Friday, April 5

Matthew 24:1-14: There are few parts of the Gospels so problematic as the discourse of Jesus contained in this chapter. The corresponding text in Mark 13, which is clearly the major source for Matthew 24, is the longest private instruction of our Lord recorded in Mark.

In all three Synoptics this eschatological discourse is the link between the public teaching of Jesus, culminating in His repeated conflicts with the Jewish authorities, and the account of His Passion. Indeed, it was Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Temple (verses 1-2) that provided the accusations brought forth at His trial before the Sanhedrin (26:16), and it was the subject of the jeers that His enemies hurled at Him as He hung on the cross. Moreover, the position occupied by our Lord’s prophecy here indicates the relationship between the death of Jesus and the downfall of Jerusalem. We observe that in both Mark and Matthew this prophecy follows immediately on Jesus’ lament over the holy city.

With respect to Matthew 24 as a whole (as well as Mark 13 and Luke 21), this discourse forms a sort of last testimony of Jesus, in which the Church is provided with a final injunction and moral exhortation. In this respect it is similar to the farewell discourses of Jacob (Genesis 49), Moses (Deuteronomy 33), Joshua (Joshua 23), and Samuel (1 Samuel 12). That is to say, the present chapter serves the purpose of instructing the Christian Church how to live during the period (literally “eon” in Greek) that will last until the Lord’s second coming.

This conduct will be especially marked by vigilance, so that believers may not be “deceived” (verse 4). They will suffer persecution, Jesus foretells, and He goes on to make two points with respect to this persecution. First, they must not lose heart, and second, it does not mean that the end is near. They must persevere to the end (verse 14).

The original remarks of the Apostles, which prompted this prophecy, were inspired by Herod’s fairly recent renovation of the Temple (cf. John 2:20). According to Flavius Josephus (Antiquities, 15.11.3), “the Temple was constructed of hard, white stones, each of which was about 25 cubits in length, 8 in height, and 12 in depth.” That is to say, the walls of this mountain of marble, towering 450 feet above the Kidron Valley, were 12 cubits, roughly 15 feet, thick! The various buildings of the Temple complex were colonnaded and elaborately adorned. Its surface area covered about one-sixth of the old city. The Roman historian Tacitus described it as “a temple of immense wealth.” (Histories 5.8). It was because of the Temple that Josephus remarked, “he that has not seen Jerusalem in her splendor has never in his life seen a desirable city. He who has not seen the Temple has never in his life seen a glorious edifice.”

This splendid building, said Jesus, would be utterly destroyed (verse 2). In making this prophecy our Lord steps into the path earlier trodden by Jeremiah (7:14; 9:11), who also suffered for making the same prediction.

Saturday, April 6

Matthew 24:43-51: Matthew’s third metaphor for the last days is drawn from common social experience—namely, the vigilance necessary to prevent the entrance of a burglar into the home (verses 43-44). This image of impeding thievery appears often in the New Testament, not always as a quotation from Jesus. In his very first epistle, nonetheless, St. Paul explicitly presumes that his readers are already familiar with it (1 Thessalonians 5:2). Matthew and Luke (12:39-40) are nearly identical in their preservation of this wording of this parable. The warning to the Church at Sardis is very similar in its wording (Revelation 3:3). Second Peter 3:10 and 1 Thessalonians 5:2 both add “in the night” after “thief.” The metaphor appears again in Revelation 16:15.

This image of the household in danger introduces the parable distinguishing the wise, good, and loyal servant from the lazy, dissolute, and wicked one (verses 45-51). This is the first of three consecutive stories in which the passage of time is integral to the testing of God’s servants. The next two are the parables of the ten virgins (25:1-13) and the talents entrusted to the three servants (25:14-30).Although Matthew encapsulates the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world into a consistent set of images, it would be wrong to interpret too literally the word “immediately” in verse 29. These next three parables, in fact, suggest that the end of the world may still be some way off.

Nonetheless, the Lord’s return in judgment must be constantly looked for, and the anticipation of it becomes a formal principle of Christian morality. Hence, this parable distinguishing the loyal and unfaithful servant is the first of four parables about the final judgment. All four end in punishment for those who are unfaithful (verse 51; 25:12,30,41,46).

Zechariah 1: This chapter contains two dated revelations, the first (verses 1-6) in October/November of 520 B.C., and the second (verses 7-17) in January/February of 519. The first oracle is a general call to repentance based on a serious acceptance of God’s prophetic word. It affirms, as all godly exhortation should affirm, that God will turn to us when we turn to Him (verse 3).

The second oracle is connected with a vision that the prophet has in a myrtle grove, where he sees various messengers of God seated on red and partly-red horses. These messengers report that the world is now peaceful. From a certain perspective, of course, this is good news. The Persian Empire had just been racked by two years of civil war resultant of the rebellion of Gaumata in 521. The Emperor Cambyses apparently committed suicide in response to the rebellion, and it took two years for the new emperor, Darius I, to put down the rebellion and secure the empire. In the midst of all this agitation and ferment, nonetheless, Jerusalem was no better off. In spite of the return of some Jews to the Holy Land, beginning in 538, life there was not yet sufficiently stable and productive for the great masses of the Jews to return from the Babylonian Captivity.

Consequently, the message of peace, delivered by God’s mounted observers of the earth, is a mixed message, because it has created an atmosphere of wellbeing that dulls the moral sense in the face of evil (verse 15). This Persian peace will not last forever, of course. Indeed, Persia’s defeat at the Battle of Marathon lies less than thirty years in the future.

Sunday, April 7

Philippians 2:12-30: In this text we discern a ringing resemblance to the farewell discourse of Moses in Deuteronomy 31—32. In that passage, where Moses reprimanded the Chosen People for their disobedience, we note an emphasis on “rebellion” (erethismon in the Septuagint of Deuteronomy 31:27), an idea very close to Paul’s warnings against “partisanship” (eritheia; cf. 1:17; 2:3).

Moses feared for what those Israelites would do in his absence (for he was about to die), since they had been so consistently disobedient while he was present. Paul, by contrast, does not worry about the Philippians will do in his absence (verse 12). Moses, likewise, had called the Israelites “wicked children . . . a crooked and perverse generation” (Deuteronomy 32:5), whereas Paul calls the Philippians “blameless and harmless children of God . . . in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation” (verse 15).

It is possible that Paul, as he waited in prison for a death that seemed perhaps imminent (1:20-23), perceived some parallel between himself and Moses as the latter awaited death east of the Jordan. Both were, it appeared, taking leave of the people they had pastured. Whereas Moses, however, was filled with misgivings about those whom he was leaving, Paul felt nothing but confidence in his Philippians.

Zechariah 2: Jerusalem’s wall would not be reconstructed until the time of Nehemiah. During these prophecies of Zechariah, around 520, Jerusalem is still only a little village without walls. There is no slight irony, then, when an angel proposes to measure the length and breadth of it (verse 2). The irony itself is prophetic, because the day will come when Jerusalem will be too large to measure, “for the multitude of men and cattle therein” (verse 4).

More than the earthly Jerusalem is involved here, of course. The perspective of this prophecy is turned, rather, to that Jerusalem yet to come, “when many nations shall be joined to the Lord” (verse 11). The Jerusalem where Zechariah lived had already been destroyed once, and less than six centuries later it would be destroyed again. None of the promises made to that ancient Jerusalem were completely fulfilled in this regard, because that Jerusalem was a type and prefiguration of the more ample and catholic Jerusalem to whom the pledge was made, “Behold, I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” Matthew 28:20). This is the Jerusalem where God’s Exodus-presence is fulfilled: “For I, says the Lord, will be unto her as a wall of fire round about, and will be the glory in the midst of her” (verse 5).

This protecting presence of the Lord is the chapter’s major theme (cf. verse 11,13). In verse 12 we have the first occurrence of the expression “Holy Land” with reference to the land of promise. The expression will later appear in the Wisdom of Solomon 12:3 and 2 Maccabees 1:7.

Monday, April 8

Zechariah 3: Chief among the priests who returned from Babylon was the high priest Jeshua, or Joshua, whose father Jehozadak had been carried away to Babylon back in 586 (1 Chronicles 6:15). Jeshua’s name invariably appears second among the returning exiles (Ezra 2:2; Nehemiah 7:7; 12:1,10,26), right after Zerubbabel, the governor appointed by Cyrus to oversee Jerusalem’s restoration. In the prophecies of Zechariah, Zerubbabel and Jeshua are paired as the spiritual and political leaders of the people, as we shall see in Chapter 4.

In the present chapter the prophet beholds the high priest Jeshua standing before God with an angel and with Satan. Satan is doing for Jeshua what he did for Job, namely, “opposing” him, saying bad things to God about him (verse 1; cf. Job 1:9-11; 2:4-5). In both these cases Satan is the “accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night” (Revelation 12:10). In the case of Jeshua, Satan’s accusation had to do with the “filthy garments” of the high priest (verse 3), which signify his unworthiness. This may refer to his personal unworthiness and/or to the unworthiness of the people that he represents at the altar. Either and both interpretations will fit the context.

The question under debate is, can such a priest, so improperly vested, properly offer sacrifices to the Almighty? At this point the angel of the Lord rebuked Satan for his accusation against the priest: “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you!” (Zechariah 3:2) (In case anyone inquires, “The Lord rebuke you!” is the execration regularly preferred by angels who are obliged to deal with Satan; cf. Jude 9.) Jeshua may be taken to represent any and all of God’s servants aware of their total unworthiness as they come to worship. Their hearts are full of such sentiments as, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8), “I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof” (7:6), and “God, be merciful to me a sinner! (18:13).

Satan, of course, is ever at hand on such occasions, ready even further to discourage these saints who feel guilty in their filthy garments, suggesting to their minds that they may as well give the whole thing up as useless. But what do the angels say? “Take away the filthy garments from him. . . . Let them put a clean turban on his head.” We do not come before God with any cleanliness of our own. “See,” the Lord says, “I remove your iniquity from you, and I will clothe you with rich robes” (verses 4-5).

That is to say, we approach the worship of God only in the pure grace of our redemption. “Is not this,” asks our good angel, “a branch plucked from the fire?” (3:2) In the literal context, this plucking refers to redemption from the Babylonian Captivity. In its Christian context it refers to a more radically redemptive plucking from a far more serious fire. In either case, when someone is plucked from the fire, he tends to be a bit smudged up, and his clothes are in pretty bad shape. Not to worry, the angel says, God can handle that.

Tuesday, April 9

Philippians 3:17—4:1: Especially among converts from paganism (which was by and large the case at Philippi, where there was not even a synagogue), there was a great need for types and models of behavior. More than for Jews who accepted the Gospel, conversion for the gentiles was bound to entail a more radical—even dramatic—change in personal behavior. Whereas good Jews already lived lives in conformity with God’s Law, especially in the areas of sex and economics, this was often not true of gentile converts (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Hence the need for role models in this latter group.

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

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

Zechariah 4: As in other prophetic accounts (cf. Amos 7:8; 8:2), a dialogue of questions and answers accompanies this vision of Zechariah. This is apparently necessary, as the vision is complex and detailed.

The image of the lamp stand is surely related to the lamp stand in the Mosaic tabernacle (Exodus 25:31-37) and in the Solomonic temple (1 Kings 7:49). From the bas relief on the Arch of Titus in Rome, we know that the second temple also had such a lamp stand. The lamp stand of Zechariah’s vision is not entirely identified with these, however. Being visionary, it is differently contoured. The seven lamps represent the fullness of the God’s providential knowledge of the world (verse 10), of which the constant worship in God’s temple at Jerusalem served as a sign.

These lamps were nourished by the oil provided by the two ministries of the secular ruler and the priest, Zerubbabel and Jeshua (verses 10-14). We recall that both the kings and the priests of Israel were anointed with the same oil that burned in the seven-branch lamp stand (Exodus 27:20; 30:23-24; Leviticus 24:2). They are “sons of oil.”

In their historical context, the efforts of these men seemed weak, but they acted by the power of God’s Spirit (verse 6). Consequently, no matter how tiny appeared their efforts, let no one despise “the day of small things” (verse 10), which refers to their laying of the foundation for the new temple (verse 9). This foundation stone of God’s house (verse 7), which is mystically identical with the seven-faceted stone in 3:9, should be viewed as a Christological prophetic reference. Much of the imagery of this chapter will appear later in Revelation 11.

Wednesday, April 10

Philippians 4:2-9: From the beginning of this epistle we have suspected that there was some sort of problem at Philippi. Nothing in this epistle has indicated that the problem was doctrinal. In fact, when the Apostle condemned the heretics, there was nothing to suggest that they were Philippian heretics. On the contrary, Paul was obliged to tell the Philippians about those heretics (3:18).

No, we have suspected that the underlying problem at Philippi, if there was a problem, had to do with what we may call “conflicting personalities.” This would explain Paul’s emphasis on respect, humility, and mutual forbearance (2:2-4).

The present chapter proves our suspicions to have been correct, because it finally identifies the two “conflicting personalities” as Evodia and Syntyche, Philippian women who are exhorted to settle their differences and “be of one mind in the Lord.” Three things may be noted of this exhortation to Evodia and Syntyche.

Although the conflict between them apparently provided the impulse that prompted Paul to write this epistle, it is a fact that he left the matter aside until this closing chapter. To prepare for it, he laid the groundwork by asserting more general and universally applicable principles about humility, obedience, and mutual service, such as we have seen. That is to say, Paul did not speak to the particular problem directly until he established the basis on which it could be addressed and settled.

When Paul finally does name Evodia and Syntyche in this fourth chapter, he makes clear, by example, a useful pastoral rule—namely, that public sins, such as give scandal to a congregation, are not private matters of the sort covered by Matthew 18:15-20. On the contrary, public sins are subject to public censure and may require public repentance. In the end, Paul decides to call Evodia and Syntyche to public account.

Zechariah 5: In this chapter, which also uses dialogue to interpret what is seen, there are two visions. In the first (verses 1-4), the prophet sees a flying scroll considerably larger than one would expect; indeed, it is the same size as the portico in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:3). This scroll contains the curses attendant on those who violate the terms of God’s covenant (cf. Deuteronomy 29:18-20). This scroll represents a permanent warning of the dangers of infidelity.

In the second vision (verses 5-11), the prophet sees “Wickedness” portrayed as a woman carried in a basket. Unlike the very large scroll in the first vision, the present vision gives us a very small basket. It holds only an ephah, yet this woman can fit into it. She must be a pretty insignificant woman—this Wickedness—and the angelic figures contemptuously shove her down into the basket and enclose it with a leaden lid. Representing the power of Babylon, which the Bible holds in contempt, the woman and her basket are deposited in the Babylonian plain (verse 11; cf. Genesis 11:2). This is the same woman, by the way, who looks so much larger and more impressive in Revelation 17.

Thursday, April 11

Philippians 4:2-9: Right from the beginning Paul had experienced the generosity of the Macedonian Christians (verses 15-16; 2 Corinthians 8:1-5), and now once again, a further opportunity being provided, they have not failed him (verses 10,18).

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

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

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

Zechariah 6: This chapter contains both a vision and an oracle. In the vision (verses 1-8) the prophet sees four chariots drawn by horses, which are also four “winds” or “spirits,” as it were (verse 5). He saw them earlier (1:7-11). Like the “four winds” of common parlance, these horses go in four directions: the black northbound, the white westbound, the dappled southbound, and the red eastbound. They represent God’s providential “patrol,” as it were, of the whole universe. God is keeping an eye on things, Zechariah is reminded, even things that don’t seem to be going very well.

Although Babylon lies east of Jerusalem, one journeys there by leaving Jerusalem in a northerly direction and then following the contour of the Fertile Crescent. (If one journeyed straight east, he would simply have to pass through the Arabian Desert, an area best avoided.) Consequently, there is a special significance in the northbound horses in this vision, for they go to Babylon, where, God assures His prophet, He has everything under control (verse 8). This vision is related, then, to the woman in the basket in the previous chapter. The “Spirit” that guides world history, including geopolitical history, is the same Spirit proclaimed to Zerubbabel in 4:6.

The oracle in this chapter (verses 9-15), like the vision of the two olive trees in 4:11-14, pertains to the Lord’s two “sons of oil,” Zerubbabel and Jeshua, the priest and the governor, the religious and civil authority. Both are anointed by God and must work in common endeavor for the Lord (verse 13). The “branch” in verse 12, as in 3:8, refers to Zerubbabel, whose Akkadian name means “the branch of Babylon.” He is both a foreshadowing and a forefather (Matthew 1:12-13) of the One who combines in Himself the twin dignities of King and Priest.

Friday, April 12

Philippians 2:5-11: Paul wanted the Philippians to adopt the self-emptying of
God’s Son. His moral intent here is very much like that of the Apostle Peter, who reminded his readers, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow His steps” (1 Peter 2:21–23). And, just as Peter illustrated his point by citing a biblical source (Is. 53:7–9), so Paul cites a well-known Christian hymn to make the same point.

Indeed, the hymn cited by Paul sounded a note identical to that Old Testament text cited by Peter: Christ emptied Himself, taking on the condition of a slave, the very Suffering Slave (’eved, doulos) of the Book of Isaiah. When God’s Son took on “the form of a slave,” it was this specific slave foreseen and foretold by the prophet.

This Isaian theme—God’s Slave suffering for the sins of men—gave shape to early Christian preaching, as we see in Philip’s discourse to the Ethiopian (Acts 8:32–35) and Paul’s evangelizing of the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:3). Here in Philippians we observe its appearance in early Christian hymnography.

In addition, at least part of the content of this hymnic insertion clearly relies on a contrast between Christ and Adam. Whereas Adam was disobedient
in trying to become like God. This was implied in what the serpent told Eve with respect to the forbidden fruit: “For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Gen. 3:5). That is to say, disobedient Adam “regarded equality with God as robbery [or a thing to be grasped],” God’s true Son, in contrast, being “in the form of God,” was already “equal to God”; He had no need to grasp or covet this equality. Yet He emptied Himself and assumed “the form of a slave,” becoming obedient to death on the Cross. This is the model of obedience Paul holds out to Christians, telling them, “Have this mind among yourselves.” Believers are exhorted to abandon the example of Adam and pursue the standard of Christ.

Zechariah 7: This chapter has two parts. In the first (verses 1-7) , the prophet addresses a specific question about fasting. Since the fall of Jerusalem and its temple in 586, the Jews had adopted special fasting seasons during the year to commemorate their national disaster. Now that the temple in Jerusalem was being rebuilt, nearly seventy years later, should they keep those fast seasons any longer? Certain villagers in the Holy Land want to know, and the prophet answers them with a specific oracle from the Lord.

The second part of this chapter (verses 8-14) is probably situated here because it refers to the earlier prophets (verse 12), whom Zechariah had just mentioned (verse 7). The prophet reminds his contemporaries that their recent defeat and scattering had been foretold by the former prophets as a result of the sins of the nation. The specific precepts that Zechariah cites (verse 9-10) seem to indicate the social prophets of two centuries earlier: Amos, Micah, and Isaiah.