Friday, January 14

Hebrews 6.13-20: What was arguably the best fiction work in English in the 19th century was also one of the best treatises in philosophy during that century. It is a lengthy account of a sea voyage on a ship called the Pequod. This whaling vessel, manned by an international crew, set sail on Christmas Day. The tone of the story is that of protest. Indeed, it is almost nothing but the account of a protest, even a rebellion. The protest is theological, and the great protester is Captain Ahab, a metaphysical rebel against the divinely appointed conditions of existence. In fact, like so many thinkers of the 19th, Captain Ahab had in mind to kill God.

I submit that that book was also prophetic, inasmuch as the final result of Ahab’s voyage foreshadowed the dreadful terrible international tragedy known as the 20th century, when more people died of starvation and violence than in all other periods of history put together.

Acting as foils to the maniacal Captain Ahab were the three mates of the Pequod: The first mate, Starbuck, was a quiet, conservative Christian, who he relied on his Christian to determine his actions and interpretations of events. The second mate, Stubb, was a sort of fatalist, persuaded that things happen as they are supposed to, so there was little that he could do about it. The third mate, Flask, avoided all such questions and simply enjoyed life, especially the excitement of hunting whales.

Near the end of this long story, there was a brief discussion between Stubb and Flask about anchors. In the course of that discussion, Stubb inquired, “I wonder, Flask, if the world in anchored anywhere; if she is, she swings with an uncommon long cable, though.” I submit that the entire history of philosophy in the 19th century consisted in various attempts to answer that question.

Is the world anchored anywhere? I want to address this question in the light of this evening’s reading from Hebrews. In response to the query Stubb put to Flask—“I wonder if the world in anchored anywhere”—today’s epistle reading answers,: “This [hope] we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters behind the veil, where the forerunner has for us entered—Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

Christian theology insists that the true anchor is hope. This is the reason 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 might legitimately have on a 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.

Saturday, January 15

Psalms 37: This psalm has close ties to the Bible’s Wisdom tradition. If it were not part of the Psalter, we would expect to find it in Proverbs or one of the other Wisdom books. It appears to be a kind of discourse given by a parent to a child, or a wise man to a disciple. It is full of sound and godly counsel: “Fret not thyself because of evildoers . . . Trust in the Lord and do good . . . Cease from anger and forsake wrath . . . Wait on the Lord and keep His way,” and so forth. Such admonitions, along with the psalm’s allied warnings and promises, are stock material of the Wisdom literature.

So how does one pray such a psalm? To begin with, by respecting its tone, which is one of admonition, warning, and promise. Surely prayer is talking to God, but it also involves listening to God, and this is a psalm in which one will do more listening than talking. It is a psalm in which the believer prays by placing his heart open and receptive to God’s word of admonition, warning, and promise.

One may likewise think of Psalm 37 as the soul speaking to itself: “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him . . . But the meek shall inherit the earth . . . The little that the righteous has is better than the riches of many wicked . . . The Lord knows the days of the upright . . . The Law of his God is in his heart,” and so on. The human soul, after all, is not of simple construction. The great thinkers who have examined the soul over many centuries seem all to agree that it is composed of parts, and sometimes these parts are at odds one with another. This mixture of conflicting experiences in the soul leads one to utter such petitions as, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” It is one part of the soul praying for the other.

In this psalm, one part of the soul admonishes the other, reminds the other, cautions the other, encourages the other. And this inner conversation of the human spirit all takes place in the sight of God, the Giver of wisdom.

This inner discussion is rendered necessary because of frequent temptations to discouragement. As far as empirical evidence bears witness, the wicked do seem, on many occasions, to be better off than the just. By the standards of this world, they prosper.

Our psalm is at pains to insist, however, that this prosperity is only apparent, in the sense that it will certainly be short-lived. As regards the workers of iniquity, “they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb . . . For evildoers shall be cut off . . . For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be . . . For the arms of the wicked shall be broken . . . The transgressors shall be cut off together.”

The suffering lot of the just man is likewise temporary and of brief duration. He need only wait on the Lord in patience and trust: “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He will give thee the desires of thy heart. Commit your way unto the Lord, and trust in Him, and He shall bring it to pass . . . But the salvation of the righteous is of the Lord; He is their strength in the time of trouble. And the Lord will help them and deliver them; He will deliver them from the wicked and save them, because they trust in Him.”

This, then, is a psalm of faith and confidence in God, without which there is no Christian prayer. It is also faith and hope under fire, exposed to struggle and the endurance that calls for patience. After all, “faith is the substance of things hoped for” (Heb. 11:1), and “We were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope . . . But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance” (Rom. 8:24, 25). Our psalm is a meditative lesson on not being deceived by appearances, and a summons to wait patiently for God’s deliverance.

Sunday, January 16

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 descendants. 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).

Monday, January 17

Hebrews 7.11-28: This reading introduces us to the “sacrifice” of Jesus. The word “sacrifice” is ambiguous because it pertains to so many and so varied uses. We find it in a great number of contexts.

During this next summer, for example, we will be hearing the word “sacrifice” on the radio and television pretty much every day. Sportscasters will tell us that so-and-so made a sacrifice bunt or hit a sacrifice fly.

This example may appear trivial, but it does illustrate an essential feature of sacrifice. A man gives up something in order to advance something else. The batter who hits a sacrifice fly or a sacrifice bunt is always out, but the good of the team is advanced.

This is a substantial feature of the notion of sacrifice. A person gives up, let’s go of, something for the sake of something else. It is the “price” he pays.

Whenever we speak of sacrifice, this aspect seems always to be present. Dr. Webster defines sacrifice as “a giving up, a destroying, permitting injury to, or foregoing of some valued thing for the sake of something of greater value or having some more pressing claim.”

Thus, soldiers sacrifice for their country, and parents for their children. Sacrifice always involves both a loss and a gain.

It is the unanimous view in the New Testament that Jesus sacrificed himself.

The view is unanimous because it came from Jesus himself: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many,” and ““This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many” (Mark 10:45; 14:24).

We are redeemed by Jesus’ blood, because his blood is jis own life, his inner being, His own soul: “You make his soul an offering for sin”—“ He poured out his soul unto death” (Isaiah 53:10,12). We were bought by his wounds, and by his stripes were we healed, because the sufferings of Jesus were the mode in which he handed over himself.

We were purchased by His death, because in His death He gave up himself.

Tuesday, January 18

Hebrews 8.1-13: Our author describes the Mosaic tabernacle as “the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed.” This earthly copy he contrasts with “the sanctuary and . . . the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man.”

The superiority of the Christian dispensation, for the author of Hebrews, has partly to do with its direct relationship to the worship offered directly before God’s heavenly throne. He speaks in this text of Jesus “seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens.”

That is to say, the actual substance of the Christian religion is already radically complete and accomplished. Even while its adherents are still on pilgrimage in this world, its defining element is already “perfect.” That is to say, what is most essential to the Christian religion is already accomplished: Jesus has already entered “heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us.”

This text contains the longest single Old Testament quotation in the New Testament — Jeremiah 31:31-34. By using the expression “new covenant” at the Last Supper (1 Corinthians 11:25), Jesus implicitly invited Christians to consult Jeremiah’s description of it. In addition to this long quotation in Hebrews, the passage from Jeremiah was referenced by St. Paul, who wrote that God “made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:6). Paul seems to have had this Jeremian text in mind when he wrote: “You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men— clearly an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, of the heart” (2 Corinthians 3:2).

This text, often described as the best lines of Jeremiah, is also one of the most emphatic passages to come from his pen. It is emphatic in the sense of its repeated insistence that God is the one who speaks. Four times this text affirms, “says the Lord.”

This new covenant is contrasted with the old: “not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers.” This contrast appealed to the author of Hebrews, who often uses the vocabulary of contrast when he speaks of Christ’s relationship to the Old Testament. He stresses this contrast here: “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.”

Wednesday, January 19

Hebrews 9.1-15: 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, let us speak about the sanctuary itself. Genesis 11:

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, let us 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 was a candlestick in the sanctuary. Why? Because the area would otherwise be dark. The worship of God is an exercise of light. 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.

Thursday, January 20

Hebrews 9.16-28: These verses refer to the scene of the ratification of the Sinai Covenant in Exodus 24. According to this passage in Exodus (verses 8,11), the ratification of that covenant was marked by both a sacrificial meal and by the sprinkling of sacrificial blood:

“And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, “Behold, the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you according to all these words. . . . So they [Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel] saw God, and they ate and drank.”

The prophet Zechariah later refers to this: “As for you also, / Because of the blood of your covenant, / I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit” (9:11).

Our earliest Christian reflection on this scene in Exodus is found in this text in Hebrews (verses 16-23), in a context emphasizing that the deep significance of the sacrificial blood in the Old Testament is its prophetic reference to the redeeming blood of Jesus, shed on the cross for the salvation of mankind. The blood of Jesus is called the “blood of the covenant” here in verse 29 and in Mark 14:24.

Moreover, in quoting Exodus 24:8, this passage in Hebrews (verse 20) slightly, but very significantly, alters the wording of it. Whereas Exodus reads “Behold (idou, translating the Hebrew hinneh) the blood of the covenant,” the author of Hebrews wrote: “This (touto) is the blood of the covenant.” There is no doubt that his wording here reflects the traditional words of Jesus with respect to the cup of His blood at the Last Supper (cf. Matthew 26:28).

Both in the Old Testament and the New, the sacrificial blood is the medium of consecration—It is consecrated life poured out in devotion to God. It is, therefore, “covenant blood,” through which God and man are joined in atonement. The blood of Christ means the “life” of Christ. The image in the Book of Revelation is “washed” in His blood.

According to Leviticus, the altar and the curtain fronting the Holy of Holies were consecrated with the blood of the sin offering: “He shall bring the bull to the door of the tabernacle of meeting before the Lord, lay his hand on the bull’s head, and kill the bull before the Lord. Then the anointed priest shall take some of the bull’s blood and bring it to the tabernacle of meeting. The priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle some of the blood seven times before the Lord, in front of the veil of the sanctuary. . . . The anointed priest shall bring some of the bull’s blood to the tabernacle of meeting. Then the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle it seven times before the Lord, in front of the veil. And he shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar which is before the Lord, which is in the tabernacle of meeting; and he shall pour the remaining blood at the base of the altar of burnt offering, which is at the door of the tabernacle of meeting”(4:4-7,16-18).

Friday, January 21

Matthew 7.21-28: The foolish man, we are told, tries to build his house on something so unstable as sand. This is certainly the case of modern man. For this reason, the mind of the Gospel poses a special challenge to the contemporary world, because intellectual instability is the most notable characteristic of the modern mind.

Perhaps one of the best representatives of the thoroughly modern mind was Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky, as Tolstoy describes him in Anna Karenina. For Oblonsky, thought consisted only in “cerebral reflexes.” His skills of critical reflection were only slightly above those of the earthworm, pretty much on the same level as the snail. His philosophy, if he could be said to have one, was simply to “go with the flow.”

Tolstoy describes him: “Stepan Arkadyevich took in and read a liberal paper, not an extreme one, but one advocating the views held by the majority. And in spite of the fact that science, art and politics had no special interest for him, he firmly held those views on all these subjects which were held by the majority and by his paper, and he only changed them when the majority changed them- or, more strictly speaking, he did not change them, but they imperceptibly changed of themselves within him.”

Tolstoy continues, “Stepan Arkadyevich had not chosen his political opinions or his views- these political opinions and views had come to him of themselves- just as he did not choose the shapes of his hat and coat, but simply accepted those that were being worn. And for him, living in a certain society- owing to the need, ordinarily developed at years of discretion, for some degree of mental activity- to have views was just as indispensable as to have a hat. If there was a reason for his preferring liberal to conservative views, which were held also by many of his circle, it arose not from his considering liberalism more rational, but from its being in closer accordance with his manner of life.”

In all these respect, Stephan Arkadyevich simply conformed to whatever intellectual bias held sway. His was a completely passive mind. A personal philosophy could be changed as easily as a shirt or a dress.

It was always a question of being in fashion. Stephan Arkadyevich totally conformed to whatever society dictated, whether in dress or in prejudice. Nothing inside his head actually rose to the level of thought.

Hence, he was a man that had built his house on sand. Foundational instability was the chief characteristic of his mind, to the extent that he could be said to have a mind.