Friday, January 14

Genesis 14: The Old Testament provides a genealogy, at least in brief, for most of its dramatis personae. The clear exception is Melchizedek, who suddenly enters the biblical story in this chapter of Genesis and just as abruptly leaves it. Nothing whatever is said of his ancestry, the rest of his life, or his death. Melchizedek simply appears “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life.”

Hebrews 7:11-28: Some eight centuries after Melchizedek, David became his successor on the throne of Jerusalem. David certainly did have begats, and much was written of his ancestry, as well as his death.

David knew, however, that an eternal promise was attached to the throne on which he sat. God had sworn with an oath that the royal house of David would last forever. The Lord had promised that, as long as the sun and moon endure, so long would last the throne of David. In a way that David himself could not understand, David’s Son would be the Son of God: I will be to Him a Father,? and He shall be to Me a Son” (2 Samuel 7:14; Hebrews 1:5).

Thus, in the hymn used for the enthronement of the Davidic kings, reference was made to Melchizedek, that everlasting king who had neither beginning of days nor end of life: “The Lord has sworn / And will not repent, / “You are a priest forever / According to the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110 [109]:4; Hebrews 5:6; 7:17,21).

In an argument with the scholars of Holy Scripture, Jesus cited this psalm to indicate the greater depth of its meaning: “Then Jesus answered and said, while He taught in the temple, ‘How is it that the scribes say that the Christ is the Son of David? For David himself said by the Holy Spirit: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, / Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.” Therefore David himself calls Him “Lord”; how is He then his Son?’” (Mark 12:35-37). This exegetical question, which was quite lost on those to whom Jesus addressed it, prompted Christians to examine that psalm in the full light of Christ’s self-revelation. As they grasped the point of the question, this psalm became ever more important in the development of early Christology (cf. Mark 16:19; Acts 2:34-35; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 10:12).

The Christian understanding of this psalm is of a piece with the Christian understanding of Genesis 14: As the Son of David, Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy conveyed in the historical appearance of Melchizedek. He is eternally the king and high priest, God’s very Son, seated at His right hand and living forever. He is the real Melchizedek, not a figure from the past but the everlasting Mediator between God and man.

Saturday, January 15

Genesis 15: Here we also find two expressions appearing for the first time in Holy Scripture: (1) “the Word of the Lord came to . . .” (v. 1), and (2) Abram “believed [’aman] God, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (v. 6). That first expression will be especially prominent in the Bible’s prophetic literature, and the second, which introduces the theme of righteousness by faith in God’s promise, will dominate much of the New Testament, particularly the Pauline corpus. Indeed, St. Paul wrote the first Christian commentary on this verse, Romans 4:1–5.

Hebrews 6:13-20: 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—is portrayed everywhere in the Christian catacombs. It symbolized the hope that held Christians in place in the midst of a tempestuous and unstable world. Near the end of the second century, Clement of Alexandria mentioned the anchor as one of the few symbols a Christian might legitimately have on a ring on his finger.

The Epistle to the Hebrews describes this anchor of hope as “firm and secure”—asphale kai bebaia. The first of these adjectives, asphale—which 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.

Observe in this text from Hebrews that the anchor of hope has already been carried out ahead of us. It is already “behind the veil, where the forerunner has for us entered.” Jesus is this anchor. He has already gone where we hope to go. We maintain our proper direction by pulling on Him, keeping the prow of the ship ever pointed toward Him.

Let me suggest that fervent and constant prayer is the winch we use to maintain our direction and advance our course. That by which we progress is also that by which we maintain our true course. It is the hawser by which we are joined to Christ. Otherwise, we will lose our sense of direction; indeed, this is the danger envisaged all through Hebrews.

So let there be no slack in the line. The anchor itself is secure. All we need to do is pull on it through prayer. By constant prayer and communion with Christ we guarantee our voyage will be steadfast and secure.

Sunday, January 16

Genesis 16: What should be said about Abram’s taking of this slave girl as a sort of second wife? We observe that God did not tell him to do this. It was Sarai’s idea. The whole project, that is to say, was of the flesh, not of the Spirit. It is no great thing for a young woman to conceive and bear a child, but a great thing is what God had in mind to do. Sarai’s plan was a classic case of man interfering with the plans of God. This was simply a work of the flesh, as St. Paul observed (Galatians 4:21–25).

In this respect, furthermore, the Apostle to the Gentiles saw an allegorical prophecy of the situation of the Jews and Christians with regard to Abraham. The Jews, he argued, were children of Abraham in 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).

Hebrews 11:30-40: This summary of the “great cloud of witnesses” may be described as centered on the author’s reference to what he calls “a better resurrection.” In the context, the comparative adjective, “better,” distinguishes this resurrection from the dead from earlier biblical stories in which, as he says, “women received their dead raised to life again.” Those earlier stories include those accounts in which Elijah and Elisha raised to life the deceased sons of the widow of Zarephath and the Shunammite woman.

These true resurrections from the dead may be compared with Jesus’ resurrections of Lazarus, the son of the widow of Nain, and the daughter of Jairus. These were true resurrections, genuine victories of life over death, and Holy Scripture uses the same word—anastasis—to describe them.

For all that, however, those resurrections were not complete, because those who were raised were still obliged to face death once again. When our author speaks, therefore, of a “better resurrection,” he has in mind that definitive victory over death, which was Israel’s most precious hope. “Others were tortured,” he tells us, “not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.”

This better resurrection represents the final and completed stage of Old Testament hope. The author of Hebrews refers here to those late Old Testament martyrs, who confessed the resurrection from the dead even as they were being tortured to death.

Such were the seven brothers and their mother, whose passing is recorded in the 2nd Book of Maccabees. One of those brothers used his last breath to declare to his tormentor, “You, most wicked man, destroy us from this present life: but the King of the world will raise us up, who die for his laws, in the resurrection of eternal life.” One by one, these seven brothers endured torment and went to their deaths in the same hope of the resurrection from the dead. Finally, their mother, having witnessed her first six sons slain in this way, exhorted her youngest: “So you will not fear this tormentor, but being made a worthy partner with your brothers, receive death, that in that mercy I may receive you again with your brethren” (7:9, 29).

It was this hope of the final resurrection that sustained the people of the Old Covenant in their hour of peril, during the persecution by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. It was of those Israelites that the author of Hebrews wrote: “And these all, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.” This “something better” is what our author calls a “better resurrection.”

Monday, January 17

Genesis 17: According to the full Christian understanding of the Holy Scriptures, the joy of Abraham and Sarah at the promised birth of Isaac was burdened with prophecy, for his miraculous begetting foretold a later conception more miraculous still. Isaac was, in truth, a type and pledge of “Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). And Mary, mother of this Newer Isaac, having conceived Him in virginity just days before, made perfect her responding song of praise by remembering the mercy that God “spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever” (Luke 1:55).

Did not Abraham himself anticipate with joy the later coming of that more distant Seed? Surely so, for even our Newer Isaac proclaimed, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). Like Moses (5:46), Isaiah (12:41), and David (Matthew 22:43), Abraham was gifted to behold, in mystic vision, the final fulfillment of that primeval word, “But My covenant I will establish with Isaac” (Genesis 17:21).

Hebrews 10:5-18: Again citing Jeremiah 31, which he quoted at greater length in chapter 8, the author contrasts the sacrifices of the Mosaic Law with the sacrifice offered in the Passion of Jesus.

There are several points of contrast:

First, the Old Testament priest “stands,” whereas Jesus is enthroned: “And every priest stands ministering daily . . . But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.” From the very beginning of this work, Jesus is portrayed as “seated” in glory: “when He had purged sins, [He] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3). Later on the author will say of Jesus that He “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2).

This image of Jesus seated in glory is drawn mainly from Psalm 109 (110), cited at the beginning of this work (1:13) and obviously much favored in the early Church (cf. Mark 16:10; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Revelation 3:21).

Second, the Old Testament sacrifices were many, whereas the New Testament sacrifice is unique: “And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices . . . But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.” In the previous chapter we read that “Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many” (9:28). This word “once” (hapachs) is found in Hebrews 8 times, more than all the other New Testament books put together.

This hapachs, “once,” is contrasted with pollakis, “many times” (9:25-26).

This “once” contrasted with “many” is related to the “seated” contrasted with “standing.” The “once” and “seated” indicate finality and fulfillment—the end of history—whereas the “standing” and “many” suggest an ongoing process.

Third, the Old Testament sacrifices were unable, of themselves, to atone for sins and purify the heart: “And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins, and “by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.”

Implied in the development of this theme is an underlying judgment on the Jewish religion itself: Now that the fulfillment of its history has come in Christ and His redeeming work, the Jewish religion no longer represents God’s will for history. This is why it is called “the old covenant: “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (8:13). The continued existence of a “Jewish religion” alongside the Christian Gospel remains an anomaly yet to be resolved.

Tuesday, January 18

Genesis 18: Two scenes fill this chapter. The first is Abraham’s reception of the Lord in the guise of “three men,” whom the Christian Church has always pictured as three angels. These Three were either the prophetic prefiguration or the appearance of the Persons of the Holy Trinity in human/angelic form, according to the earliest Christian readings of the text. Because the prophetic promise given about Isaac in this chapter is definitively fulfilled only in the New Testament, it was appropriate that on that occasion God should appear as that Trinity of distinct Persons which the New Testament proclaims Him to be.

The second scene in this chapter portrays Abraham’s supplication on behalf of Sodom, the city where Lot resides. Knowing that the Lord is prepared to destroy that city for its wickedness, and fearing for the welfare of his nephew and his family, Abraham bravely endeavors to arrange a deal with the Lord, in hopes of having the city spared. In one of the most colorful scenes in a very colorful book, Abraham plays the part of the Bedouin trader, a type commonly met in the Middle East, attempting to arrange a lower price by the process of haggling. Particularly good in this art, Abraham works from a “price” of fifty just men down to a mere ten.

Hebrews 10:19-31: What the Jewish high priest could do only once a year—enter the Holy of Holies—the Christian can do everyday, by reason of the blood of Christ. It is the blood of Christ that gives the believer intimate access to God.

The author begins by speaking of boldness—parresia, an expression of which he is fond: “having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus.”

In context, this boldness comes from the full certainty of faith: en plerophoria pisteos: “having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, . . . let us draw near with a true heart in full certainty of faith.”

This word, plerophoria is found four times in the New Testament, two of them in Hebrews. The other place is 6:11—“and we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full certainty of hope [plerophoria elpidos] until the end.”

And what does “full certainty” bring? Boldness—parresia. The full certainty of faith finds expression in boldness of the heart.

Whereas the Acts of the Apostles had used this word, parresia, to describe the proper tone in Christian preaching (Acts 4:13,28,29,31), St. Paul used the expression to speak of our relationship to God. He wrote that in Christ, “we have boldness [parresia] and access with confidence by the faith of Him” (Ephesians 3:12).

This is the normal sense of the word also in Hebrews, which is similar, in this respect, to Ephesians. Thus, our author says that we are the house of Christ, “if we hold fast the boldness [parresia] and the rejoicing of the hope firm to the end” (3:6). Again, he exhorts his readers, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:16). And somewhat later in the present chapter, he further exhorts, “Therefore do not cast away your boldness [parresia, which has great reward” (10:35).

This attitude of boldness in the Epistle to the Hebrews is not limited to the four times when the word is used in this book. The boldness of the Christian soul in approaching God is, rather, a presupposition of the whole book. We find it later, in chapter 12, where the author contrasts Mount Sinai with Mount Zion. Mount Sinai, he says, “burned with fire, and . . . blackness and gloom and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet” (12:18). It was a very scary place, of which Moses said, “I am exceedingly afraid and trembling” (12:21). This was the kind of place where no one could safely feel bold.

Wednesday, January 19

Genesis 19: According to the apostle Peter, this explains precisely what transpired in the present chapter of Genesis, where God, “turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, condemned them to destruction, making them an example to those who afterward would live ungodly; and delivered righteous Lot, who was oppressed by the filthy conduct of the wicked (for that righteous man, dwelling among them, tormented his righteous soul from day to day by seeing and hearing their lawless deeds)” (2 Peter 2:6–8). And the psalm once more: “The Lord is in His holy temple; / The Lord, His throne is in heaven; / His eyes are fixed upon the poor man, / His eyelids examine the sons of men. / The Lord examines the righteous and the ungodly, / And he who loves unrighteousness hates his own soul.” And once again Peter, commenting on the present chapter of Genesis: “the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptations and to reserve the unjust under punishment for the day of judgment” (2:9).

Hebrew 10:32-39: In a sense this section of Hebrews is a synopsis of the whole, or at least a summary of its thesis. That is to say, it is an exhortation to patience.

An initial motive for patience, says our author, is the active recollection of those things endured immediately after conversion and baptism (verse 32). This is not simply a remembrance, but an intentional recollection: anamimneskesthe.

In those earlier days, he goes on, his readers experienced an áthlesis. This noun, obviously the root of the English “athletics,” is perhaps best translated as “struggle.” The present text is the only place where this word appears in the New Testament, though St. Paul uses similar metaphors drawn from sporting competition. Athlesis suggests that the Christian life carries within itself the character of contention, in the sense that either victory or defeat is still possible.

That struggle, says Hebrews, came in the aftermath of baptism: photisthentes—“you were enlightened.” We recall the same metaphor for baptism was used in 6:4.

It is important to recognize the relationship between baptism and struggle, such as we see here. Indeed, the three accounts of our Lord’s contention with the demon all come right after the story of His baptism.

In what was were these Christians tried after their baptism? They “were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations,” and they joined themselves to those “who were so treated” (verse 33). They suffered both psychologically and financially (verse 34), and they endured each thing in view of the greater treasure awaiting them in heaven.

The remembrance of these things—the active recollection of the many sufferings they had already endured—would strengthen the readers to brace themselves for whatever lay ahead. The message is clear: “Don’t give up now! Don’t waste the great investment already made.”

This passage is concerned with what I have called an “aftermath,” a term that literally means “what is learned (mathein) afterwards.” This word testifies that education is existential. In the present context it refers to the period after baptism. One does not learn to be a Christian until one has already become a Christian. The real study of the Christian life is post-baptismal. The life in Christ does not commence until a person is in Christ. Baptism is called “illumination,” because it is the introductory step. Only then can there be an “aftermath.

And this, says our author, is learned through patience, which is an exercise of faith. It is at this point that he quotes that famous line from Habakkuk, so dear to Paul: “The just shall live by faith” (verse 38; Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11). This prophetic citation about faith lays the basis for the long account of the heroes of faith in the following chapter.

Thursday, January 20

Genesis 20: In Genesis 18 we learned a great deal about Abraham’s powers of persuasion when he talked to God. This was hardly surprising, because the Scriptures call him “the friend of God” (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; Daniel 3:35 [LXX]; Judith 8:22 [Vulgate]; James 2:23), and God, like the rest of us in this respect, delights in doing favors for His friends.

As God’s friend, Abraham was blessed with what the Bible calls parresia, confidence or even boldness (Ephesians 3:12; Hebrews 4:16), in his approach to the Lord on matters of concern. Like the stalwart widow in the Gospel parable on this subject (Luke 18:1-8), Abraham could be rather persistent, perhaps a tad nagging, when he brought some point of concern to the attention of the Almighty. Accustomed to that mercantile dickering ever common in the Middle East, Abraham knew how to chaffer his way to a bargain, and he incorporated this skill, too, into his prayer, as it were.

We saw this power of his intercessory prayer in Genesis 18:16-33. Thus in the present chapter, even after God declared to Abimelech, “Indeed, you are a dead man,” He went on to promise that Abraham “will pray for you, and you shall live” (vv. 3, 7). And, indeed, “Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech” (v. 17).

Hebrews 11:8-16: Among the numerous and varied characters of the Old Testament, Abraham is perhaps the one most mentioned as a model for the Christian life. This theme is prominent in the Epistle to the Romans, where Abraham, described as “the father of us all” (4:16) is presented as the outstanding example of the life of faith (chapter 4 passim). For St. Paul, Abraham’s faith was manifest in his adherence to God’s promises against all contrary evidence: “contrary to hope, in hope he believed, so that he became the father of many nations” (4:18).

The Epistle to the Hebrews, though not neglecting that aspect of the Abraham story (11:11-12), emphasizes two other aspects of Abraham’s faith: his wandering and the summons he received to offer Isaac in sacrifice.

The former theme is considered in the present verses: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country.” This aspect of Abraham’s faith is consistent with the theme of pilgrimage in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come’ (13:14). Indeed, with respect to all the Old Testament saints, we are told, “they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (11:13).

This was preeminently the situation of Abraham, who obeyed the Lord’s command, “Get out of your country, / From your family / And from your father’s house, / To a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). In other words, Abraham will see that land only if he obeys the command of the Lord. “I will show you” is in the future tense.

In addition to the author of Hebrews, St. Stephen also emphasized this aspect of Abraham’s faith: “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, ‘Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you’” (Acts 7:3).

This feature of Abraham’s faith—his obedient wandering to pursue the future—corresponded very much to the experience of the early Christians. They, too, had no clear idea where they were going—at least in respect to their future in this world. Like Abraham, they were content to follow God’s leadership wherever He would guide them. From a human perspective, they were just as vulnerable as any pilgrims in this world. This was especially the case, one suspects, as the social ties between the Church and the Jews began to be severed. What did the future hold? Those early Christians really had no idea, so Abraham became their model, “dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”

Abraham trusted the Lord, placing his life and destiny in the hands of the God who will not lie nor deceive. He did not try to work out his life for himself. He made no endeavor to base his future on his own theories. He trusted in God in the face of insuperable obstacles. He gave up every pursuit or goal not compatible with trust in God.

Such trust renders a person pleasing to God. Such faith is the only thing that justifies a man in God’s sight. Faith is not some benign component that enables a man to live a humanly “normal life.” On the contrary, faith compels a man to live a life that those without faith will say is foolish.

When Abraham left Ur, it was a great city—one of the greatest in history. This great commercial center on the Persian Gulf was the place where writing had been invented. Abraham’s departure from there represented the move that every man of faith must make. Faith means giving up and moving on. It is the very opposite of an established and secure life. It always means “living in tents with Isaac and Jacob.”

Friday, January 21

Genesis 21: Ishmael is accused of “scoffing” (NKJV) 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 “the son of this maidservant” (v. 10). In Sarah’s eyes he has become a nonentity. Abraham is faced with a new problem, therefore. Although Ishmael is not Sarah’s son except in a purely legal sense that no longer bears legal significance, the older boy is still Abraham’s son, and Abraham loves him.

Galatians 4: 21-31: It seems significant that the covenants of God with Abraham and David are each ushered into history by an account of a barren woman. Thus, Holy Scripture introduces the covenant with Abraham by telling of the barrenness of Sarah, and the narrative of the Davidic covenant is introduced by the story of barren Hannah. It is not surprising, then, that the account of barren Elizabeth should introduce the story of the Incarnation. Jesus Christ is, after all, “the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1).

St. Paul, moreover, explicitly 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).

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. Perhaps we may summarize these reflections under three headings: frustration, humor, and faith.

First, let us recall Sarah's frustration. 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.

Second, let us consider the humor of Sarah. We recall the famous scene where Abraham and his wife showed hospitality to the Three Strangers in Genesis 18. We remember well the promise that God made to them at that time: “I will certainly return to you according to the time of life, and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son." Sarah, 89 years old at the time, was listening to this conversation behind the flap of the family’s tent, and when she heard the divine promise, says Holy Scripture, she laughed. Really, what else could she do?

Third, let us consider the faith of Sarah. If we had only the Old Testament by which to reflect on this point, we might doubt that Sarah had much faith. Fortunately, however, we have the testimony of the Epistle to the Hebrews: “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” (11:11).

Indeed, the faith of Sarah illustrates something truly essential to the very nature of faith—it accomplishes what is humanly impossible. Sarah did not regard the prospects of bearing a child at age 90. On the contrary, “she judged Him faithful who had promised.” That is to say, she trusted the fidelity of God to do what He has promised to do.