Friday, January 10

John 2.1-12: In this story of Cana, John introduces the Mother of Jesus. She appears only here and at the foot of the Cross (19:26–27). Thus, John places Mary at both the beginning and the end of Jesus’ public ministry. These two portrayals, both found only in John among the evangelists, have several things in common.

First, Mary does not appear in John’s Gospel outside of these two places. She frames the Lord’s public ministry.

Second, in both places she is called only “the mother of Jesus” and is never named. Uniting John’s portrayal of Mary at the wedding at Cana (the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry) and at the foot of the cross (the end) is what we might call “the theme of the royal mother.” John stresses Mary’s maternal relationship to Jesus; his use of the term “mother of Jesus” seems to convey a certain reverence, much as it does in Luke’s portrayal of the nascent Church gathered in the upper room, waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Third, in each instance Jesus addresses his mother as “Woman” (gyne). This, too, unites the two stories. Though this bare expression strikes the modern ear as impolite, perhaps even harsh, it was in fact a formal and decorous way for women to be addressed in biblical times (see, for example, Matthew 15:28 [Canaanite woman]; Luke 13:12 [crippled woman in the synagogue]; John 4:21 [Samaritan woman]; 8:10 [woman taken in adultery]; 20:13 [Mary Magdalene]).

Fourth, in both cases a “new family” is formed—in the first scene by the wedding itself, and in the second scene by a kind of adoption in which the beloved disciple “took her to his own home.”

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

These words closely tie this scene at Cana to the scene at the cross later on. When the “hour” of the passion does finally come, it will once again be in reference to the manifestation of Jesus’ glory: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may also glorify you” (John 17:1).

John uses similar language of Jesus’ mother, telling us that it was “from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (19:27). When the hour arrives for the King to be identified upon the throne of the cross (19:19), John is the only one of the evangelists to speak of the King’s mother standing beside it (19:26; cf Psalms 45 [44]:9).

Saturday, January 11

Hebrews 6.1-12: Christians here are exhorted to “show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end.” Leaving our consideration of hope to the next section of this work, two words here deserve special attention:

First, “diligence”—spoude. This word, which has the sense of earnestness and seriousness, also conveys some sense of speed and promptness. It was with spoude that Mary arose, after her encounter with the Angel Gabriel, and hastened south to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Perhaps it should be translated, in many New Testament texts, as “alacrity.”

In the present context, spoude is contrasted with sluggishness. The author of Hebrews goes on to urge “that you do not become sluggish.”

St. Paul regarded this alacrity as a proper mark of Christian leadership (Romans 12:8). The last thing the Christian people need is a sluggish leader.

Understandably, spoude often appears in the Bible’s exhortatory sections. Thus, when St Paul wrote to the Corinthians about certain problems in their congregation, he did so with spoude (2 Corinthians 7:12). And when the Corinthians received that admonition, they also exercised spoude (7:11).

This alacrity, which the New Testament clearly perceives as a proper mark of the Christian life, is often used in connection with deeds of charity and kindness. Paul wrote to the Romans about “not lagging in spoude (Romans 12:11).

Thus, too, when Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the collection for the poor in Jerusalem, he used this noun three times: “But as you abound in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all spoude, and in your love for us—that you abound in this grace also. I speak not by commandment, but through spoude for others I am testing the sincerity of your love” (8:7-8). Finally, in respect to this collection, Paul wrote, “But thanks to God who has put the same spoude for you into the heart of Titus” (8:16).

Second, our text speaks of “full assurance”—plerophoria. This is one of the most important words descriptive of Christian consciousness. It appears a second time in this work: “let us draw near with a true heart in plerophoria of faith” (10:22).

The importance of this expression is suggested by the fact that it appears within the first five verses of the earliest extant work of Christian literature: “For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in plerophoria polle” (1 Thessalonians 1:5). In this text we observe that this “full assurance” is related to the Holy Spirit. This expression descriptive of Christian knowledge, plerophoria polle is contrasted with “in word only.” That is to say, this “complete certainty” in the Holy Spirit is not described as information about but as knowledge of. It is not merely referential; it is real, not only notional. It is not merely nominal (“in word only”). It consists, not simply in discerning the meaning of the words proclaimed, but in perceiving the truth of that meaning. It is not simply an assent to what is declared, but the reality of what is perceived. Plerophoria polle is the knowledge of the truth of the gospel.

A later text in the Pauline corpus perhaps renders this meaning of “complete certainty” even clearer. In Colossians 2:2 the apostle speaks of our attaining to “all wealth of the plerophoria of the understanding, the knowledge of the mystery of God, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

About the year 95, Clement, writing to the church at Corinth, used both this noun and the passive participle of its cognate verb in a single sentence: “The apostles, having received their orders and filled with certainty [plerophorethentes] through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and entrusted with the Word of God, went forth with the certainty of the Holy Spirit [meta plerophorias pneumatos hagiou], preaching the good news that God’s Kingdom was to come” (Ad Corinthios 42.3). In this text, too, we observe that this “full assurance” is given by the Holy Spirit.

Here in Hebrews, nonetheless, “the full assurance of hope” is related to the Christian’s alacrity, his diligence unto the end.

Sunday, January 12

Hebrews 6.13-20: 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—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 ring on his finger.

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.

The anchor here in Hebrews 6 is probably a kedge, an anchor used to advance the movement of a vessel and maintain its direction. This process, in fact, is called kedging. To kedge a vessel is to place the anchor at some distance from the ship and pull towards it. A kedge anchor is carried out in a suitable direction by a tender or a boat to enable the ship to be winched into a particular heading and to be held steady against a tide or obstructing current. The kedge anchor holds the vessel fast in the proper direction. Sailing ships use the kedge anchor when becalmed or drifting.

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.

Monday, January 13

Hebrews 7:1-10: One of the most obvious features of the Bible—and most noticeable to its new readers—is the presence of what are called the “begats.” We are told, for instance, that Adam begat Cain and Abel, that Joshua begat Eleazar, that Hezron begat Pheres, and so forth.

These “begats” are not just occasional parts of Holy Scripture. Not only are they sometimes lumped into lost lists, but they likewise appear to provide continuity to the Bible’s narrative structure.

Thus, the uninitiated reader, informed that the Holy Scriptures are very interesting and important, comes to Genesis 5, for instance, rather early in his pursuit of God’s Word. Here he finds his first list of begats. Unaware that this is only the first of many such parts, he plods on and manages to finish chapter 5. Interest in the story picks up for the next four chapters, which deal with Noah and the Flood, but then he arrives at Genesis 10, which is simply one, long, solid list of begats. It is arguable that many a newcomer to the Bible completely breaks down at this point, never getting past chapter 10.

It seems that many such readers, faced with this dilemma, decide to jump ahead to the New Testament, perhaps with the resolve to come back to the Old Testament at a later date. The person who takes this step, however, suddenly finds himself with the first chapter of Matthew, which commences with a list of 42 more begats. Many early efforts to read Holy Scripture simply die and are buried at that point, and the Bible is closed forever.

Fortunately, this pattern among new Bible-readers is not universal, and some brave souls do manage to survive the begats of Genesis 10. For such as these, it must come as something of a relief to arrive at Genesis 14 and discover a character who is not included in a list of begats.

His name is Melchizedek, and he appears as though out of nowhere: “Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High” (Genesis 14:18). We are not told where Melchizedek came from, nor does he ever again appear in the biblical narrative; there is not a word about his death or his descendents. He shows himself just this brief moment, but in this brief moment he is described as greater than Abraham: “Now consider how great this man was, to whom even the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils.” In the person of Abraham, even the Old Testament priesthood of Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek.

Thus, Melchizedek “without father, without mother, without begats, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, remains a priest continually.”

Melchizedek’s kingship and priesthood stand outside the begats. The very brevity of his appearance in the biblical story—which forms but an instant in the narrative, and not an element of sequence—becomes a symbol of eternity, inasmuch as eternity is an unending “now,” an instant without sequence. Our experience of eternity in this world is always an instant—a “now”—not a sequence. Thus, the “now-ness” of Melchizedek’s kingship and priesthood represents the eternal “today” of the sonship of Christ: “ You are My Son, / Today I have begotten You” (Psalm 2:7; Hebrews 5:5).

Tuesday, January 14

Matthew 5:13-20: No amount of persecution justifies the forfeiture of the Christian vocation to be salt and light to the rest of humanity. Neither salt nor light exist for themselves. Should Christians fail in this vocation, they are no longer of any use. They are to be “thrown out,” like the tares (13:40) and the inedible fish (13:48).

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

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

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 full 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 13: 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.

Wednesday, January 15

Matthew 5:21-30: The first of Matthew’s five contrasts has to do with the Lord’s understanding of the Torah’s prohibition, “Thou shalt do no murder” (verse 21). Here, as in the next examples, Jesus responds, “but I say to you,” a formula indicating that His own understanding of the Law is superior even to that of Moses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The second contrast between Gospel righteousness and that of the scribes and Pharisees takes up the subject of adultery, which is treated in four logia, or sayings, of Jesus.

Following the antithesis about murder, this contrast about adultery preserves the sequence of the Decalogue. It contains two parts, each devoted to a particular way in which Gospel righteousness, as it pertains to adultery, “exceeds” the earlier scribal reading of the Torah.

In the first part the prohibition of adultery is extended to include sins of the eyes, mind, and heart (verse 28). The mention of lust of the eyes invites the addition of the dominical logion about the eye becoming the occasion of sin (verse 29). To this latter saying of the Lord is logically attached the warning about the hand’s becoming an occasion of sin (verse 30). Thus, these three sayings of the Lord constitute a powerful admonition about the gravity of sexual sins and the radical nature of the Christian commitment to sexual morality.

Thursday, January 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third, there is a candlestick in the sanctuary. Worship, according to the Bible, begins with light. In our eternal worship, according to St. John, there will be no night. The difference between heaven and hell is a matter of light. Everlasting loss is described as darkness, but eternal life is described as light.

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

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

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

Friday, January 17

Hebrews 9:11-15: There is no proper understanding of this text without some appreciation of its Old Testament imagery, particularly the significance of the blood. Because the blood represented life at its deepest contact with God, all of the Old Testament sacrifices prescribed for sin were blood sacrifices. Other sorts of sacrifices were offered, but for the sin offering only blood would suffice. As Hebrews will say a little later on, “without the shedding of blood there is no remission” (9:22).

The shedding of the blood of the sacrificial victim was the symbolic gift of self to God on the part of the sinner. He was reconciled to God—found atonement with God—through the symbolic shedding of the animal’s blood in place of his own. Whenever the relationship between God and man was disrupted by sin, it was required that that disruption be mended by the total gift of self, symbolized in the mactation of the sacrificed animal.

Because the sacrifices of the Old Testament were only symbolic, it was “not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (10:4). As we read here, “if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (verses 13-14)

It is in this sense that the blood of Christ is the price of our redemption: Jesus poured out His inner being in loving adoration to His Father on our behalf. The image of Christ’s blood in the New Testament always implies the understanding of the blood in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, in which the shedding of the blood means the restoration of the sinner to friendship with God.

This imagery of the blood, which is ubiquitous in the New Testament, began with Jesus himself, who told His disciples, on the night before His death, “this is My covenant blood which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28).

Because Jesus used this language within the liturgical ceremony at the center of the Christian religion, it is not surprising that we find it everywhere in the New Testament. Thus, St. Peter wrote, “You were not redeemed with corruptible things, . . . but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19). And St. John wrote, “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). And St. Paul wrote, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Ephesians 1:7). And the Christian Church chants to Jesus our Lord: “To Him who loved us and freed us from our sins in His own blood and has made us a kingdom and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Revelation 1:5).