Friday, December 29

Matthew 25.1-13: The ten maidens are divided between those who are “foolish” (morai) and those who are wise, prudent, or thoughtful. However we are to translate this latter adjective, phronimoi, it has just been used to describe the faithful servant that awaits his master’s return (24:45). Matthew is fond of this adjective, which he uses seven times. He uses the adjective moros six times, the only Synoptic evangelist to do so.

In addition, the distinction between moros and phronimos comes in the final parable of the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a phronimos who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a moros who built his house on the sand” (7:24-26).

The difference between the five foolish maidens and the five prudent maidens is that the latter have prepared themselves to deal with the prolonged passage of time. Not considering the possibility of delay, the foolish maidens have not provided oil for their lamps. They are unable to “go the distance” with God.

In context, then, the prudence required is a kind of thoughtfulness, the habit of critical reflection, a cultivated ability to think in terms of the passage of time, a sensitivity to the movement of history. These wise maidens are not creatures of the moment. Consequently, they carry along their little jugs of oil, to make sure that their lamps will not be extinguished. They are able to “go the distance,” because they have thoughtfully made provision.

Time is the test of all these women, because the Bridegroom is “delayed”–chronizontos tou Nymphiou. This is the same verb, chronizo, previously used of the wicked servant: “My master is delayed”–chronizei mou ho Kyrios (24:48).

Revelation 21.1-8: We now come to the final two chapters of John’s book of prophetic visions. Now we see no more battles, no more bloodshed, no more persecution. John sees, rather, the holy city, New Jerusalem, as the ultimate reality that gives meaning to all that preceded it.

In this final vision, which lasts two chapters, John is aware that seven things are gone forever: the sea, death, grief, crying, pain, the curse, and the night (21:1,4; 22:3,5). Here we are dealing with the definitive abolition of conflict, the end of chaos. The first symbol of this chaos is the sea, which has only such shape as it is given from outside of itself. The sea represents the nothingness out of which God creates all things, conferring meaning upon them. This chaos is both metaphysical and moral. It represents a nothingness replaced by the lake of fire, the second death. The sea is the hiding place of the monster and the setting where the scarlet woman thrones. This sea disappears at the coming of the new heaven and the new earth.

If we take the earth to represent man’s empirical and categorical experience, and heaven to represent man’s experience of transcendence, then the appearance of the new heaven and the new earth means the transformation of all of man’s experience. All of it is made new. The grace of God in Christ does not sanctify just a part of man’s existence, but his whole being. Man is not a partially redeemed creature. Both his heaven and his earth are made new.

Saturday, December 30

Matthew 25.14-30: There are three points to be made about this reading from Jesus’ final sermon in the Gospel of Matthew. They concern the custody of time, the ambiguity of fear, and God’s personal investment.

First, the custody of time. The sin of this lazy servant is procrastination, a noun centered around the Latin word cras, meaning “tomorrow.” In English, “tomorrow” is often treated as a noun. This is a philosophical mistake. And this was the mistake of the irresponsible servant; he did not know the difference between a something and a hypothetical.

“Tomorrow” is never more than a hypothetical; it has existence only as a concept. It is a product of thought, and it has no existence outside of thought. It does not have substantial existence; it is not a res.

The irresponsible servant in today’s parable, because he isn’t thinking clearly, loses his custody of chronos, time. “Tomorrow” is one thing we’re never sure of. We have no custody of it. We only have custody of “right now.”

The faithless servant in this parable is given ample time to repent, but he spends his whole life without regard to the end of it; he refuses to face the fact that he will eventually have to account for it. Of all things given to us in stewardship, very few are important as chronos.

Second, the ambiguity of fear. The irresponsible servant’s excuse was, “I was afraid.” What’s this? You were afraid? What do you mean, you were afraid? Wrong answer! The fear of God is the beginning of Wisdom, young man, and you are, emphatically, not wise.

Clearly, you have not only misunderstood time; you have also misunderstood fear. You are using fear as an excuse. The first thing a young person is supposed to be taught is that fear is never an excuse. Fear is an incentive.

When the Bible says that the fear of God is the beginning of Wisdom, it does not mean a crippling fear. It does not a servile fear. It is not a sniveling cowardice.

The fear of the Lord means reverence. It is an ennobling fear, and it is an enabling fear. The fear of the Lord is a reverent piety, expressed in obedient stewardship.

We must not be confused by the ambiguity of the word “fear.” Consider, for instance, two assertions of Holy Scripture:

The Psalmist says, “The fear of the Lord is holy, enduring forever and ever.” And the Apostle John affirms, “Perfect love casts out fear.”

Well, which is it? Does the fear of the Lord last forever and ever, or does perfect love cast it out? Is there a contradiction here?
I submit that there is no contradiction here. Perfect love expels a certain kind of fear, but there is another kind of fear that is, in fact, refined by love.

The fear of the Lord that endures forever is, I submit, the moral caution that fears offending the Lord. This is a fear to be cultivated, not cast out.

I fear offending God, for the same reason I fear hurting anyone I love. The more I love someone, the more cautious I will be, lest of I cause hurt—lest I offend—this person.

Third, God’s personal investment

If we are to understand what is meant by “the fear of the Lord,” it is essential, first, to identify THE LORD. The “fear” of the Lord is not a general, vague uneasiness about the supernatural. The LORD is the God of the Bible.

That is to say, it is the specific God revealed to Moses and the prophets. The fear of the Lord is not rooted in the human psyche; it comes from the revelation itself. It is the reverence imposed on Moses as he approached the Burning Bush; it is the awe inspired in the soul of Isaiah when he beheld the Lord high and lifted-up in the Temple.

Who is this Lord? He is a specific God. He is the one God in the sense of being the unique God. He is the God who is invested in the human race. He is the God revealed in nature and in history. He is the God who has skin in the game.

In creating human beings in His own image and likeness, it was impossible for Him not to “have skin in the game.”

God’s creative act was an investment. On every page of the Hebrew prophets, this is the abiding message: God has skin in this game.

His God is never neutral about His investment. He is completely committed to the race of men. In the expression of Abraham Heschel, this God “reacts intimately to the events of history. . . . His judgment is imbued with the attitude of One to Whom those actions [of history] are of the most intimate and profound concern.”

He who keeps Israel, says the Psalmist, neither slumbers nor sleeps. He is not a dispassionate, unfeeling God. Nothing about Him can be called “detached.”

For this reason, man’s predicament is God’s predicament. He has a personal stake in the human situation. He is, in short, a God who can be hurt. This was the message we considered last week in our reflections on Hosea.

Consequently, when things do not go well with God’s investment, He speaks up! When human beings hurt themselves, He insists on looking into the matter. When men get out of line, He yanks them back and gives them “a piece of His mind.”

In short, this God is invested in our destiny. Again, quoting Heschel, “Man is not only an image of God; he is a perpetual concern of God.”

The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is rooted in the message of Israel’s prophets—God has skin in the game. He is invested in the human race, and He pours everything He has into this investment. This God has no interests outside of the human race. He does nothing except for the sake of human beings. We are His only family. The human race is God’s only investment.

Sunday, December 31

Jonah 4: There are two stories in Holy Scripture that end with an unanswered proposition: the Book of Jonah and the parable of the Prodigal Son. The drama in both these stories builds to the propositions with which they end. That is to say, it is the intended point of the stories themselves. In each case, moreover, this proposition, which is directly put to a character in the story, is implicitly addressed to the reader as well.

This correspondence between the two narratives invites their further comparison. In fact, they are similar in other respects.

First, they have the same theme: both are stories of the divine mercy bestowed on the unworthy—the Ninevites and the younger son, both of whom are described as sinners: Of the younger son we are told that he “wasted his possessions with prodigal living,” the inheritance acquired by his father’s lifetime of hard work (Luke 15:13). As for Nineveh, the story of Jonah begins by mentioning the wickedness of the place (Jonah 1:2).

In both accounts, nonetheless, the sinners are brought to repentance. Thus, the king in Nineveh decreed, “let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell whether God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” (Jonah 3:8-9) We learn also of the resolve of the parable’s younger son: “I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son'” (Luke 15:18-19).

These humble expressions of repentance are immediately answered by the outpouring of the divine mercy. Thus, when the younger son “was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him” (15:20). As for the Ninevites, “God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it” (Jonah 3:10). In both cases, then, the sinners are forgiven and reconciled.

Second, each of these accounts involves an antagonist—Jonah and the older brother, both of them resentful that God’s mercy is available to the repentant sinners. These antagonists, each described as “angry” about God’s mercy (Jonah 4:1,4,9; Luke 15:28)), are essential to the drama. Since the final proposition in both stories—their intended point and purpose—is addressed to this angry resentment, a proper understanding of the two narratives requires that we examine these antagonists in detail.

First, the Book of Jonah is not really about Nineveh, but about Jonah. Nineveh, we are told, repented and was forgiven, but we are not so sure about Jonah. From the beginning, after all, Jonah resisted the divine intent to forgive Nineveh—even to the point of running away from the face of the Lord (1:3,10). Only when absolutely forced to do so, did Jonah give even a brief warning to the Ninevites: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (3:4)

It is essential to the story that Jonah did not want the Ninevites to repent. After all, the city was well known to be vile (Nahum 1:14), “full of lies and robbery” (3:1), the “mistress of sorceries” (3:4). Accordingly, self-righteous Jonah wanted its citizens to get exactly what they deserved, and what made him most uncomfortable was the fact that the Lord was “a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness” (Jonah 4:2). Unable to appreciate the irony that he himself had been given a second chance when he was released from the belly of the sea monster, Jonah wanted no mercy shown to the Ninevites.

Second, the story of the Prodigal Son is not really about the younger son, but about his older brother, who resents the mercy shown to the repentant sinner. Like Jonah arguing with the Lord (Jonah 4:8-9), this self-righteous son finds fault with his father for showing such mercy (Luke 15:29-30).

The closing proposition in each case—“Should I not pity Nineveh?” and “It was right that we should make merry and be glad”—forces the reader himself into the place of the antagonist. Like Jonah and the older son, he is obliged to choose between a natural sense of retributive righteousness and the mercy manifest in God’s acceptance of the sinner. He must decide whether to cling angrily to the blindfold of justice or to accept the possibility of a new heart. That is to say, the reader himself must repent.

Each story ends with this decision still open, and here we end the year of our Lord, 2023.

Monday, January 1, 2024

John 1.1-18: Commonly known as the Johannine “prologue,” these introductory verses should better be called an “overture” to John’s Gospel, inasmuch as we find in it the chief theological themes that the evangelist will develop in the coming narrative.

Some students of the text have suggested, in fact, that the bulk of these verses formed an early Christian hymn, and that John’s account amounts to a narrative interpretation of that hymn. Notwithstanding the attractiveness of this suggestion, it must be said that these verses are not written in a style different from this gospel as a whole. That is to say, they are written in a rhythmic, meditative prose, a style common throughout John.

The opening words are clearly intended to evoke the beginning of Genesis, thus indicating that God’s preexistent and eternal Word is the active principle of Creation: The very first time God said something in Creation, He was speaking through the divine and personal Word who abode with Him from all eternity. John shares this vision with other authors in the New Testament, most obviously Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4. All three of these sources place this theological reflection near the beginning of their composition.

The first five verses are built around a double theme: the eternal life of God and the created being of the world. These aspects of the theme are distinguished by the tense and form of their respective verbs.

First, with respect to God the verbal is the imperfect tense (denoting continued action in past time) of the verb eimi, “to be.” Thus, in verses 1-2 we have:
“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.”

Second, with respect to Creation, the verbal form is the aorist tense (denoted a single time in the past) of the verb gignomi, “to become,” or “to come to be.” Thus, in verses 3-4 we have:
“All things came to be through Him,
and without Him nothing came to be.
What came to be in Him was life.”

The noun “God” is used in two ways in the opening verses: First, it appears with the article (ho Theos), in a substantive sense, to refer to God the Father. Second, it appears without the article (Theos), in a predicate sense, to refer to the divine Word. Thus, “the Word was with God [ton Theon], and the Word was God [Theos]. He was in the beginning with God [ton Theon].”

There is a long-standing disposition to understand verses 3 and 4 as distinct units. Thus, the New Kings James Version reads, “All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.” Accordingly, verse 4 in the KJV follows as: “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.”

This is an unlikely punctuation, however, perhaps caused by a copyist’s error. The Papyrus Bodmer II, from about A.D. 200, makes the last word of verse 3 to be ouden [“nothing”]. A copyist’s change to oude hen [“not one thing”] may have been the original source of the problem, causing these last two words to be added to the next sentence (verse 4). When verse numbers were later added to the Sacred Text, verse 3 absorbed the first two words of verse 4: ho gegonen, “what came to be.”

Christians of the first four centuries, however—and still in the fifth century with Saint Augustine—punctuated verses 3-4 to read: “All things came to be through Him, and without Him nothing came to be. What came to be in Him was life, and the life was the light of men.” This seems also to have been the original punctuation and sense of the Latin Vulgate. This is certainly the preferable punctuation.

Read in this way, verse 4 means that every created thing came to be in the life of God’s Word. It is the living Word that confers being on all created things. Augustine comments: Facta est terra, sed ipsa terra quae facta est non est vita; est autem in ipsa sapiential spiritaliter ration qua facta est; haec vita est–“The earth was made, but the earth itself, which was made, is not life. Wisdom is spiritually in it, however, a certain Reason. This is life” (Tractatus in Joannem 1.16).

That light shone in the darkness, says verse 5, but “the darkness did not grasp it.” This verb should probably be understood in the sense of “understand,” as when Jesus tells Nicodemus, “the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light “ (3:19).

With verses 6-8 we shift from eternity and Creation to history, and specifically the historical appearance of John the Baptist. John’s emergence on the historical scene was the starting point of the narrative contained in the witness of the Apostles (cf. Acts 1:22; 10:37; 13:24). Luke was especially careful to place John’s appearance in a full historical context (Luke 4:1-2).

Once again, the form and tense of the verb changes to the aorist of gignomi, “to become.” Literally verse 5 reads, “A man came to be whose name was John.” We note this wording in order to compare this verse to the references to Creation in the opening verses. A more felicitous English idiom would say, “There appeared a man named John.”

John comes in order to bear witness, as he will start to do in verse 19. His is the first of many “witnesses” of which the Fourth Gospel speaks: the woman of Samaria (4:39), the works of Jesus (5:36), the Scriptures (5:39), the crowds (12:17), the Holy Spirit and the disciples (15:26-27), the writer himself (21:24), and especially the Father (5:37). Here, then, John introduces a major motif of this gospel.

Verse 7 is commonly misunderstood. This misunderstanding is exemplified in the New King James Version: “This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe.” This translation makes it appear that “all” came to faith through John the Baptist, an interpretation that hardly seems probable. In fact, relatively few men came to faith through John the Baptist.

A better reading is: “that all might came to faith through Him.” That is to say, the “through Him” (di’ Avtou) refers to the Light, not to John the Baptist. (The Greek word pronoun here can also be understood as neuter instead of masculine. It makes no difference, however, since the word for “light,” phos, is neuter.) This coming to faith (pistevsosin) is man’s reception of the Light. It is through the Light Himself that man comes to believe.

This initial story of John’s witness also bears a somewhat polemical burden; it seems that our author has in mind to convince the many disciples of John the Baptist that the latter’s message was directed entirely to preparing the world for Jesus (cf. Acts 19:1-7). Thus, he insists that John was not the Light, but only the witness to the Light (verse 8).

Verses 9 to 13 describe this Light. It is, first of all, “true,” in the sense of pertaining to the divine order: “He that sent Me is true” (7:13); “. . . that they may know You, the only true God” (17:3).

Although verse 9 can bear the sense, “That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world,” the participial phrase more likely describes the Light: “That was the true Light which, coming into the world, gives light to every man.”

Six considerations prompt the adoption of this interpretation: First, it is unusual, in the New Testament, to speak of ordinary men as “coming into the world.” Second, the context of the phrase is the Incarnation. Third, the verb “to come” is rather often used of Jesus, who actually did—as distinct from the rest of us–come from elsewhere (3:2,31,43; 8:14,42; 9:39; 10:10; 12:47; 16:28). Fourth, the present context clearly makes this verb refer to the Light: “He came to His own” (verse 11). Fifth, in John we are elsewhere told, “the light has come into the world” (3:19). Sixth, the clinching text for this interpretation contains the words of Jesus Himself: “I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness” (12:46).

The expression “world” (kosmos) is used in two senses in verse 10. When the text says, “the world came to be through Him,” the word refers to world as what God created. When, however, it says, “the world did not know Him,” this means the world as rebellious against the Almighty. Both senses are found in almost all parts of the New Testament. Indeed, both senses of the word seem to be combined here, where John says, “He was in the world.”

The “knowledge” in verse 10—the knowledge that the world did not have—should be understood in the sense of “acknowledge.” It is willful ignorance, or hardness of heart.

Whereas verse 10 may include all sinful human resistance to the knowledge of God (as in Romans 1:18-23), verse 11 more specifically to the Light’s rejection by the Chosen People, who, on the whole, refused to believe in the revelation of Jesus. This rejection of Jesus is described all through the Gospel of John and summarized at the end of the Book of Signs, in John 12:37-41—“ But although He had done so many signs before them, they did not believe in Him, that the word of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled . . .”

To those who do believe, on the other hand, there is given a rebirth, whereby they become the children of God (verse 12). This rebirth is not in any sense related to human generation (verse 13). It is that of which Jesus says to Nicodemus, “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God,” and “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (3:3,5).

This rebirth is rooted in faith in Jesus’ name—“those who believe in His name.” The earliest form of John’s Gospel ends on this theme: “these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (20:31).

Verse 14 is John’s brief but rich statement of the Incarnation, in which we observe several points:

First, John returns to the aorist tense, denoting a past event: egeneto: “The Word came to be flesh. the Incarnation pertains to Creation: God’s creating Word became a creature.

Second, John employs the word sarxs, “flesh,” to denote humanity. All of the words possible to use to speak of the Incarnation, this one is the furthest from describing human dignity. “Flesh” means man as mortal, corruptible, imperfect, weak, and utterly transitory. “Flesh” is the word must unlikely to be joined with God’s “Word.” Indeed, Isaiah went to some lengths to show them as exact opposites: ““ All flesh is grass . . . The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God stands forever” (40:6,8).

Third, John’s use of the verb eskenosen, literally “He tented.” This verb evokes the image of the Tabernacle of the Divine Presence that Moses had constructed in the Wilderness. It was, as we recall, filled with the Divine Glory (Exodus 25:8; Numbers 35:34). This same Glory, doxsa, is now contemplated in the true Tabernacle of God’s Word enfleshed (cf. 1 John 1:1).

Fourth, when John says, “we beheld His glory,” he has in mind the entire life and ministry of Jesus. As we shall see presently, he treats this subject extensively in the first half of his Gospel, commonly entitled “The Book of Signs.” With respect to the first of those signs, the miracle at Cana, John will say, “This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory” (2:11). For now, it is useful to note that verse 14 here is John’s first use of the word “glory.” That is to say, it is only in connection with the Incarnation that John speaks of the revelation of glory.

Fifth, “grace and truth”–hesed v‘emethcharis kai aletheia–are the standard biblical properties of God (cf. Exodus 24:6). God’s enfleshed Word is full (pleres of these.

Sixth, the expression “the only begotten from the Father” will be given more attention in verse 18.

Tuesday, January 2

John 1.19-28: The Evangelist continues with a double interrogation of John the Baptist by the religious leaders from Jerusalem (verses 19-27). It appears that John has conflated stories of two delegations, one from the Sadducees (priests and Levites), the other from the Pharisees. John found it easy to conflate the two interrogations, since both groups apparently asked very much the same questions—all of them about John’s identity. We should presume that John the Baptist was questioned on this point several times (cf. Luke 3:7-18).

Both groups are said to represent “the Jews,” an expression that now appears for the first time in John’s Gospel. In most of the instances of this word in John, it designates Jesus’ enemies—the “Jews” as distinct from the Christians. That is to say, John’s use of this word appears to come from a period in which the Church was becoming an entity readily distinguished from the Synagogue. Although not consistently, we find the word “Jews” already use in this sense long before John. Indeed, it appears in the earliest book of the New Testament, twenty years before the destruction of Jerusalem. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus. For you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, just as they from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us” (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15).

In John’s Gospel this form of expression has become consistent. The “Jews” represent a religion that has set itself against Jesus the Messiah. In that context, the Church became “of age,” as it were; indeed, She has been expelled from Judaism and has begun to think of herself as a separate quid.

In John’s Gospel Jesus prophesies, in fact, “They will put you out of the synagogues” (16:2). The Greek expression here is aposynagógous poiesousin hymas, literally “they will unsynagogue you.” The Church has become “unsynagogued.”

John’s Gospel reflects the period (after Jerusalem’s destruction and the rabbinical gathering at Jamnia) when Jesus’ disciples had, in fact, been expelled from the Synagogue in a rather definitive way. John speaks of this several times.

Thus, we read in about the parents of the blind man in 9:22: “His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had agreed already that if anyone confessed [homologese] that He was Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue.” Here the expelling is being done by the Jews, and here too we find the same expression, aposynagogos, “unsynagogued.” What, indeed, have the parents of the blind man just told these Jews? “He is of age; ask him. He will speak for himself.” What, in fact, do they do to the blind man? “They cast him out” (12:34). This is John’s portrayal of the Church: She has come of age; she is no longer just part of the Synagogue. She did not reject the Synagogue; the Synagogue rejected Her! It was a simple fact of history: the Church must find her own way, apart from Judaism.

John returns to this idea in 12:42-43: “Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess, lest they should be put out of the synagogue [aposynagogoi] ; for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” That is to say, the rulers of the Jewish people had pressed the point, and one was forced to decide between being a Jew and being a Christian.

Clearly, then, John does not use the word Jew in a racial or ethnic sense. The word means, rather, someone who practices the Jewish religion, which has now become something incompatible with Christian faith and discipleship. This sense of the word “Jew” is carried over in many Christian liturgical texts, where it appears in a negative sense. It would be a mammoth distortion of the truth to regard those liturgical references as racial or anti-Semitic.

The first delegation comes to John from a delegation sent by the priestly family (verses 19-23). This line of questioning has to do with John’s identity: Is he the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy 19? John answers “no” to each question. John’s reiterated denial may be contrasted with Jesus’ own use of the words “I AM” all through this Gospel. This continues the contrast between Jesus and John, begun with the assertion regarding John, “He was not that light, but in order to bear witness to that light.”

Of these three negations by John the Baptist, the first is the most important: “I am not the Messiah.” He also denies being Elijah, the prophet expected to return in immediate preparation for the coming of the Messiah (cf. Malachi 3:23; Sirach 48:4-12; Luke 1:17). Although John the Baptist did not regard himself as the Prophet Elijah, Jesus regarded in the light of those prophecies of Elijah’s return (cf. Matthew 11:14; 17:12).

John also denies being the Prophet foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15,18 (cf. Acts 7:37). According tp this Gospel, there were those who suspected that Jesus Himself was that Prophet foretold by Moses (6:14; 7:40).

Finally, when John is asked point-blank, “Who are you?” he responds by quoting Isaiah 40:3—“The voice of someone crying in the wilderness:
‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” John’s understanding of himself in the light of this Isaian text is found in the Synoptic Traditions as well (cf. Matthew 3:3).

The questioning continues with the second delegation, that of the Pharisees (verses 24-27): Why does John baptize? What is the significance of his baptism, if he is neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet foretold by Moses? The Pharisees, always suspicious of innovations, are at least curious on the matter.

By way of response, John the Baptist simply refers to someone the reader is expected to identify as Jesus: “I baptize in water. In the midst of you stands One you do not know: He who comes after me, of whom I am not worthy that I should loose the strap of the sandal.” This reference is cryptic and actually fails to answer the question from the Pharisees. The reader expects to find a contrast between John’s baptism and that of Jesus, as he finds in the Synoptic Traditions (Mark 1:8; Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16). This will not occur, however, until verse 33.

In telling of the questioners of John the Baptist, the Evangelist has now introduced those responsible for the death of Jesus.

The final verse in this section says, “These things came to be in Bethany, on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.” Some manuscripts have altered the name of the place to Bethabara, since it was well known that Bethany sits on the Mount of Olives, nowhere near the Jordan River. It appears, however, that there was another town named Bethany, this one on the Jordan River.

Wednesday, January 3

John 1.29-34: Careful note should be made of the expression, “the next day,” because it is the first of several chronological remarks that mark the opening chapters of John. It means that the author is counting the days, and he tells us that we have now arrived at the second day of his story. In verse 35 we will arrive at the third day. In verse 43 we will arrive at the fourth day. In 2:1 we jump three days. That is to say, the author goes to considerable effort to describe what transpired over the course of a week.

In fact, through 1:19 to 2:11 is an account of the first week of the New Creation. This week will culminate in the first of Jesus’ “Signs,” the miracle of Cana in Galilee. This is consonant with the beginning of John’s Gospel, which, like the Book of Genesis, commences with the words “in the beginning.”

It is with the ministry of John the Baptist that the Fourth Gospel narrative starts. This is important, because the common tradition reflected in the NT regards John the Baptist as the most primitive Christian preacher. The Gospel begins with the preaching of John. That is to say, the earliest interpreter of Jesus, before any of the Apostles and Gospel-writers, was John the Baptist.

In this section John the Baptist makes several points about Jesus:

First, Jesus is identified with “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” For John the Baptist, who preached a baptism of repentance of sins, this was the most fundamental fact about Jesus of Nazareth—He is the sacrificial victim, the definitive sin-offering, by whose oblation the sin of the world is removed.

When Jesus is called the “Lamb” in the New Testament, two OT images come particularly to mind: the Paschal Lamb and the Lamb offered for sin on the Day of Atonement.

Jesus as the Paschal Lamb will later appear in John in the story of the Passion: “But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. . . . For these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, ‘Not one of His bones shall be broken’” (19:36; Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12; Psalm 34:20). This also appears in Paul: “For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7). Both Paul and John, then, regard Jesus as the true Paschal Lamb, who delivers the Chosen People on the night of the Exodus.

Among the Latin Fathers, it was usual to explain the present passage in John by reference to the Paschal Lamb.

This does not seem to be the sense in the present passage, however, and the Greek Fathers generally explain our present text with reference to the Lord’s Suffering Servant is likened in Isaiah 53. Because the Paschal Lamb was not sacrificed for sins, the sense in the present text seems to be that of the sin offering of Yom Kippur.

In identifying Jesus in this way, John sees Him as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 53 (verses 7-12): “You make His soul an offering for sin.” This image of the biblical sin-offering became the earliest of the categories of Christology. Before we find it in Epistles of St. Paul, even before we find it in the Lord’s own words at the Last Supper, we find this thematic image already in the preaching of John the Baptist. John is the first to proclaim the message of the Cross. He is the first determined to know nothing but Christ, and Him crucified.

This image appears likewise in St Peter: “knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19).

Indeed, this image appears in the earliest preaching of the Christian Church, as we see in Acts 8:32, where Isaiah 53 is quoted (by Philip to the eunuch) and explained.

Both images—the Paschal Lamb and the lamb offered for sins—seem to be present in the Book of Revelation, which most refers to Jesus as the Lamb (27 times).

John’s proclamation of the Cross pertains not only to the doctrine of Redemption; it pertains also to his own vocation. Because the One greater than he is the Lamb offered in sacrifice, John himself must accept in his own life and vocation the standard of the Cross. He too must taste the bitterness and the gall. He too must be mutilated in his flesh and bear the darkness of abandonment. Even before Jesus, John would die in testimony to the truth. Even with respect to the Cross, John would be the forerunner.

This is why, in the Christian Church, John is invariably named in honor immediately after the Lord’s own Mother. His image is always a central image in the church, for he was the first to proclaim Christ and Him crucified.

Second, John identifies Jesus as the One through whom the world receives the Holy Spirit: ““I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’”

Here in John’s Gospel, the Lord’s baptism by John the Baptist is not described, but it is clearly presupposed. John’s vision of the Dove (verse 32) corresponds to the Synoptic descriptions of Jesus’ baptism. We may observe here that the revelation at Jesus’ baptism is portrayed as an objective, not just a spiritual experience of Jesus.

John recognizes Jesus as Messiah by reason of that outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as the prophets had foretold (cf. Joel 2:28-29; Isaiah 32:15; Ezekiel 39:29; Zechariah 12:10).

John himself could not confer the Holy Spirit. Baptism in the Holy Spirit is proper to Christ’s own Baptism. Indeed, this was made a point of later Christian preaching to the disciples of John the Baptist. We read in the Acts of the Apostles: “Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus. And finding some disciples he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” So they said to him, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said to them, “Into what then were you baptized?” So they said, “Into John’s baptism.” Then Paul said, “John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.”

Luke thus portrays the continuity between the preaching of John the Baptist and the preaching of Paul. Obviously John’s own disciples had not been paying very close attention. Each of the four Gospels describes John as preaching about the Holy Spirit, and yet, years later, we still find John’s disciples saying, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.”

Third, John testifies that it was the Holy Spirit who revealed to him the identity of Jesus: “I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God.”

John, then, is the first preacher to proclaim that the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth can only be given in the Holy Spirit.

In verse 34, some manuscripts read “the Chosen One of God” instead of “the Son of God.”

Thursday, January 4

John 1.35-42: Only in this Gospel do we learn that Jesus’ first disciples had been disciples of John the Baptist.

This Gospel reading presents us with the two quite different brothers, Simon Peter and Andrew. Even though Peter often served as a spokesman for the other Apostles, one has the impression that he sometimes went out of his way to distinguish himself, to set himself apart, from the rest of the apostles — “Even if all are made to stumble, yet I will not be” (Mark 1:29). A consummate alpha personality, Peter simply cannot be overlooked; like the very sun, a boisterous giant rejoicing to run his course, there is nothing hidden from his heat.

Andrew, on the contrary, appears not to draw attention to himself but serves entirely as a conduit for others to come to the Lord. Even in this scene that prompts the Church to remember him as the first-called, he immediately went to share his blessing with his sibling. It is no wonder that he was known among the first Christians simply as “Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.” There is more attention given to Andrew in this Gospel than in the other three.

In verse 35 we arrive at the “third day” of the week of the New Creation.

We observe that John translates the word “rabbi,” something he would not do if he had only Jewish readers in mind (verse 38). The same is true for the names “Messiah” (verse 41) and “Kephas” (verse 42).

These things happened “about the tenth hour,” which would be bout 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The events in this next chapter took place the next day.

2 John 1-13: The “elect lady” that John addresses is evidently a local church, over which he has some supervision. This supervision he exercises from his own church, presumably Ephesus, which he calls the “elect sister” (verse 13). John writes to this other church, not only in his own name, but on behalf of “all those who have known the truth” (verse1). This is the truth of the Gospel that unites all Christians to one another.

In John’s greeting, the “grace, mercy, and peace” are wished to be “with us” (notwithstanding the Vulgate, the KJV, and other translations). These three nouns are common terms of greeting in the epistles of the New Testament, as benefits that all believers would wish for one another. Indeed, since the word “mercy” (eleos) is found only here in the Johannine writings, we may surmise that its appearance in this text comes from its being such a commonplace in Christian greetings (cf. Galatians 6:16; Jude 2; 1 Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2; cf. Ignatius of Antioch, Philadelphians Prol.).

When John remarks that “some of your children” (ek ton teknon) are “walking in truth,” we are perhaps justified in suspecting that he intends a subtlety. It could be that he means, “not all of them are doing so (verse 4). John is writing to this church, after all, in order to warn them about deceivers (verse 7), urge them to circumspection (verse 8), and put them on their guard with respect to bad teaching (verse 10). John certainly sees some potential problem on the horizon of this congregation, and it is clear that this is why he is writing to them at all.

By way of exhortation the Elder sends his readers back to the basics of what they have received “from the beginning,” an expression that he uses twice here (verses 5-6). This exhortation to the commandments and love for one another reminds us of several in 1 John: “I plead with you . . . not as though I wrote a new commandment to you, but that which we have had from the beginning: that we love one another. This is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, that as you have heard from the beginning, you should walk in it.”

For all his subtleties and gentleness, John is also stern. False teachers are not to be greeted nor received into one’s home (verses 10-11). From this exhortation, it is clear that he is not directly blaming anyone in the congregation itself; it is outsiders that he has in mind, though it is difficult to explain why he wrote this epistle unless he had in mind some specific dangers to his readers.

These false teachers are easy to detect, because they have wrong answers for the questions, “What do you say of the Christ? Whose Son is He? Who do you say that I am?” That is to say, they deny that Jesus is God’s eternal Son become incarnate (verse 9). This thesis is the “doctrine” (i>didache—verses 9,10) that sustains the Christian life and communion. It is the foundation of everything else. Those who deny it, therefore, merit the name “antichrists” (a term that appears only here and in 1 John). We don’t “all worship the same God.” The only God we worship is the Father of Jesus Christ, His Son, who is our only access to the Father. There are no short cuts to God, bypassing Jesus. In particular, there are no ecumenical short cuts.

Friday, January 5

We arrive at “the next day” in our progress through this new week of a new Creation.

At this point it may be useful to stop and reflect on the characters that the evangelist has introduced so far. We can divide these into New Testament and Old Testament characters.

The New Testament characters are, first, John the Baptist, then Andrew and Simon Peter. In this present reading he will introduce Philip and Nathanael.

The only Old Testament character introduced so far has been Moses. Moses will also appear in the present reading, but the character of Jacob will also be introduced.

We will say something about each of these.

It is reasonable to surmise that the mention of Peter and Andrew in this section indicates they were the ones who introduced Jesus to Philip. In the traditional lists of the Apostles, Philip is normally named right after Andrew (cf. Mark 3:18), and we shall find them together later on (12:22). Although Philip is named in each of the Synoptic Gospels, these really say nothing specific about him. Not so in the Fourth Gospel. He appears significantly in both the multiplication of the loaves and the Last Supper, each time talking with Jesus:

First, John 6: “Then Jesus lifted up His eyes, and seeing a great multitude coming toward Him, He said to Philip, ‘Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?’ But this He said to test him, for He Himself knew what He would do. Philip answered Him, ‘Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may have a little.’” (In the very next verse Andrew is introduced.)

Next, John 14: “Philip said to Him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, “Show us the Father”?’”

We learn something about Philip from both of these encounters. When Philip is introduced in the present chapter, he becomes a link joining together the apostolic band. Like Andrew, he has a Greek name, which may be the reason that the “Greeks” approach him in chapter 12. It was not uncommon for Galileans to have Greek names.

In identifying Bethsaida as “the city of Andrew and Peter,” John evidently indicates the place of their birth. The Synoptic Gospels clearly testify that the brothers now lived in Capernaum.

The Nathanael introduced here is clearly Bartholomew. The name Nathanael, after all, never appears in the Synoptic Gospels, and the name Bartholomew never appears in John. His full name was “Nathanael, son of Tholmai,” Indeed, in the Syriac text he is known as Bar Tholmai. He is normally named after Philip in the list of the Apostles (Mark 3:18).

Philip testifies to Nathanael that Jesus is the fulfillment of what was written in the Law and the Prophets (verse 45). This is the first time John explicitly speaks of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. This mention of Moses continues the attention given to him already in this chapter: “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.”

Since we know that Nathanael came from Cana (21:2), and because the next story is placed at Cana (2:1), it is reasonable to suppose that this conversation took place in that town. We find Jesus at Cana in the very next scene.

One surmises that there must have been some local rivalry between Cana and Nazareth, which may account for Nathanael’s comment about Nazareth. It could be the case, however, that Nathanael was simply expressing what was obvious: Nazareth was an insignificant village, never mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures. Indeed, there was no record of a prophet ever coming from Galilee (7:41,52).

When Nathanael approaches Jesus, the Lord says of him, “Behold, truly, an Israelite in whom is not deceit!” Jesus is implicitly contrasting this son of Israel with the original Israel—namely, Jacob, in whom there was considerable deceit. Indeed, deceit was one of Jacob’s most obvious traits, as both Isaac and Laban could testify.

Nathanael’s lack of deceit was manifest, in fact, in his frank remark about Nazareth!

The allusion to Jacob is continued in the Lord’s conversation with Nathanael: “you shall see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” This is a reference, of course, to the story of Jacob at Bethel, where he saw the angels of God ascending and descending at that holy place. Jesus thus identifies Himself as the new Bethel, “the house of God.” This idea will appear in the next chapter, when the Lord identifies His own body as the new temple.

Jacob will appear again in the Lord’s discussion with the woman at the well in chapter 4.

Especially important to the story of Nathanael is the verb “to see.” Jesus “sees” Nathanael. Indeed, this is said twice: “Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him,” and “I saw you under the fig tree.” When this verb is ascribed to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, it is always the beginning of a transformation. We will presently elaborate that theme.

Nathanael’s confession of faith forms a kind of climax to this chapter: Son of God, and King of Israel. Both of these titles will be taken up later. Thus:

“[Martha] said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world’” (11:27)

And, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!” (12:13)

The first of these titles, in John’s eyes, look at Jesus from the perspective of eternity, the second from the perspective of history. Both considerations are essential to John’s Christology.