Friday, December 18

Luke 23:44-56: When we speak, even today, of excruciating pain, we do well to look at the etymology of that adjective: ex cruce, “out of the cross.” It is nearly impossible to exaggerate what the Savior suffered on the cross. Whether the cause of his death was asphyxiation, or hypercarbia, or hypovolemic shock, or heart failure, or exsanguination, or total physical exhaustion brought on by tetanic contractions throughout his entire body—or any combination of these, or any other plausible suggestion—the astounding fact is that Jesus, at the very end, “cried out again with a loud voice.” From a medical perspective, this is surprising.

Luke identifies the Lord’s final prayer as the line from Psalms 32 (31):5 — “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” These appear to be the words to which Matthew and Mark refer, when they tell us: “Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.”

Jesus did not simply die. He willingly tasted death, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews. He deliberately went through the actual experience of dying. The gospels indicate that Jesus was conscious and self-aware to the end. There was no coma, no disorientation, no mental befuddlement. The gospels testify, in fact, that he declined a narcotic that would have disguised and muted his pain. Jesus knew what he was doing.

He knew, moreover, why he was doing it. It is remarkable that his disciples—then and now—express the conviction that Jesus, in the act of dying, thought of them and poured out his life for each of them. This is the biblical testimony: “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that he, by the grace of God, might taste death for every person” (Hebrews 2:9 emphasis added).

Hebrews says, “for every person” (hyper pantos), not “for all persons” (hyper panton). Although Jesus certainly died “for everyone,” it is important to remark that he died “for everyone.” In the mind and intent of Jesus, the beneficiaries of his death were not an amorphous group. The Good Shepherd, who gives his life for the sheep, “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3 emphasis added).

More than two decades after the event, someone who had not known Jesus on earth, was so confident on this point that he declared, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and my life in the flesh I live now by faith of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 emphasis added).

Such has been the conviction of believers down through the ages, those millions in the flesh, who have declared, unto their dying breath, “He loved me. He gave himself for me.”

Saturday, December 19

Luke 1:1-4: Among the Evangelists, it is in Luke that we first meet a historian, in the full sense of someone who explicitly and consciously thought of himself as “doing” history. In the first prologue affixed to his double work, Luke described his enterprise in exactly this way, saying, “it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account” (Luke 1:3).

Aware that he was about to do something different, Luke spoke of the earlier efforts of those who had “taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us.” Of this group, which certainly included Mark, Luke was not critical, because they too had relied on “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (1:1-2). Nonetheless, Luke was aware he was embarking on a venture new to Christian literature.

In this prologue we read today, it is clear he was explicitly and self-consciously endeavoring to write an account of Jesus that would meet the standards of what the readers of his day called “history,” that is, an orderly, directed, carefully researched narrative of historical facts. He announced, “Whereas many have set their hands to compose a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, since I have followed everything carefully from the first, to write to you in an orderly way, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the reliability of those things in which you were catechized” (Luke 1:1-4).

Luke places the proclamation of the Gospel in the context of human history. even political history: “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, 2 while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, the word of God came . . .” (3:1-2)

Luke is our first example of a Gentile Christian in the early Church at Antioch. As a young man, he caught the excitement of this new experiment, in which Jews and Gentiles would live together in a single congregation. Luke knew himself to be part of a dynamic and significant movement, which would change the history of the world and all the nations within it. We find the evidence for this awareness in his own writings, particularly in the Acts of the Apostles.

Luke similarly furthered a concern for all of humanity in his description of Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In that account he enumerates the various peoples on whom God poured out the Holy Spirit on Pentecost morning: “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.” For Luke, it was now time for God’s Word to assume a very large place in man’s history,

Sunday, December 20

Luke 1.5-25: Abraham, says the Book of Genesis, “fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, “Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah give birth, who is ninety years old?” What Abraham said in his heart, Zachary decides to say out loud. It was not a good decision. To ask “How shall I know?” does not convey a spirit of faith and obedience, but a spirit of skepticism. Indeed, “How shall I know?” is entirely an epistemological question. Even as he offers incense in God’s house, Zacharias is a cultivated doubter. Not a wise move.

Revelation 19: The previous chapter spoke of the destruction of Babylon, pictured as a woman dressed in scarlet. The present chapter speaks of a contrasting woman, dressed in white, who is called the Bride. A wedding is planned. There is no vision of the Bride just yet, however, nor does John specifically identify her. He will see and describe her in Chapter 21.

We begin the chapter with the “Alleluia.” Although our own experience may prompt us to associate that fine prayer with the sight and scent of lilies, here in Revelation it resounds against the background of smoke rising from a destroyed city. The worship scene portrayed here is related to victory over the forces of hell. The word “avenge” at the end of verse 2 reminds us there is a principle of vengeance built into the theological structure of history, for the judgments of God are true and righteous. Sodom and Gomorrah come to mind when we read of this smoke ascending for ever and ever. The worship becomes so warm at verse 6 that Handel decided to set it to music.

By portraying the reign of God as a marriage feast, John brings together three themes, all of them familiar to the Christians of his day: First, the kingdom of God as a banquet, such as we find in Isaiah 25:6. Jesus interpreted the banquet, however, as a marriage feast (Luke 14:15-16). John stresses readiness for the feast (verse 7), much as we find in the parable of the ten maidens at the beginning of Matthew 25.

Second, the marriage theme itself, as a symbol of the union of God with man. We find this theme in the prophets (most notably Hosea, but also Isaiah and Jeremiah) and the New Testament (Ephesians 5:32, for instance). The Lamb, who is the groom here, has already been identified earlier in Revelation.

Third, the theme of the garments, which now become the clothing required for attendance at the feast. John has appealed to this imagery several times already (3:4; 6:11; 7:14). The identification of the white garments with righteous deeds puts one in mind of the parable in Matthew 22:11-13.

Monday, December 21

Revelation 19:11-21: The chapter continues on a different theme, warfare (verses 11-21). Jesus, pictured before as the Lamb, is here portrayed as a warrior on a white destrier. The emphasis is on His vindication of justice, the motif with which the chapter began. He is called “faithful and true,” adjectives referring to Him in 3:14. These adjectives should be considered especially in the context of martyrdom. That is to say, when a person is about to die a terrible death for the name of Jesus, “faithful and true” are the words he needs to know with respect to Jesus. Like the martyrs, Jesus is here clothed in white. His eyes (verse 12) are flames of fire, much as in John’s inaugural vision (1:12-16). His garment (verse 13) is spattered with blood, a detail we saw in 14:18-20. The literary inspiration of this portrayal is the canticle in Isaiah 63:1-3.

One of the Christological titles found here is “king of kings and lord of lords,” a title going back to the ancient Assyrian emperors, who were kings ruling over other kings. John tells us that this title appears on the “thigh,” of the Rider on the white horse. The thigh here is the place of the scabbard, where the sword hangs. It was common in antiquity to speak of the thigh as the place of the sword. With regard to Achilles, for example, Homer wrote: “And anger came on Peleus’s son, and within his shaggy breast the heart was divided two ways, pondering whether to draw from his thigh the sharp sword, driving away all those who stood between and kill the son of Atreus, or else to check his spleen within and keep down his anger” (Iliad 1.188-192). The same idiom is found in the Odyssey 11.231 and the Aeneid 10.788.

The exact idiom is likewise biblical; “Gird your sword on your thigh, every one of you,” commanded Moses to the Levites (Exodus 32:27). The expression occurs twice in Judges 3 and in Psalms 45 (44):3. Finally, in the Song of Solomon there is a description of the sixty valiant men around the king, “each with his sword upon his thigh, against alarms by night” (3:8). The title on the Warrior’s thigh, then, is inscribed on His scabbard.

The sword itself, however, is described as coming forth from His mouth, as in John’s inaugural vision in the first chapter. This image, of course, identifies the sword with the word, as in Hebrews 4:12 and Ephesians 6:17. The image of God’s word as a sword seems to have been very common among the early Christians, so we are not surprised to see it here. The Rider Himself is called “the Word of God,” in the only instance of this expression with reference to Jesus outside of the beginning of John’s Gospel.

The summoning of the scavenger birds in verse 17 is reminiscent of Ezekiel 39, which describes the defeat of the armies of Gog. We will say more about this battle scene in Ezekiel in our discussion of Revelation 20.

Tuesday, December 22

Luke 1:39-56: I want to quote a few lines from a letter written to Frederick, the Duke of Saxony, on March 10, 1521. It is the exhortation of a fairly famous priest, who corresponded to instruct the Duke on the proper responsibilities of a Christian leader. He wrote,
“Therefore all rulers, since they need not fear men, should fear God more than others do, should learn to know Him and His works, and walk diligently, as St. Paul says, ‘He that rules, let him do it with diligence.
“Now I do not know, in all the Scriptures, anything that so well serves such a purpose as this sacred hymn of the most blessed Mother of God, which, indeed, ought to be learned and kept in mind by all who would rule well and be beneficial lords.
“Truly she sings, in it, most sweetly of the fear of God, what manner of lord He is, and especially what His dealings are with those of high and of low degree. This pure Virgin well deserves to be heard by a prince and lord, as she chants her sacred, chaste and salutary song.
“It is a fine custom, too, that this canticle is sung in all the churches daily at Vespers, and in a particular and appropriate setting that distinguishes it from the other chants.
“May the tender Mother of God, herself, procure for me the spirit of wisdom, profitably and thoroughly to expound this song of hers, so that your Grace, as well as we all, may draw from it wholesome knowledge and a praiseworthy life, and thus come to chant and sing this Magnificat eternally in heaven. Unto this may God help us. Amen.”
Father Martin Luther wrote these words on March 10, 1521, exactly 66 days after his excommunication by Pope Leo X.

Mary’s life was plain, not epic. It took place in a village, not a castle. Its setting was humdrum, not heroic. She had no ambition except the service of God; she was married to a workman, not philosopher. (Recall Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot’s Middlemarch; she wishes she could be married to someone like Pascal, so she could devote her mind to BIG thoughts.)

And why is the Mother of Jesus perfectly content with the simple life in the village? She tells us in her song: “The Lord has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones and has exalted the lowly.”

Mary’s consecrated service to God was open-ended. She could not know—very far in advance—what He might ask of her down the road. His word was a lamp unto her feet, and a light unto her path. Like all God’s servants, Mary carries a candle, not flashlight. When first she declared, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord! Be it done unto me according to your word!” there was no way to foresee herself standing forlorn beneath a Roman cross, watching her little boy suffer and die.

Wednesday, December 23

Luke 1.57-80: We come now to the birth of John the Baptist, about whom two reflections suggest themselves.

First, John the Baptist was a distinctly cultured man. In fact, Luke says a great deal about the roots of culture. John was a Jewish priest by inheritance and blood. His mother was from the tribe of Levi, and of his father we read that he was a priest of “the division of Abijah.” He was the heir of a great spiritual legacy, and very early in life he began to assimilate that inheritance.

How early? According to Luke he was in his sixth month of gestation. Even at that age, however, he had already assimilated enough of his religious inheritance that he leaped in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice and the approach of the Son of God she carried.

That is to say, even three months before he was born, and without the slightest ability to reflect critically on his existence, he was already a believer. He already had faith, a faith proportionate to his age and condition. He was in possession of an infant’s faith, the only kind of faith of which he was capable. This is why, eight days after his birth, he was circumcised as a member of God’s people.

This infant faith has been essential to the history of the Christian Church, because it is a fact that the great majority of Christians did not come to the Christian faith as adults, but as infants and children. Christians appropriately baptize the infant members of the Church for exactly the same reason that John the Baptist was circumcised eight days after his birth. That is to say, such children are already believers, just as John the Baptist was a believer.

In the case of John the Baptist, moreover, this faith began before he was born. His ears could already hear the prayers of his mother and father. He could already listen to the hymns they sang at home and in the temple. The sounds of their voices were already giving shape to his soul. In proportion to his tiny abilities, his culture was already taking shape. He was already assuming his place in history.

Second, John the Baptist was a man of character. We observe that John was never shaky about who he was. The lines of his identity were firmly in place: he had what the Greeks called “character.” He was severely tried over the course of his life, but he seems never to have had an identity crisis. He appears in the Gospels as a man of unusual self-confidence—enough self-confidence to call his whole generation to repentance! He was not afraid of the religious authorities in Judaism, and he was not the least intimidated by the political authorities that would eventually take his life.

He held his identity as a matter of memory, memory earlier than his ability to recall critically. This memory, for John, was primitive, more aboriginal than mere recollection. The man that finally placed his neck on the block for his beheading is the same person as the child that was awakened by the voice of the Virgin Mary as he nestled in his mother’s womb. Through all the vicissitudes of his life, there was a personal continuity in John the Baptist.

Thursday, December 24

Matthew 1;1-25: Here we are introduced to Saint Joseph, a man of self-effacing and silent service. We know at least a few words spoken by Jesus’ mother, including a whole poem. Of Joseph, her husband, there are no recorded words. At no time does he ever draw attention to himself. He was not an apostle, nor a prophet, nor a preacher, nor an evangelist.

Joseph was a direct descendant of David and Solomon; through his veins coursed the blood of Hezekiah and Josiah. But Joseph was not a king; he was a laboring man. When Jesus first addressed the citizens of Nazareth, those in the synagogue inquired, Matthew provides an instructive variation on this question: “Is this not the craftsman’s son?” (Matthew 13:55). The underlying Greek noun here, usually translated as “carpenter,” is tekton, a term including any sort of builder, craftsman, or skilled worker—even a blacksmith. A tekton was someone who constructed and fashioned things with his hands.

A tekton is not a “man of ideas.” Rather, he is a man of things. He takes things “in hand’ and does something with them. In her portrayal of Adam Bede, George Eliot speaks of “the mechanical instinct, the keen sensibility to harmony, the unconscious skill of the modeling hand.”

A tekton is a practical artist, very much engaged in practical life. He does not make things to be looked at or to be listened to. He makes things to use: houses to live in, tables and chairs for sitting, door frames to pass through, axes to cut down trees, plowshares with which to cultivate the earth.

Such men are customarily silent men. Their labor requires discipline and steady concentration. Thus, there are no recorded words of Joseph. We are certain that Joseph spoke, however, because he passed these technical skills on to Jesus, who was also known as a tekton. A tekton was a man with talented hands, and Jesus’ hands could heal the sick and injured!

Joseph represents the sanctification, not only of labor, but also the tradition of labor, the handing-on of the skills required for the preservation of human life and culture.

In today’s reading Joseph receives two commands that affect his legal relationship to Jesus: “Take to you Mary your wife” and “You shall call His name Jesus.” In fulfilling these commands, Joseph establishes the legal relationship of King David to Jesus. It is for this reason that Joseph is here addressed as “Joseph, son of David”; this is the only instance in the New Testament where “son of David” refers to someone besides Jesus.

Two other features of this text should be noted: First, the name Emmanuel, which is translated as “God with us,” ties this passage to the very last verse of the Gospel of Matthew, the Lord’s promise to be with us always.

Second, the expression “that it might be fulfilled,” which here appears for the first of the eleven times that it is found in Matthew, more than in all of the other three Gospels combined.

Friday, December 25

Hebrews 2.1-14: The mediation of Christ, which is a major theme of this book, requires His solidarity with the rest of the human race. This is the very meaning of Christmas, when God’s Son was sent to save us from our sins. He can do this only if he is one of us.

Such is the burden of this section of Hebrews, which speaks of Jesus in terms of brotherhood: “He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: ‘I will declare Your name to My brethren’ . . . Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God.

Before a priest can be a father, he must be a brother; that is to say, he must be “taken from among men” (5:1). Thus, when Jesus sent Mary Magdalene to proclaim His Resurrection to the Church, He instructed her, “Go and tell My brethren” (John 20:17). More particularly, Jesus claims brotherhood with all mankind in the context of history’s final judgment, where we learn, “inasmuch as you did it to the least of My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40).
Jesus’ proclaimed solidarity of brotherhood with the whole human race means that the proper destiny of that race is a true community, founded and centered on the Incarnation.

Here in Hebrews this solidarity with the rest of human beings especially pertains to death: God’s Son assumed our humanity in order to die as a human being. Some chapters later, our author will repeat this thesis, citing the Book of Psalms:

Therefore, when He came into the world, He said: ‘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’ (10:5-7).

That is to say, the obedience of Christ was to fulfill and replace the various sacrifices of the Mosaic Law, and for this task the Son obviously required a body.

In today’s verses we find our earliest extant Christian commentary on Psalm 8, which is a treatise on the Incarnation. The question under consideration is “What is man?” or, if the translator is sensitive to feminist concern, “What is a human being?” That is to say, in some recent translations of the Psalms, this question introduces considerations of anthropology.

According to the author of Hebrews, however, the reliable way to a correct anthropology—the accurate response to the question, “What is a human being?”—depends on the answer to a prior theological question: “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son in He?” In other words, the proper address to anthropology is through the gate of Christology.