamation of the Kingdom and the overthrow of the worldly order.

We observe Matthew’s use of an inclusio, beginning and ending with “the Kingdom of Heaven” (verses 3,10).

Thursday, January 10

Matthew 5:13–20: In verse 11 the address of Jesus shifted from the third to the second person: “Blessed are you.” The addressed party is the Church—or rather, the Christians—inasmuch as the number of the address is plural. That plural, addressed to Christians, is maintained in the verses now under consideration: “You are the salt of the earth,” this section begins, and it ends, “for I say to you (verse 20).

We start with the metaphors of salt and light, both of them referring to Christians. In each case the beneficiary of these two blessings is the earth (ge) or World (kosmos), meaning those who are not Christians (verse 13). Salt and light describe the very people that the world persecutes and maligns (verses 11–12). No amount of persecution justifies the forfeiture of the Christian vocation to be salt and light to the rest of humanity. Neither salt nor light exist for themselves. Should Christians fail in this vocation, they are no longer of any use. They are to be “thrown out,” like the tares (13:40) and the inedible fish (13:48).

The metaphor of light on a lamp stand is transformed into a city seated on an acropolis, where it is visible to everyone (verse 14). Neither can Christians be concealed if they do the “good works” (ta kala erga) that their heavenly Father expects of them (verse 16). Those who see these good works belong to the same “earth” or “world” that persecutes the Christians. The world is to be enlightened by the very people it persecutes.

What Matthew has in mind here is the Christian vocation to holiness, by which the world is instructed in the ways of God. This holiness, according to the present passage, pertains to the missionary mandate of the Church. It is the way the Church shares the Gospel with “all nations” (28:19–20). This is the light that shines on those sitting in darkness (4:16).

The connecting link of verses 13–16 with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount is “your Father in heaven” (verse 16). This reference will become a leitmotif in the following chapter.

The rest of chapter five, starting with the present verses, is concerned with Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament Law. This theme is related to the metaphors of salt and light through the continuity linking the Church to ancient Israel, the legitimate continuation of God’s redeemed people. It is the Church that continues Israel’s vocation to “salt” and illumine the world. For this reason it is imperative to speak of the Church’s relationship to the Torah, and this relationship is the subject of the rest of the present chapter.

Matthew has already begun to say a great deal about Jesus’ fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Now he starts to speak of Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law. Indeed, the word “prophets” in the present passage (verse 17) does not refer to the fulfillment of biblical prophecies in the Old Testament. It refer, rather, to the prophets in their role as interpreters of the Law—the prophets as moral teachers. The sense of this verse, then, is that Jesus completes, or brings to fulfillment, the moral doctrine of the Law and its continuation in the Prophets. Throughout the rest of this chapter, therefore, Matthew speaks simply of the Law, not mentioning the Prophets again.

Verses 17–20 enunciate the principle of Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law. Then, in the rest of the chapter, Matthew expands this principle in a series of five instructions—a new Chumash, or “five-fifths” of the Torah—in each of which Jesus explains how He brings the ancient Law to perfection.

The burden of the rest of this chapter is to address a single question: Of what significance is the Torah to the moral guidance of Christians? And Matthew answers: the Torah serves as a moral guide for Christians if it is regarded through the interpretive lens of the teaching of Jesus. The Torah does not guide Christians exactly the way it guides Jews. It guides Christians through Jesus’ “fulfilled” interpretation of it. Regarded as Jesus regards it, the Torah assumes a new and fulfilled quality.

Because Christian obedience to the Law has to do with the primacy of love (22:37–50; Romans 13:7–10), not the slightest detail of the Law can be neglected.

This latter precaution, addressed to all Christians, is especially addressed to Christian teachers, those who “so teach men” (verse 19). Failing to take this precaution seriously, these teachers will defile the consciences of those they teach.

In this respect Christian teachers are distinguished from the official teachers in Judaism, who hand on an inferior and “unfulfilled” understanding of the Torah (verse 20). This distinction becomes the basis for five contrasts, or antitheses, which fill the rest of this chapter. In this sense, verses 21–48 serve as a commentary or illustration of verse 20.

Christians are to observe the Torah “to excess”—perissevse—not in the sense of a greater rigidity, but in the sense of a more abundant intensity regarding the moral purpose of the Law. Their righteousness is to “exceed” the minimalist interpretation of those who do not see the Law through the lens of Christ. Five examples of this moral intensity now follow.

Friday January 11

Matthew 5:21–26: The first of Matthew’s five contrasts has to do with the Lord’s understanding of the Torah’s prohibition, “Thou shalt do no murder” (verse 21). Here, as in the next examples, Jesus responds, “but I say to you,” a formula indicating that His own understanding of the Law is superior even to that of Moses.

There is an irreducible claim in these sustained assertions—namely, that Jesus, being the very Lawgiver of Mount Sinai, has the authority to speak for the Law’s intention. This claim is based on the standard legal principle: “the meaning of a law is determined by the intention of the lawgiver.” Moses, after all, was only the promulgator of the Torah, not its author. Jesus implicitly makes the latter claim for Himself, which is the reason He is speaking from the mountain (verse 1).

Thus, Jesus understands the prohibition against murder not simply as an injunction against taking someone’s life, but as an interdiction excluding all acts of anger and violence, including speech and even thought (verse 22). This teaching is given in detail and at some length, as Matthew portrays Jesus as the Teacher of the Church. He teaches with authority (7:29).

In the present case—dealing with anger—the teaching of Jesus is consistent with standard Old Testament moral doctrine, especially in the Wisdom literature (Proverbs 6:14, 34; 14:17, 29; 15:1, 18; 16:14, 32; 19:19; 27:4; cf. James 1:19–20).

The context of this prohibition against anger and violence is the Christian Church, a point indicated by the references to the “brother” (verses 22, 23, 24). Indeed, these admonitions are set within the context of the Church’s Eucharistic worship (verse 24). This is clearer, perhaps, in the Didache, a Syrian work roughly contemporary with Matthew: “But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned” (Didache 14). In short, love is superior to sacrifice (12:7; Mark 12:33–34).

Reconciliation must be made “quickly” (verse 25), so that the conflict does not grow out of hand. The “imprisonment” in this section refers to the divine judgment, as it does in the parable of the unforgiving servant (18:34–35).

The teaching of these verses implicitly contrasts contention with love. For Jesus and the New Testament, love is the true fulfillment of the Torah (22:40). For this reason, it is important to understand what is meant by love and not to be confused by its counterfeits. This consideration forms the sequence to the next contrast.