Friday, July 19

Numbers 12: This chapter concludes the first travel narrative in Numbers. It also continues, from the previous chapter, the theme of challenges against Israel’s established leadership, this time portraying Aaron and Miriam as conspirators against Moses.

The material breaks in half, distributing two subjects: first, the challenge of Aaron and Miriam (verses 1-8); second, the Lord’s response to that challenge (verses 9-16).

First, the challenge: Supported by her brother, Miriam conceives a dislike for their Ethiopian (Aithiopissa in the LXX) sister-in-law, Zipporah (Midian=Cushan in Habakkuk 3:7). The two of them vent their displeasure on Moses himself.

It is interesting to speculate on the source of the problem. For example, we know that Moses was very much under the counsel of Reul (or Hobab), his father-in-law and the father of Zipporah, and perhaps jealousies arose in that respect. Whatever the initial point of contention, however, it is clear that the grievance of Aaron and Miriam was directed at Moses.

Specifically the two began to wonder our loud whether they weren’t at least as important as Moses himself (verse 2). Aaron, after all, not Moses, was the high priest, and Miriam was a recognized prophetess (Exodus 20:15), so why should Moses have all the authority?

Moses, being a meek man (verse 3; Exodus 3:11; 4:10-13), was disposed to overlook the affront, but the Lord was not. For the pair of complainers He had a thing or two to say relative to the special position and authority of Moses as the chosen intimate of the divine counsels (verses 6-8).

In addition to being reprimanded, Miriam was struck with leprosy, which perhaps suggests that she had been the original instigator of the problem (verse 10). From this affliction she was delivered through the intercession of Moses (verses 13-15).

We may observe two points of irony here: First, the skin of Miriam, who complained about her dark-skinned sister-in-law, becomes as white as snow! Second, there is Aaron’s plea with Moses to intercede for their sister, Miriam. He thereby acknowledges the special ministry and service of Moses.

Saturday, July 20

Acts 12:1-19: From the perspective of chronology, Acts 12 is something of a “flashback.” Luke’s narrative so far has taken us up to the year 46. Now, however, he looks back to the reign of Herod Agrippa I (A.D. 37-44), and more specifically to the end of that reign. He will bring us back to A.D. 46 at the end of this chapter.

For a proper understanding of this story of Peter’s imprisonment, it is important to make note of the time when the event happens. Peter is delivered from prison at the Passover, the very night commemorating Israel’s deliverance from bondage in Egypt. As the angel of the Lord came through the land that night to remove Israel’s chains by slaying the first-born of Israel’s oppressors, so the delivering angel returns to strike the fetters from Peter’s hands and lead him forth from the dungeon.

And as Israel’s earlier liberation foreshadowed that Paschal Mystery whereby Jesus our Lord led all of us from our servitude to the satanic Pharaoh by rising from the dead, so we observe aspects of the Resurrection in Peter’s deliverance from prison. Like the tomb of Jesus, Peter’s cell is guarded by soldiers (verses 4,6). That cell, again like the tomb of Jesus, is invaded by a radiant angelic presence, and the very command to Peter is to “arise” (anasta —verse 7).

It is no wonder that in regarding Rafael’s famous chiaroscuro depiction of this scene in the apartments in the Vatican (over the window in the Stanza of Heliodorus), the viewer must look very closely, for his first impression is that he is looking at a traditional portrayal of the Lord’s Resurrection. And what is the Church doing during all that night of the Passover? Praying (verses 5,12); indeed, it is our first record of a Paschal Vigil Service. Peter’s guards, alas, must share the fate of Egypt’s first-born sons (verse 19).

Psalms 30 (Greek & Latin 29): ) This psalm bears a curious title that tells us something interesting of its use in ancient Judaism: “A Psalm of David. A Song at the dedication of the House of David.” The second half of the title, which tells us of its use at the feast of Hanukkah, indicates its communal meaning. David’s personal sentiments of gratitude and praise to the redeeming God became incorporated into Israel’s restoration to her temple after years of oppression and strife.

This history is narrated in chapters 1—4 of 1 Maccabees. When Antiochus Epiphanes IV came to the throne of Syria in September of 175 B.C., it was the beginning of very hard times for the Chosen People. Their oppression by this ruthless overlord included even the desecration of the temple. At the end of this decade of terror (175–165), when Judas Maccabaeus rededicated the temple at Jerusalem, Israel felt it could now, with unburdened heart, make its own the ancient sentiments of David: “I will extol you, O Lord, for You have lifted me up, and have not let my foes rejoice over me.”

Sunday, July 21

Mark 8:22-30: The story of the blind man immediately precedes the dialogue between Jesus and Peter:

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered and said to Him, “You are the Messiah.”

Thus, the healed blind man becomes the symbol of what happens through the first half of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus’ instruction to the Apostles during all these chapters prepares them for that Christological confession. Their faith grows through stages and by steps. They believe, but Christ must continually help their unbelief.

Acts 12:20—13:3: This scene of Herod meeting with the Phoenician delegation is also described by another writer contemporary to the event, Flavius Josephus, who includes a gripping depiction of Herod’s silver robe glistening in the sunlight. Like Luke, Josephus mentions their addressing him as a “god.” The action of the angel who kills Herod Agrippa I in verse 23 stands in contrast to the angelic liberation of Peter, narrated earlier in this chapter. The description of Herod’s death is usefully compared to the death of the blaspheming Antiochus Epiphanes IV in 2 Maccabees 9:5-28.

Immediately after telling the story, Luke takes us forward again to A.D. 46. Barnabas and Saul, having delivered the collection for the famine to the church at Jerusalem (11:30), leave to return to Antioch, taking with them John Mark, a younger kinsman of Barnabas (12:25; cf. Colossians 4:10).

Then begins the story of Paul’s three missionary journeys, which will occupy the next several chapters. We observe that Antioch has now risen to the status of a missionary center (which it has remained unto this day). Indeed, the very severe political climate at Jerusalem in the late 60s, culminating in the destruction of the city by the Romans in the year 70, caused Antioch to surpass Jerusalem as a missionary center in the East, rather much as Rome became in the West, and, somewhat later, Alexandria in Egypt. In the year 325, these three churches (Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch) were made the patriarchal churches, each having oversight of the other churches in those three continents that shape the Mediterranean Sea.

Monday, July 22

John 20:11-18: In this story, Christians perceive in Mary Magdalene an image
of themselves meeting their risen Lord and Good Shepherd: “the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name . . . , for they know his voice” (John 10:3–4). This narrative of Mary Magdalene is an affirmation that Christian identity comes of recognizing the voice of Christ, who speaks our own name in the mystery of salvation: “the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). This is truly an “in-house” memory of the Church; it can
only be understood within the community of salvation, for it describes a wisdom not otherwise available to this world.

Numbers 15: More legislation relative to sacrifice interrupts the narrative flow of Numbers once again. Since the rules in this chapter seem applicable only to those who will actually live in the Holy Land (verse 2), and since the previous chapter made it clear that none of the current generation will do so, this comment places an irony in the context of the material.

Perhaps the following consideration may explain and warrant this irony: After the stern condemnation at the end of the previous chapter, especially its declaration that none of the living adults would enter the Promise Land, there was some danger that the Promised Land would be forgotten altogether. Since no living adult would ever see it, why should they even think about it? At this point, however, the serene vice o fGod announces, “When you come into the land . . . which I will give you . . .” That is to say, the Promised Land still lies infallibly in your future.

Indeed, this sustained promise of the Land, a promise now applicable solely to Israel’s next generation, must have instructed the Israelites to think more seriously about that rising generation. It would discourage them from indulging the “right now” aspect of their behavior and their expectations. The nature of the promise, that is to say, would have a “maturing” effect on their minds.

The laws given here contain material on animal sacrifice, grain sacrifice, and the libation of wine (verses 3-21). These regulations are complementary to the material in Leviticus 1-3.

This chapter clearly distinguishes between sins of ignorance and inadvertence, for which atonement is readily made (verses 22-29), and deliberate sins of malice (verses 30-31). This distinction is followed by an example that illustrates what is meant by a deliberate sin (verses 32-36).

The wearing of special tassels and ribbons on the clothing served to remind the Israelites of God’s Law (verses 38-40; Matthew 9:20). It would seem that God’s People always need tangible, visible reminders of their duty.

Tuesday, July 23

Numbers 16: Because of the several recent crises, including God’s judgment that no adults then alive would enter the Promised Land, it is perhaps not surprising that there is ongoing ill will and dissent among the Israelites, the sorts of feelings spawned by despair.

The present chapter records two rebellions combined into a single narrative, a combination perhaps caused by their happening close together. (This is often the case in the history of rebellions.) Close attention to the text, however, permits the reader to distinguish between them.

The rebellion of Korah, a Levite (chiefly verses 1-11,16-24,27,35-43; Jude 11), was apparently directed against Aaron (verses 9-11) and involved the demand that the privileges of the priesthood be extended to all the sons of Levi. The rebellion of the Reubenites, Dathan and Abiram (1,12-15,25-34), appears to have been aimed more directly at the leadership of Moses.

Both of these rebellions were spawned of a democratic, leveling impulse, impatient of hierarchical authority derived directly from God. This is clearest in the remarks of Korah, who appealed explicitly to “the priesthood of all believers” (Exodus 19:6) as a political principle to deny the ranking authority of the Aaronic priesthood: “You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?”

To Korah and the rebellious Levites Moses proposes a trial by ordeal, as it were (verses 5-7,16-18), which proved a disaster for the rebels (verse 35). Indeed, the censers used by these rebellious Levites were beaten into a bronze memorial, to warn whoever in the future might be tempted to pursue their example (verses 36-43).

Such a warning was needed, even if it has not always been heeded. The Christian Church has often been afflicted with such democratizing rebellions against priestly authority. A rather early example occurred in the church at Corinth toward the end of the first century, when the local congregation arose and attempted to depose the ministers that the Apostles had set over them. The congregation was addressed by Clement, the third bishop of Rome, in a letter that the early Christians were careful to preserve. It reads, in part: “Surely it is well for a man to confess his sins rather than harden his heart as the hearts of those who were hardened who rebelled against Moses the servant of God. Their condemnation was made plain. For they went down to Hell alive, and death was their shepherd” (Clement of Rome, To the Corinthians 51.3-4).

However, it was related to the rebellion of Korah, the insurrection of the Reubenites seems to have been of a somewhat different complexion. Dathan and Abiram appreciated the gravity of their plight. They fully realized that they were doomed, in fact, to perish in the wilderness. In spite of Moses’ earlier pledge to take them all to the Promised Land, it was now clear that they would, in fact, die in the desert (verses 12-14). Their rebellion, however, far from removing their doom, only rendered it immediate (verses23-34).

Wednesday, July 24

Numbers 17: Inasmuch as Holy Scripture ascribes to the staff of Aaron such diverse wonders, it is hardly remarkable that Christian readers, over the centuries, have looked upon it as the bearer of numerous mysteries. It is not my intention to question any of those traditional interpretations, but I am especially partial to the view that Aaron’s staff represents the pastoral office in general and the ministry of preaching in particular.

Applied to the pastoral ministry of preaching, the staff of Aaron represents the authority with which the preacher proclaims the Word. The Christian pulpit is not the forum for the sharing of a preacher’s ideas, not even his theological exegetical ideas. It is the place from which the seed of the Word is sown. What is conveyed in the preaching must be nothing other than the gospel itself.

Thus, some months after evangelizing the Macedonians, Paul wrote to them, “we preached to you the gospel of God” (1 Thess. 2:9). Paul sums up that experience: “when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe” (2:13).

The staff of Aaron is more than a sign of his authority, however; it is the channel of power. Indeed, this is what distinguishes the matteh of Aaron from the other tribal staffs of Israel. Two narra¬tives, in particular, illustrate the power of Aaron’s priestly staff: the encounter with Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus and the test in the tabernacle in the Book of Numbers. Each of these incidents, I will argue, demonstrates an aspect of the preaching ministry.

First, Aaron’s staff is powerful against the satanic forces repre¬sented in the rule of Pharaoh. Even before Egypt was visited with a single plague, that matteh became a snake and devoured the staffs of the sorcerers (Ex. 7:8–12). Then, through the same instrument the Lord visited Egypt with the plagues of frogs and lice (8:5, 16, 17).

If, then, we understand Aaron’s staff to symbolize the ministry of preaching, the account in Exodus indicates the aggressive, confron¬tational, and apologetical aspects of the preacher’s task. His message must be ever “mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4–5).

Second, Aaron’s rod is the bearer of both beauty and nourish¬ment, because we read of it that it produced blossoms and ripe almonds (Num. 17:8). I understand those blossoms to indicate the rhetorical skill in which the gospel is conveyed. Aaron’s staff is not employed to hit people over the head but to attract their adherence by the beauty of the gospel and the sweetness of conscientious per¬suasion. The Lord compares His Word to honey, after all. So, wrote Gregory Nazianzen, the preacher does not use force or violence but the lure of wisdom.

The ripe almonds on Aaron’s rod I take to mean the spiritual nourishment provided by pastoral preaching. If the content of the sermon really is the Word of God, then it really will be that by which man lives. It will accomplish what God has promised with respect to His Word.

Thursday, July 25

Acts 13:26-41: At the end of the mission on Cyprus, John Mark, apparently suffering from homesickness, leaves the company to return to Jerusalem. His departure makes a very negative impression on the apostle Paul, who regards the young man’s immaturity as an indication that he cannot be entrusted with the serious labor of evangelism. Whatever Paul says at the time is not recorded (“Mama’s boy”?), but he will have plenty to pronounce on the point two chapters later.

It should also be noted that, beginning at 13:13, we no longer hear about “Barnabas and Saul” but “Paul and his companions.” Obviously there has been a dramatic shift in the personal dynamics of the mission.

The two apostles (evidently accompanied by others at this time) sail north to the southern shore of what we now call the Turkish peninsula, landing at the port of Attalia and journeying some five miles inland to Perga, capital of Pamphylia. From there they pass on to “Pisidian Antioch,” which is actually in Phrygia near the border with Pisidia and served as a governmental center for the south of the province of Galatia. (Will these be the people who will receive the Epistle to the Galatians in about six years?)

Numbers 18: God does not often address Aaron directly. Only here (verses 1,20) and Leviticus 10:8.

The instructions given in this chapter begin with the solemn charge to Aaron and his sons regarding their full responsibility for the sanctuary, the priesthood, and the worship (verses 2-8). These instructions answer the question about approaching the holy things, the question raised in the final verse of the previous chapter. The answer is perfectly clear here (verse 22).

Worship in the Bible is never really “safe.” The atmosphere of the Burning Bush tends to prevail, and biblical history records later incidents in which a needed reminder was given on the point (for instance 2 Samuel 6:6-7).

Of the various offerings reserved to the priestly family, some could be eaten by all ritually pure members of the family (verses 11-13), while some were reserved to the male members of the family (verses 9-10)

The metaphor “covenant of salt” (berith melah—verse 19) perhaps invokes the preservative qualities of salt, implying that the covenant is perpetual.

As all Israel was obliged to tithe to the tribe of Levi, the latter was to tithe to the Aaronic family (verses 26-28).

Friday, July 26

Acts 13:42-54: In this scene we discern the context of certain impulses that produced agitation in the early Christian mission. Judaism itself already had an extensive mission in the Greco-Roman world (cf. Matthew 23:15). As synagogues were established in the major cities, serious pagans were impressed by what they saw, because the life of the synagogue stood in stark contrast to the cultural and moral decay of the surrounding world, where despair was common. In the pagan world some of the major cultural institutions, particularly marriage and the family, were in serious trouble. Sex had become increasingly separated from marriage and from child-bearing, and there was some sense that this separation was related to various forms of polytheism.

What the pagans beheld in the local synagogues, however, were communities of great strength and hope, solid marriages and the joys of family life, a strict moral code in which all of life was integrated and filled with purpose, a firm emphasis on simple labor as the basis of economic existence, a rich inherited literature that imaginatively interpreted the life of the community, and the regularly scheduled, disciplined worship of a single, no-nonsense God. All of this proved to be very attractive to those serious pagans who felt distress and discomfort at the popular culture.

Some of these pagans accepted circumcision and the observance of the Law, thus becoming full-fledged Jews; these were known as proselytes (Acts 2:10; 6:5). Other pagans were unwilling to go so far, because such a decision obviously tended to cut them off from their own families and friends.

This second group simply attached themselves to the synagogues as best they could, bringing certain structures of Jewish piety into their lives, such as regular prayer and fasting and the study of the Scriptures; these were known as “fearers of God,” of which we have already seen examples in Cornelius and his friends. Thus, there were two groups of Gentiles who in varying degrees joined themselves to the local synagogues in the larger cities of the Roman Empire. Now both these groups felt a spontaneous attraction to the Gospel when they heard it proclaimed in the synagogue by Paul and his companions. In the Gospel they saw a form of religion with all the advantages of Judaism, but with none of the social disadvantages, such as circumcision and the observance of the Mosaic Law.

In the present reading, we observe that these people invite their other Gentile friends to come with them to the synagogue on the following Sabbath (13:44). Now, of a sudden, the Jews find their own synagogue over-run with all sorts of “undesirables.” They perceive Paul and his companions simply to be “taking over” the synagogue, preaching a doctrine that they themselves cannot control, and, from their perspective, things are getting entirely out of hand. The local Jews react with jealousy and animosity (13:45,50). After all, the Jewish religion had survived pure and intact by preserving those very disciplines that Paul and his friends seem to want to overthrow.

The Gospel, then, they experience as chaos. The very “popularity” of the Gospel becomes a reason for the stricter Jew to feel uncomfortable about it. Trouble breaks out. This sequence of events, repeated over and over again in the synagogues of the larger cities, causes the Christian Church to grow among the Gentiles, who are finally obliged to establish their own local congregations apart from the local synagogues (14:1; 16:13; 17:1,10,17; 18:4,6,19; 19:8; 28:28).