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).

Saturday, January 18

Matthew 5:43—6:4: The Old Testament does not actually prescribe hatred on one’s enemies, of course; that part is a sort of hyperbole. Nonetheless, the prescribed love of one’s neighbor (22:39; Leviticus 19:18) certainly prompted some question about who, exactly, was included in this list (Luke 10:29). Jesus extended the Mosaic commandment on this point by expanding the word “neighbor” to include “enemy.” This truly was a new idea in Israel’s experience.

This love of one’s enemies must come from the heart, because Jesus made it a matter of prayer (verse 44). It has to do with one’s relationship to the “Father in heaven” (verses 45,48).

Once again, as in all these five contrasts, believers are called to “exceed” (perisson–verse 47). Their love, like their righteousness, must be “in excess” (verses 46-47). To love those that love us affords no reward, because such love is its own reward. The love of one’s enemies, however, is not an act rewarding in itself. One loves in such a way only for the sake of the heavenly Father.

This kind of love makes a person “perfect,” it most renders him like God, and being “like God” is the purpose of the Torah (Leviticus 19:2). It is understood, of course, that only God can enable a person to love in this way (Romans 8:2-4).

The love of one’s enemies appears last in Matthew’s sequence of contrasts based on the Torah, because it is the perfecting and ultimate sign of Gospel righteousness. It must be the distinguishing mark of the Christian. By it, believers become not only “more righteous, but perfect like unto God. The love of one’s enemies certainly does not “come naturally.”

Indeed, if it does seem to “come naturally,” something is wrong with it. In such cases, it is a counterfeit. Such counterfeits are not rare, so we do best to distinguish this Gospel love from things that resemble it.

For example, the love of enemies enjoined in the present context is not a tactic, a thing done to accomplish something else. It is not the practical means to an end, such as the conversion of the enemy. The love of enemies enjoined in this passage is an end in itself, because it renders a man like unto God.

This Gospel-enjoined love of enemies is not a mark of noble character—the generosity of the magnanimous man—nor is it the cultivated fruit of universal benevolence, of the sort we associate with the oriental religious sage. These are but human counterfeits of what the Lord enjoins here. Christian love of enemies is done purely to please a Father in heaven.

Nor is the purpose of the love of enemies to feel good or virtuous. In fact, the Christian who loves his enemies may feel perfectly miserable about himself. The love of one’s enemies is not an exercise in self-fulfillment. It is, rather, an act of self-emptying. It is the Cross. It is to love as Christ loves, and as His Father loves.

Sunday, January 19

Matthew 6:19-24: The sustained exhortation to purity of intention with respect to almsgiving, fasting, and prayer is not to be used (as it often has been used) to justify the neglect of almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. Indeed, done for the glory of God, and with the intention of pleasing the Father who sees in secret, these three things seem to be the content of what is called “treasure in heaven” (verses 20-21). The biblical caution against “works righteousness” must not be interpreted to preclude the reward (misthos) that God’s children may expect from their Father in heaven (verses 4,6,18; cf. 10:41-42).

The image of the “evil eye” in verse 23 seems to be a reference to envy (cf 20:15; Mark 7:22; 1 John 2:16). The metaphor of the eye as a lamp, found in the biblical Wisdom tradition (Proverbs 15:30; Sirach 23:19), also appears in Tobit 10:5).

Dominating the early part of Matthew 6 (the triad of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting) was the warning not to work for an earthly reward. These next verses maintain that theme, exhorting us not to burden our hearts with divided loyalties. The image of the “evil eye” in verse 23 seems to be a reference to envy cf 20:15; Mark 7:22; 1 John 2:16). The metaphor of the eye as a lamp, found in the biblical Wisdom tradition (Proverbs 15:30; Sirach 23:19), also appears in Tobit 10:5).

Hebrews 9:23-28: That is to say, the physical place of the worship—the place where God and man were reconciled—needed to be sanctified by this expiatory blood.

If this was true of the Tabernacle in the time of Moses, says the author of Hebrews, why should we imagine it not to be true of the true Tabernacle, the eternal model in heaven? Consequently, as the blood of the ancient sin offering purified and consecrated the ancient Tabernacle, so the sacrificial blood of Jesus had to purify and consecrate the heavenly sanctuary, that which was made without hands: “Therefore was it necessary that the copies of the things in the heavens should be purified with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.”

The application of this imagery, to elaborate the theology of redemption, is based on the prior understanding of Jesus’ death as a “sin offering.” This term, in Hebrew, is ’attata’t, literally “sin.” The LXX translation is literal: hamartia,/i>.

In Leviticus the verb used to “make” this sin offering is ‘asah (three times in Leviticus 4:8-9), which is a normal verb connoting the performance of many sacrifices (cf. 5:10; 6:15; 8:34; 9:7,16,22; 14:19; 15:15,30; 16:9,15,24; 19:9; 22:23; 23:12,19). In the Greek text of the Septuagint this ‘asah was translated as poiein. This is the same verb used by St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:21, where he says that God “made [Jesus] a sin offering” (hamartian epoiesen).

Monday, January 20

Matthew 6:25-34: The “therefore” of verse 25 means that the following verses are a conclusion of the message enunciated in the preceding section of this chapter. If we are not to covet (as we were told in the preceding verses), we are also not to worry; the disciplining of inappropriate desires should diminish inappropriate anxiety. God provides all necessary things for those who seek first His kingdom (or, to put it differently, who love Him — cf. Romans 8:28). Except for Luke 12:28, the adjective “of little faith” (oligopistos) is found only Matthew; besides here in 6:30, it also appears in 8:26; 14:31; 16:6.

Hebrews 10:1-10: This obedience of Christ our Lord is a matter of considerable importance in the New Testament. He Himself declared that He came, not to seek His own will, but the will of the Father who sent Him (John 5:30). This doing of the Father’s will had particular reference to His Passion, in which “He . . . became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8). This was the obedience manifested in our Lord’s prayer at the very beginning of the Passion: “Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will” (Mark 14:36).

Christ’s own obedience to God’s will is also the key to Palm 40, and Hebrews goes on to quote the pertinent verses, referring them explicitly to the Incarnation and Sacrifice of Jesus the Lord: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, / But a body You have prepared for Me. / In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin / You had no pleasure. / Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come— / In the volume of the book it is written of Me— / To do Your will, O God’” (vv. 5–7).

The body “prepared” for Christ in the Incarnation became the instrument of His obedience to that “will” of God by which we are redeemed and rendered holy: “By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. . . . For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (vv. 10, 14).

The various sacrifices of the Old Testament have now found their perfection in the one self-offering of Jesus the Lord. Again the author of Hebrews comments: “Previously saying, ‘Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them’ (which are offered according to the law), then He said, ‘Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God’” (vv. 8, 9).

The “He” of this psalm, then, according to the New Testament, is Christ the Lord. We pray it properly when we pray it as His own words to the Father. The “will” of God to which He was obedient was that “will” to which He referred when in the Garden He prayed: “Not my will, but Yours be done.”

This self-oblation of our Lord’s obedience to God is not simply a feature of this particular psalm; it is the interpretive door through which we pray all of the psalms. The “Your will be done” of the Lord’s Prayer is likewise the summation of the entire Book of Psalms, and what ultimately makes Christian sense of the Psalter.

Tuesday, January 21

Hebrews 10:11-18: Citing Jeremiah 31, which he quoted at greater length in chapter 8, the author contrasts the sacrifices of the Mosaic Law with the sacrifice offered in the Passion of Jesus.

There are several points of contrast:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 22

Hebrews 10:19-25: What the Jewish high priest could do only once a year—enter the Holy of Holies—the Christian can do everyday, by reason of the blood of Christ. It is the blood of Christ that gives the believer intimate access to God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is not to Mount Sinai, however, that Christians are called, but to a gentler mountain: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel” (12:22).

Thursday, January 23

Hebrews 10:26-31: Here we find one of Holy Scripture’s most solemn declarations of judgment. Having exhorted his readers to boldness in their access to God (verses 19-22), our author now describes the alternative in frightening terms.

In both instances—the exhortation to confidence and the warning of judgment—he uses the description “living, declaring that we have a new and living way,” and then reminding his readers, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” In both cases the modifier serves to put the reader on notice that these things are not matters of theory and abstraction. “Living,” in each of these contexts, indicates real, actual, existential. It means that both salvation and damnation are worthy of our most serious attention.

These verses depict the gravity of falling away from God. The author recalls that such falling away, even at the time of Moses, was dealt with in a radical manner—namely, those who rejected the rule of Moses were devoured with fiery indignation (verses 27-28). Our author, who has been at pains to emphasize the superiority of Jesus over Moses, argues here that this superiority implies a greater severity in those who fall away: “Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be deemed worthy who has trampled underfoot the Son of God” (verse 29). He had earlier contrasted Moses and Jesus, call the first God’s servant and the second God’s Son (3:5-6). How, he asks, which of them is it more dangerous to abandon?

Our author used this same argument in chapter 2, where he contrasted the word given by angels to the message given by Christ: “For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him?” (2:2-3)

In chapter 2, and again here, our author treats such apostasy as a sin against the Holy Spirit. Here he speaks of insulting the Spirit of grace (verse 29), and in chapter 2 he spoke of “the gifts of the Holy Spirit” as pertinent to the message of salvation (2:4).

When our text describes the just recompense of apostasy as “a certain fearful expectation of judgment and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries” (verse 37), the reader is put in mind of the rebellion against Moses, narrated in Numbers 16. According to that account, certain of the Reubenites—including Korah, Dathan, and Abiram—revolted against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Their punishment, we recall, consisted in being devoured by the earth, as fire from heaven descended upon them (Numbers 16:31-35).

Now, our author contends, if such was the retribution allotted to those who fell away from Moses’ Law, what should we expect for him who has “trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?” This is the sustained threat, he says, against anyone who sins willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth.”

Friday, January 24