Friday, August 16

Mark 12:35-40: No other line of the Book of Psalms enjoys, in the New Testament, a prominence equal to these opening words of Psalm 109. In the traditions reflected in the Synoptic Gospels, for example, Christians remembered that Jesus had quoted this verse in controversy with His rabbinical opponents and that the context for His citation was the decisive and great kerygmatic question of the Lord’s identity: “What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?” In these few words of the Psalter, “The Lord said to my Lord,” Christians learned that Jesus is not only David’s descendant but also his preexisting Lord. He is the Son, not only of David, but of God.

Having mysteriously addressed the identity of Christ, this same line of our psalm goes on to speak of His triumph and enthronement, with the solemn proclamation: “Sit at My right hand.” These majestic words were quoted in the first sermon of the Christian Church, that of Pentecost morning at the third hour (cf. Acts 2:34), and became the foundation of some of the most important Christological and soteriological statements of the New Testament (cf. Mark 16:19; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2.).

In this one line of the psalm, then, we profess, in summary form, those profound doctrines at the foundation of our whole relationship to God—the eternal identity of Jesus Christ, His triumph over sin and death, and His glorification at God’s right hand: “God . . . has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, . . . who . . , when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:1–3).

Acts 19:1-10: After Apollos leaves Ephesus for Corinth, Paul arrives at Ephesus in the summer of 52 (19:1). He finds more disciples of John the Baptist, whom he in turn brings into the fullness of the Gospel (19:2-6). There is reason to believe that some disciples of John the Baptist were to be found at Ephesus even for decades to come. When the apostle John wrote his gospel in that city near the end of the first century, he took special care to relate the ministry of John the Baptist entirely to Jesus, even informing us (nor would we otherwise know it) that some followers of John the Baptist were to be found even among the first apostles of Jesus (cf. John 1:29-37).

Although the explicit evidence is sparse, it appears that many of John the Baptist’s disciples, and perhaps most, joined the Christian Church within the next generation or so. Their presence in the Church would go far to explain the great reverence and devotion in which that greatest of the prophets has always been regarded in Christian piety from the earliest times. Without exception, an icon of John the Baptist is still found, up in front, in all the Eastern Orthodox places of worship.

Paul will spend the next three years (summer of 52 to summer of 55) in Ephesus, which becomes a center for the evangelization of neighboring cities in Asia Minor, such as Colossae, Laodicea (cf. Colossians 4:16; Revelation 3:14-22), Smyrna, Philadelphia, and elsewhere (cf. “churches of Asia” in 1 Corinthians 16:19). From Ephesus, during these three years, Paul will be directing the missionary activity of his associates, both in Asia Minor (such as Tychicus and Trophimus [Acts 20:4]) and elsewhere (such as Erastus [Acts 19:22; cf. also 2 Timothy 4:20], Epaphroditus [Philippians 2:25-30; 4:18] and Timothy [Acts 19:22; Philippians 2:19; 1 Corinthians 16:10]). He will write the Epistles to the Galatians in the earlier part of these three years and1 Corinthians toward the end (the spring of 55). These notes will also argue that he wrote the Epistle to the Philippians at some time during these three years.

Saturday, August 17

Mark 12:41—13:2: What did the event mean when it happened? Mean to whom? What did it mean to the woman herself? What did it mean to the passers-by? What did it mean to Jesus?

First, what did it mean to the widow? We may start with the consideration that these two small coins were her last resources. It was all she had, and the amount was divisible. She could have put in only one of those coins. Even that gift would have amounted to five times her tithe! No one would have blamed her for keeping back one of those coins.

In fact, it may have occurred to this woman that she need not have given anything. The Temple certainly did not need that gift. Moreover, the gospels tell us that rich people were putting large amounts into the Temple treasury. The woman could see this as well as Jesus did.

This woman’s gift scarcely affected the Temple’s annual budget. There would be no shortage of candles, if she failed to put in her two cents’ worth.

It may have occurred to the woman to consider that her own gift was relatively unimportant, because it would not be missed by those who counted the collection.

All these considerations may have been going through her mind, by way of temptation. After all, she was a widow with no one to care for her. Every penny counted, as in the parable of the woman who lost just one of her ten coins.

Moreover, we observe that Jesus did not say anything to this woman. She was left to settle the matter on her own, with only the judgment of her own conscience in the presence of God.

What did her gift mean to the passers-by? Probably nothing. Being poor, she was socially insignificant. In today’s terminology, this woman was a “marginal person.” Only Jesus took notice of her.

What did her gift mean to Jesus? Well, he tells us, drawing attention to the completeness of her gift and its relationship to her life. This woman would suffer because of this gift. Already poor, she thereby became poorer. Jesus saw in this woman’s deed the completeness of self-giving. It embodied the drama of Holy Week itself. This woman, like Jesus, gave “her whole life” to God.

The final verses of this reading convey story’s final irony: Within a relatively short time, the Temple would disappear anyway!

Acts 19:11-20: Paul’s extended missionary activity is undoubtedly helped by the working of miracles (verses 11-12), and the subsequent and amusing story of the sons of Sceva illustrates the dangers of attempting such spiritual exploits without the faith to sustain them (verses 13-16). The conversions prompted by this incident lead to a burning of books dealing with matters of the occult (verse 19). The study of Satanic theories was sometime prominent in Asia Minor (cf. Revelation 2:24). Since such books come from hell, fire seems the appropriate way of getting rid of them.

Sunday, August 18

Acts 19:21-41: The excavations at Ephesus, which is the world’s largest excavation site, show it to have been a tightly populated city, the sort of place where a riot could be easily incited and quickly spread. In addition, as we know from informal inscriptions carved into the flagstones of the streets, the silversmiths of the city had their shops concentrated in a area very near the amphitheater of Ephesus. This latter, which easily seats up to 25,000 people, is still in an excellent state of preservation.

The “Artemis” worshipped at Ephesus, in spite of her name, was not the virgin huntress of the Greeks but a fertility goddess, roughly the equivalent of the Phoenician Astarte and the Phrygian Cybele, portrayed with twenty-eight breasts, one for each day of the lunar menstrual cycle. She was often represented in figurines of silver and terra cotta, and, according to the present text, so was her famous shrine at Ephesus, recognized in antiquity as one of the seven wonders of the world (cf. Strabo, Geography 14.1.20).

Because Paul and his team have been so successful in their preaching (supported, as we have seen, by miraculous healings), the silversmiths understandably feel that their idol-making business is under threat. Moreover, because the shrine at Ephesus has for a long time drawn pilgrims from far and wide, a loss of interest in that city’s famous shrine would have an even more devastating effect on the municipal economy (verse 27).

Such a fear, of course, is identical to that expressed at Philippi in Acts 16:19, and the impact of the Christian Gospel on pagan religion was readily obvious to thoughtful pagans (cf. Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96.10).

So, two of Paul’s companions, who happen to be nearby, are abducted and dragged into the amphitheater, where the riot becomes concentrated. The situation grows tense and dangerous. Both of the apprehended Christians come from out of town, Aristarchus being a Thessalonian (Acts 20:4; 27:2; Philemon 24) and Gaius a Lycaonian from Derbe (Acts 20:4). Paul’s various friends and the other Christians prudently restrain him from entering the amphitheater, which has meanwhile become a scene of utter confusion, many of the rioters unsure why are rioting. Fearing that this situation might pose some special threat for the Jews, who in any case were never popular at Ephesus (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 16.6.1), a Jew named Alexander endeavors to disassociate the Jews from the Christians (verse 33), but mobs do not readily recognize distinctions so subtle. Besides, one of the abducted Christians is a Jew (cf. Colossians 4:10-11)! The riot could have ended very badly, but the Roman insistence on common sense and good order saves the day (verses 35-41). (If, as I have earlier suggested, Paul spent some time in jail at Ephesus, this was surely the occasion.)

Monday, August 19

Mark 14:12-21: Mark 14:12-21: We come now to Holy Thursday and the evening of the Last Supper. The traditions behind the four gospels attach several stories to the narrative of the Last Supper. These include the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, a saying of Jesus relative to His coming betrayal, a prophecy of Peter’s threefold denial, various exhortations and admonitions by Jesus, and a description of the institution of the Holy Eucharist.

Only two of the stories are told in all four gospels: First, there is some reference by Jesus to His betrayal. In Matthew and Mark this comes before the institution of the Holy Eucharist; in Luke it comes afterwards, in John it immediately follows the foot-washing. Second, all four gospels tell the story of Peter’s triple denial.

Acts 20:1-12: At the end of three years in Ephesus, Paul returned to Macedonia in late 55, his journey apparently taking in also the large region northwest of Macedonia, known as Illyricum or Dalmatia (cf. Romans 15:19). While traveling in Macedonia, Dalmatia, and Greece during the year 56, Paul wrote 2 Corinthians (perhaps from Philippi, where he received a report on the Corinthian congregation from Titus — 2 Corinthians 2:13; 76-14), 1 Timothy, and Titus. Sometime during that year he apparently journeyed with Titus to Crete as well (cf. Titus 1:5).

Although Paul planned to spend the winter of 56/57 at the Greek city of Nicopolis, a port on the Adriatic Sea (Titus 3:12), at the beginning of January he returned to Corinth, not far eastward, where he lived during the first three months of 57 (Acts 20:2-3). While there, he wrote the Epistle to the Romans.

Intending to return to the Holy Land with the money collected for the needs of the poor there (Romans 15:25-27), he journeyed north to Macedonia one last time, where he celebrated Easter (Pascha) with his beloved Philippians (Acts 20:6). Luke, who had been pastoring that congregation since the year 49, now joined Paul’s company for the trip to the Holy Land. (Luke will be with Paul for the rest of the latter’s recorded life. We will find Luke with him during the two years’ imprisonment at Caesarea [Acts 24:27; Colossians 4:14; Philemon 24] and during Paul’s house-arrest in Rome [Acts 28:30; 2 Timothy 4:11].)

Traveling in two separate companies over to Troas, Paul needed several extra companions to carry and protect the money collected for Jerusalem. Their names are enshrined forever in Acts 20:4. Paul’s trip from Macedonia to Troas required five days (Acts 20:6). His company remained at Troas an entire week in order to share in the Sunday Eucharistic worship (20:7). Perhaps Paul had intended to be present for that worship on the previous Sunday but had simply not arrived early enough. In any case, we suddenly find him pressed for time.

Tuesday, August 20

Acts 20:13-27: When Paul finally left for Troas that Sunday morning, after losing a night’s sleep for the all-night vigil of worship, he decided to walk overland to the port of Assos while the others sailed around the small cape from Troas (20:13). It was a warm April day, and Paul, tired, preoccupied, and in a bit of a hurry, inadvertently left his heavy winter cloak at Carpus’s house in Troas, along with some other items (2 Timothy 4:23). Anxious to be in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost, fifty days after Easter (20:16), he met his companions at Assos on Monday, landing on the island of Lesbos on Tuesday (20:14), rounding the island of Chios on Wednesday, reaching Samos on Thursday, and landing at Miletus (the modern Balat) on Friday. Messengers were immediately dispatched to Ephesus, thirty miles inland, so that the presbyters of that church could come to Miletus to worship with Paul on Sunday (20:17). Paul will give his last sermon in Asia Minor.

This discourse of Paul to the “presbyters” (elders) of Ephesus, serves at least two functions in the Lukan narrative. It is a sort of final testament in which Paul gives an account of his ministry. In this respect, it may be compared with the final testaments that closed the ministries of Joshua (Joshua 24) and Samuel (1 Samuel 12). Paul sensed that this was his last time to speak to a local church that he had inaugurated (20:25), and Luke, when he recorded the sermon for posterity, knew it very well.

Second, Paul’s discourse at Miletus adds his voice to the emerging theme of the “apostolic succession,” the thesis that the ordained ministry of the Church derives its authority, not from the local congregations, but from a direct, historical, and Spirit-intended continuity with the authority of the apostles. This theme of the apostolic succession was a major motif in two of the epistles that Paul had written during the previous year, 1 Timothy and Titus. (The modern reluctance to accept either the early dating or the Pauline authorship of those epistles, or even the historicity of this sermon in Acts 20, is based, not on a careful study of the texts themselves, but on a highly questionable theory that refuses to regard the “apostolic succession” as truly apostolic. This dubious and fairly recent theory tends to dictate a serious misunderstanding of the biblical text with respect to the history of the early Church.)

Joshua 8: Although the Lord had delivered Jericho to Israel’s armies in a miraculous fashion, this seems not to have been the case with the city of Ai. The present chapter describes the fall of Ai, rather, in terms of regular military tactics. That is to say, it is sometimes the case that the Lord—to demonstrate the sovereignty of His grace—uses extraordinary and unexpected means to accomplish His purposes. At other times, He acts through means that are more obviously human. The present chapter illustrates such an instance.

Wednesday, August 21

Mark 14:32-42: The narrative tradition of the early Church—preserved especially in her liturgical practice—fixed the Savior’s sufferings and death in a determined sequence that became standard. This explains why all four Gospels are in substantial harmony regarding that sequence. The fixing of the narrative tradition also explains why all the Evangelists begin the Passion story on “the night he was betrayed” (1 Corinthians 11:23).

In each of the gospels except John, the description of Judas’s betrayal is preceded by an account of Jesus’ agonizing prayer in the Garden. This scene is also described in Hebrews 5:7-8. We will consider all four accounts.

Acts 20:28-38: These presbyters (and/or overseers) are to be shepherds; or, to use the Latin word for shepherd, “pastors” (20:28; cf. also 1 Peter 2:25; 5:1-3). The image of the priest as shepherd comes from the Old Testament (cf. Ezekiel 34:1-6; Zechariah 10:2-3). The sheep do not “employ” the shepherd; God does, and his appointment through the apostolic succession, governed by the Holy Spirit, is the channel of his authority to shepherd the Lord’s flock. He is answerable to the One whose blood was poured out to purchase that flock. Nor can the shepherd properly keep watch over the sheep, unless he keeps watch over himself (cf. 1 Timothy 4:16; 1 Corinthians 9:26-27; 1 Peter 5:1-3).

Paul’s warning about the wolves evidently made a deep impression on the Ephesian presbyters. Earlier in the story we already saw the zeal of the Ephesian church for the preservation of sound doctrine (19:19), and documents from early church history further testify to the care taken at Ephesus to preserve doctrinal purity. The Lord would tell that church, not many years in the future, “I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars” (Revelation 2:2); “But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (2:6).

Indeed, it is significant that, of all Paul’s epistles, his Epistle to the Ephesians is the only one that does not mention a single doctrinal error that needed correction. (Contrast this with the letters to Thessaloniki, Philippi, Galatia, Corinth, Colossae, and Rome.) One of the earliest pastors of the Ephesian church had earlier been warned by Paul on this very matter (cf. 1 Timothy 1:3-7,18-20; 4:1-3; 5:17; 6:3-5,20). In the year 107, Ignatius, the second bishop of Antioch, wrote a letter to the Ephesians in which he commented on their well-known tradition of doctrinal orthodoxy (6.2; 9.1).

Thursday, August 22

Acts 21:1-14: Luke now carefully traces the stages of Paul’s journey southward, first noting his arrival at Cos that Sunday evening. This island, dedicated to Asklepios, the god of healing, was perhaps special to the “beloved physician” as the homeland of Hippocrates, the father of Greek medicine, who sat under the famous plane tree and instructed his medical students in the art of healing.

Paul’s company arrives at Rhodes on Monday and at Patara on Tuesday. Leaving this coastline vessel, they embark on a sea-going ship on their way to the Phoenician city of Tyre, some four-hundred nautical miles to the southeast, sailing around Cyprus. Finding Christians at Tyre (cf. 15:3), they remain for a week, and then press on to Ptolemais, twenty-five miles to the south, and then Caesarea, forty miles further (or thirty-two miles if they went by land).

One nearly gains the impression that Luke is copying out notes from a journal that he maintained on the trip, and one of the general effects of this listing of ports is to heighten the suspense of Paul’s approach to Jerusalem. Even back at Miletus he had spoken of the prophetic warnings that he was receiving with respect to this trip to Jerusalem (20:23), warnings later repeated at Tyre (21:4). Here at Caesarea, however, such forebodings are intensified by the prophecies of Agabus, whom we met earlier in 11:27, and the daughters of Philip the deacon (21:8-11).

Finally, Luke’s attention to detail, with which he narrates each step of this journey, renders all the more remarkable the omission of Antioch. After both the first (14:25) and second (18:22) missionary journeys, Paul took care to report back to the church at Antioch, but on this occasion, and with only a hint of explanation (20:16), he does not do so. Clearly, Paul is looking elsewhere now; his eyes are on Rome, as he had recently suggested in a letter to that city (Romans 15:22-28).

Joshua 10: This chapter, in which attention is directed to the southern campaign of Joshua’s invasion, begins with an alliance formed to resist that invasion. This alliance, alarmed at the capitulation of the Gibeonites, recorded in the previous chapter, determines to attack Gibeon itself rather than Joshua’s invading force (verse 4). This procedure made military sense. If the alliance could punish the Gibeonites for their treaty with Joshua, it was reasoned, other Canaanite cities would think twice about following suit. If the attack on Gibeon proved successful, other cities would be disposed, rather, to join the coalition against Joshua.

This alliance of five Canaanite city-states, under the leadership of Jerusalem, had another reason for conquering Gibeon as a way of resisting Joshua’s advance. In fact, this second reason rendered the control of Gibeon imperative to the resistance—namely, Gibeon’s strategic position guarding the route through the Ajalon Valley, a route that would enable Joshua to divide and isolate the southern cities. After Joshua’s defeat of the alliance, his campaign pursued its remnant forces southward through that valley (verses 10-13).

Understanding the political situation throughout Canaan, Joshua resolves to make an example of the five kings involved in the alliance (verses 16-27). His ruthless tactics were extended to the citizens of Makkedah (verse 28), Libnah (verse 30), Lachish (verse 32), and elsewhere (verse 39). We may want to bear in mind that these descriptions are common in the language of battle, where they bear what we may call a “poetic sense.” That is to say, if ALL the citizens of all of these cities really did perish under Joshua’s sword, we readers of Holy Scripture will be hard pressed to explain why they continued to pose problems for Israel in the very near future.

Friday, August 23

Acts 21:15-25: Unlike the earlier gathering at Jerusalem in Acts 15, this meeting does not mention the “apostles.” These latter have by now all left Jerusalem and have gone to preach the Gospel in other lands, some of which have preserved memories of earlier apostolic evangelization. There is evidence that the apostle Thomas preached in India, for example, Philip in Phrygia, Matthew in Syria and Ethiopia, and Andrew in Thrace. The apostle Peter had moved westward by this time, but the absence of his name from Paul’s letter to the Romans indicates that he had not yet reached the Empire’s capital, where he would, along with Paul, suffer martyrdom.

Unlike the earlier gathering at Jerusalem in Acts 15, this meeting does not mention the “apostles.” These latter have by now all left Jerusalem and have gone to preach the Gospel in other lands, some of which have preserved memories of earlier apostolic evangelization. There is evidence that the apostle Thomas preached in India, for example, Philip in Phrygia, Matthew in Syria and Ethiopia, and Andrew in Thrace. The apostle Peter had moved westward by this time, but the absence of his name from Paul’s letter to the Romans indicates that he had not yet reached the Empire’s capital, where he would, along with Paul, suffer martyrdom.

Meanwhile, at Jerusalem Paul’s report greatly heartens James and the presbyters (verses 19-20), but they express concern about certain misrepresentations of Paul being circulated among the Jewish Christians. Because of Paul’s frequent encounters with hostile Jews in various cities, he can hardly be surprised by such reports, and James is eager to put them to rest. Paul, desiring to be all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:19-23; Romans 7:12), acquiesces in James’s suggestion for how to go about neutralizing the rumors current among the “tens of thousands” (myriads — verse 20) of Jewish Christians. This suggestion involves the rather elaborate public fulfillment of a Nazirite vow (verses 23-24; Numbers 6:1-21).

Joshua 11: This is the sort of story that causes many modern people to wince and squirm—so much violence!

Well, this is true, but let me mention why such texts do not bother me. I liken these darker parts of the Hebrew Scriptures to shadows cast on the earth by the earliest appearance of the light. The Latin Psalter says to the Lord, “Thou hast crafted the dawning and the sun”—Tu fabricatus es auroram et solem (Psalm 73:16). We observe the order: Dawn-then-sun. Strictly speaking there could be no dawn unless the sun already existed. The Psalmist’s sequence of dawn-then-sun describes how things appear, not how they exist. The early light comes to us on a curve and then an angle. The daylight is presented to us in stages, the full sun itself being the final stage.

The angularity of the early morning light seems to hurl long lines of darkness on the earth. This is only an impression, nonetheless. What sort of logic would blame the light for the shadows? Who among us does not recognize that the shadows were already there, long before the light appeared? Indeed, it is the gradually emerging light that reveals the dark places. These shadows, they shorten, bit-by-bit, and they will vanish in the fullness of time, when the sun increases to full strength.

I am no more offended, then, by the darker parts of the Bible than by the shades thrown forward by the slanting daylight. To me, the dark recesses of the Book of Joshua resemble the somber drama of the Grand Canyon, as myriad silhouettes take shape down its walls, just before the sunrise.