Friday, January 26

Psalms 69 (Greek & Latin 68): From the very beginning the Christian reading of Psalm 68 (Hebrew 69) has uniformly interpreted this prayer in the context of the Lord’s suffering and death. “Save me, O God, for the waters have come even unto my soul. . . . I have come to the depths of the sea, and the flood has submerged me,” prays the Man of sorrows who described His approaching Passion as the baptism with which He must be baptized (cf. Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50; Rom. 6:3).

This same Sufferer goes on to pray: “Zeal for Your house has consumed me,” a verse explicitly cited in the New Testament with respect to the Lord’s purging of the temple (John 2:17). In the context this consuming of the Lord was a reference to His coming Passion; He went on to say to those who were plotting to kill Him: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” In saying this, the evangelist noted, “He was speaking of the temple of His body” (vv. 19, 21).

The very next line says: “The reproaches of those who reproached You have fallen on me,” a verse later cited in Romans as bearing on the sufferings of the Lord. The apostle’s lapidary and understated comment was that “even Christ did not please Himself” (15:3). In this passage St. Paul could obviously presume a common Christian understanding of Psalm 69, even in a congregation that he had not yet visited.

Still later in our psalm stands the line: “Let their dwelling be deserted, and let no one live in their tabernacles.” Even prior to the Pentecostal outpouring, the Church knew this verse for a reference to Judas Iscariot (cf. Acts 1:20), that dark and tragic figure who guided the enemies of Jesus and betrayed his Lord with a kiss.

Psalm 69 is the prayer of Him “who, in the days of His flesh . . . offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death” (Heb. 5:7). The Christian Church has ever been persuaded that Psalm 68 expresses the sentiments of that soul “exceedingly sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). In Psalm 68 we are given a vision into the very heart of Christ in the circumstances of His Passion: “Deliver me from those that hate me, and from the depths of the waters. Let not the flood of water submerge me, nor the depth swallow me down, nor the mouth of the pit close over me.”

This is the Christ who in dereliction sought in vain the human companionship of His closest friends during the vigil prior to His arrest: “What? Could you not watch with Me one hour?” (Matt. 26:40). Psalm 69 speaks of this disappointment as well: “My heart waited for contempt and misery; I hoped for someone to share my sorrow, but there was no one; someone to console me, but I found none.”

According to all four Gospels, the dying Christ was offered some sort of bitter beverage, oxsos, a sour wine or vinegar, as He hung on the Cross. This is the very word used at the end of the following verse of Psalm 68: “And for my food they laid out gall, and for my drink they gave me vinegar.”

But there is another dimension to the Passion of the Lord—the resolve of His victory. Even as He was being arrested, His enemies were unable to stand upright in His presence (cf. John 18:6). This was the Christ, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2). No man takes the Lord’s life from Him, for He has power to lay it down and to take it up again (cf. John 10:18). This is the Christ whom death could not hold, who descended a very conqueror into hell to loose the bonds of them that sat in darkness, and who “went and preached to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet. 3:19).

This sense of Christ’s victory also dominates the final lines of Psalm 69: “I am poor and distressed, but the salvation of Your face, O God, has upheld me. I will praise the name of God with song; and I will magnify Him with praise.”

The victory of Christ is the foundation of the Church, those described when our psalm says, “Let the poor see and rejoice. Seek God, and your soul will live. . . . For the Lord will save Zion, and the cities of Judah will be built, and they shall dwell there and hold it by inheritance, and the seed of His servants will possess it.”

Saturday, January 27

Hebrews 11.1-7: To begin his history of the heroes of faith, our author goes to Creation itself. More specifically, he commences his consideration of history by appealing to a principle transcendent to history, supported by an experience common throughout history—to wit, the strong sense that the concrete, physical world, the world subject to experiential verification, is not self-explanatory. To put this thesis in other words, the world around us testifies to a spiritual domain beyond itself, a spiritual domain on which the physical world is dependent for its very existence. In our author’s own words; me ek phainoménon to blepómenon gegonénai—“what is seen does not come from visible things.”

All the saints of old, he says, bore witness to this: en tavte gar emartyrethesan hoi presbyteroi. This conviction of things unseen is the feature held in common by the sundry believers listed throughout the present chapter—from saints as learned as Moses (verse 24) o saints as simple as Samson (verse 32). They all lived their lives in the conviction that the present world presupposes a better one. This was true of the ancient patriarchs, who “looked for a city that has foundation” (verse 10), as well as those later saints who “were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection” (verse 35).

Man’s adherence to the world’s invisible source, says our author, is called faith; specifically it is faith in God’s creating word: “by faith we know [nooumen] the world were framed by the word of God [rhémati Theou].”

In speaking of the word of God in Creation, this author puts a great gulf between himself and Platonic philosophy, even when he uses words characteristic of Platonism (such as demiourgos in verse 10). The single link between the invisible and visible world is the word (rhema) of God. In making this assertion, the author of Hebrews relies entirely on the narrative in Genesis 1—Day by day during the first week of history, God spoke, and various creatures came into being. Over and over, the Lord said, “let there be,” and each time something visible—to blepomenon—suddenly appeared.”

In speaking of faith in these terms, the author is describing, rather than defining, his subject. He especially relates it to hope, or, more accurately, to “things hope for” (elpizoménon). That is to say, it looks to the future and, especially, the end of history.

His first “hero” of the faith is Abel, concerning whom the Lord said to Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.” The author of Hebrews contemplates the sacrificial death of Jesus in the context of that first death, which was also a death of violence and a test of faith.

“By faith,” says the Epistle to the Hebrews, “Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain,” at which point, says the Book of Genesis, “Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.” Consumed with rage, he at last “rose up against his brother Abel and killed him” (Hebrews 11:4; Genesis 4:5,8). The first man to die, therefore, perished in testimony to his faith, and it was an angry unbeliever who took his life.

Sunday, January 28

Matthew 11:25-30: In contrast to those in verses 20-24, who resist the Lord and reject the Gospel, are the “babies” to whom the Father reveals His Son, and the Son His Father. Because of its similarity to the Gospel and Epistles of St. John in the very terms of its expression, this text from Matthew is often referred to as the locus johanneus. This custom is perhaps unfortunate, for it conveys the impression that these verses in Matthew would fit the Fourth Gospel better than they fit Matthew.

In fact, however, these verses may be taken as the very key to the proper understanding of Matthew as a whole. They are the explanation of the Father’s voice in 3:17 and 17:5. God has hidden such revelation from the “wise and prudent,” such as the citizens of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. Matthew’s use of these expressions, babies and little ones, to describe Christians, accentuates his teaching on the humility necessary to receive the divine revelation of the Father.

Hence the invitation to learn of Jesus, for He is meek and humble of heart, modeling the meekness of those who will inherit the earth (5:5). This meekness of the Lord will later be noted when He rides into Jerusalem seated upon an ass (21:5).

Hebrews 11.8-22: Among the numerous and varied characters of the Old Testament, Abraham is perhaps the one most mentioned as a model for the Christian life. This theme is prominent in the Epistle to the Romans, where Abraham, described as “the father of us all” (4:16) is presented as the outstanding example of the life of faith (chapter 4 passim). For St. Paul, Abraham’s faith was manifest in his adherence to God’s promises against all contrary evidence: “contrary to hope, in hope he believed, so that he became the father of many nations” (4:18).

The Epistle to the Hebrews, though not neglecting that aspect of the Abraham story (11:11-12), emphasizes two other aspects of Abraham’s faith: his wandering and his response to the summons he received to offer Isaac in sacrifice.

The former theme is considered in the present verses: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country.” This aspect of Abraham’s faith is consistent with the theme of pilgrimage in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come” (13:14). Indeed, with respect to all the Old Testament saints, we are told, “they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (11:13).

This was preeminently the situation of Abraham, who obeyed the Lord’s command, “Get out of your country, / From your family / And from your father’s house, / To a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). In other words, Abraham will see that land only if he obeys the command of the Lord. “I will show you” is in the future tense.

Monday, January 29

Matthew 12:1-8: Matthew now picks up again the Markan sequence that he had broken off back in 9:17. He does this with two stories that he has taken from the series of five conflict stories in the second and third chapters of Mark: the stories of the standing grain and of the man with the withered hand. These two narratives, both of which concern the observance of the Sabbath, appropriately follow the previous sayings about “rest” and the “yoke.”

Matthew’s version of the first of these stories is longer than Mark’s, augmented by the reference to the priests who serve in the Temple on the Sabbath. The Lord’s reasoning here is as follows: If the servants of the Temple may work on the Sabbath, how much more the servants of the One who is greater than the Temple. The argument here is similar to that in 5:17-48; namely, Jesus’ superiority to the Mosaic Law.

Hebrews 11.23-29: When the parents looked upon little Moses, they were able to discern “by faith” some aspect of the child’s appearance that was not otherwise obvious. We recall that this section of Hebrews began by defining faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1). In Hebrews 11, faith invariably has to do with an adherence to the unseen future. The infant Moses, then, gave evidence of something hoped for but not yet seen, and faith granted his parents a special discernment in his regard.
This Christian interpretation of Exodus 2:2 is not unlike those found among ancient Jewish readers of the text. For example, Philo wrote that the newborn Moses “had a beauty more than human” (de Vita Moysi 1.9), and Josephus apparently agreed (Antiquities 2.9.6 §224). Rashi, in his commentary on Exodus, went even further, speculating that the house was filled with light at Moses’ birth. Indeed, he wrote, when Pharaoh’s daughter opened the little basket floating on the Nile, she beheld the Shekinah, the luminous cloud of the divine glory.
These readings, differing among themselves in detail, are in accord in their search for a deeper, subtler meaning in the Bible’s description of the newborn Moses. They all agree that his beautiful appearance was revelatory of God’s purpose.
The most obvious parallels to this passage, I submit, are the several places where the Book of Genesis says of Creation, “And God saw that it was good,” wayyar’ ’Elohim ki tov (Genesis 1:10,12,18,21,25,31). It is remarkable that both passages employ the identical predicate (ra’ah) and exactly the same objective clause (ki tov). That is to say, each of these books begins with the selfsame assertion, ra’ah ki tov—“. . . saw that . . . was good.”

Tuesday, January 30

Matthew 12.9-14: This story continues the theme of the Lord’s relationship to the Sabbath. Rabbinical theory permitted acts of healing on the Sabbath only in danger of death; otherwise such actions had to be postponed. In this text, and generally throughout the gospels, Jesus ignores this distinction. In the present instance His enemies are completely frustrated, because Jesus does not do anything with which they can accuse Him. He does not touch the afflicted man; He does not speak one word that could be interpreted as an act of healing. He simply tells the man to extend his impaired hand, and immediately the hand is healed! In their frustration the Lord’s enemies take the action to which most of the narrative has been building up to this point — they resolve that Jesus must die. That is to say, they resolve to do what Herod had failed to do in the second chapter of Matthew.

Hebrews 11.30-40: The faith of Rahab is contrasted with the unbelief of those other citizens of Jericho, who for seven days beheld the Ark of the Covenant circling their city and listened to the blast of the warning trumpets. They thus had ample opportunity to repent before it was too late, remarked St. John Chrysostom, more than twice as long as the citizens of Nineveh! (On Repentance 7.4.14)

Nonetheless, in the wider context of the Epistle to the Hebrews, it may be the case that the saving faith of Rahab is being contrasted with the unbelief of the Israelites themselves, those who failed to reach the Promised Land. Of those inexcusable unbelievers the author asks, “Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief” (3:17–19).

Following this line of interpretation, Chrysostom writes: “She accepted the spies and the One whom Israel denied in the desert; Rahab preached this One in the brothel.” And again: “What Israel heard—he who was surrounded by so many miracles and who was tutored by so many laws— he completely denied, whereas Rahab, who lived in a brothel, gives them instruction. For she says to the spies, ‘We learned all that your God did to the Egyptians’” (op. cit. 7.5.16).

The faith of Rahab was not an idle or lazy faith, says the Epistle of St. James: “Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (2:25–26).

Both of these perspectives were preserved by St. Clement of Rome, who said, “Rahab the harlot was saved because of her faith and hospitality” (Clement 12.1).

Perhaps because she was the first “Gentile convert” incorporated into God’s people, Rahab has always had a special place in Christian affection and esteem. Chrysostom imagines God saying of Rahab: “Yes, I had inside their city, to teach them repentance, that wonderful Rahab, whom I saved through repentance. She was taken from the same dough, but she was not of the same mind, for she neither shared in their sin nor resembled them in their unbelief” (op. cit. 7.4.14).

Wednesday, January 31

Matthew 12.15-21: Matthew now quotes at length an Isaian passage about the Suffering Servant. One will especially observe the text’s references to the calling of the Gentiles, references which look backwards to the Magi and forward to the Great Commission.

Hebrews 12.1-11: Christians are not expected to step into the dark corridor without knowing where that corridor will lead.

Jesus Himself knew exactly where He was going when He began Holy Week and the Way of the Cross. Indeed, it was his vision that strengthened Him to walk that path. He, “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame.” He did not suffer the Cross for the sake of the Cross, but because of that final joy.

Christians, likewise, are not called to endure for the sake of endurance, but for the sake of glory. In this, they are to be modeled on Jesus: “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus.” Several translations (Phillips, NIV, NEB, NAB) render this last expression as “our eyes fixed on Jesus,” which perhaps better catches the sense of aphorontes. We are, in fact, dealing with a fixation.

In the Christian life, very much depends of where we look, where we direct our attention. Recall Peter’s attempt to walk on water: “And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid” (Matthew 14:29-30).

This fixation is a function of concentration: “Consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.” The opening verb here (the only place in the New Testament) is the imperative form of analogizomai, which refers to critical, discursive thought—the labor of the mind.

In fact, one sees in this verb the same root found in the English “analogy.” This is all the more curious inasmuch as our author proceeds immediately to provide an analogy: “It is for discipline that you endure. God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not discipline?”

These reflections touch the very purpose of the Epistle to the Hebrews: to encourage Christians who had become despondent because of the difficulties attendant on the life of faith. The author endeavors to fix their attention on those considerations that provide strength for the struggle. His model, in this respect, is Jesus Himself, who “endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Thursday, February 1

Matthew 12:22-30: The Lord’s work of driving out of demons is once again (cf. 9:32-34) the object of controversy, as His enemies allege that this power comes from Jesus’ collusion with the dark forces themselves. Among the Synoptic accounts of this controversy (cf. Mark 3:2030; Luke 11:14-23) only Matthew records a healing from blindness in the context.

This liberation of a man from satanic darkness is contrasted by the example of those who remain steadfast in their own blindness of heart. Having made up their minds to destroy Jesus, they become ever more inveterate in their sins. Hence, this story leads immediately to the theme of the unforgiven sin, the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

Hebrews 12.12-24: This text contains the New Testament’s only criticism of Esau, who is described here as a “profane person . . . who for one morsel of food sold his birthright” (Hebrews 12:16).

Esau is introduced in Hebrews, I believe, because he represents the danger that the author most fears—namely, apostasy, or the abandonment of the inheritance of the saints. Esau was a man who forsook his inheritance and, as Hebrews insists, was unable to get it back: “For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance [metanoia], though he sought it diligently with tears.”

This inability of Esau to repent follows the thought of our author in chapter 6, where he says that for those Christians who apostatize “it is impossible . . . to renew them again to repentance [metanoia].” These are the only two chapters in which Hebrews uses the word metanoia, in both cases to insist on the difficulty of repenting after apostasy.

In fact, Esau’s inability to repent is one of the more notable features about the man. Esau had no real sense of the relative worth of things. He could not repent, because he did not truly grasp the value of what he had abandoned. Because he had cheaply sold something material, he assumed that he could just as cheaply purchase something spiritual. Embracing the principle that man lives by bread alone, he nonetheless fancied that a higher benediction was still available to him, pretty much at the same price. Having lost his birthright for a bowl of soup, he planned to gain his blessing with a plate of venison.

Esau is described as bebelos, translated traditionally as “profane” (KJV) or “irreligious”(RSV). He never developed the habit of reflecting on the moral nature of what he was doing. Esau, as we see in the instance of the bowl of soup, thought only of the present moment. Obeying the impulse of the moment, he neglected both the past and the future.

Hence, Esau was slow to learn that the future is very much tied to the past. Some blessings—and among them the very best—are inseparable from birthrights, so that the reckless squandering of the one renders unlikely the acquisition of the other. Those, therefore, who contemn the past, have little chance for a future. Esau stepped outside of salvation history, and he had only himself to blame.

Friday, February 2<.b>

Hebrews 12.25-29: Hebrews 12:25-29: In the biblical story of the first murder, it was to God that the blood of Abel cried out from the ground (Genesis 4:10). The blood of Jesus, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, differs in three ways from the blood of Abel:

First, the “voice” of Jesus’ blood is addressed, not only to God, but also to the rest of us. Hence, our author says, “See that you do not refuse Him who speaks.”

In respect to listening to this voice, he repeats a warning from earlier in his work, where he quoted the Psalmist: “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts” (3:7). Apropos of this exhortation, our author warns us, “if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation” (2:2-3). Indeed, the third and fourth chapters of this book are a kind of commentary on Psalm 95 (Greek and Latin 94), which speaks of God’s Word as addressed “today” (3:7,13,15; 4:7).

The warning in Hebrews 3 and 4 recalled what happened to those Israelites in the desert, who were not attentive to God’s voice: “Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey?” (3:17-18) The author of Hebrews reasons that if such a fate befell those who ignored God’s voice in the Old Testament, something worse must happen to us: “Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience” (4:11). The same warning is found in the present chapter(verse 25).

In both passages of Hebrews there prevails the conviction that God speaks now, today. His is a living and dynamic Word: “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (4:12-13).

Second, whereas the blood of Abel cried out from the earth, the blood of Jesus speaks from heaven: “For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven”.

This contrast is consistent with a major theme in Hebrews: The sacrifice of Christ is completed in heaven itself. The sanctuary on earth is but a copy of the true tabernacle in heaven: “Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (9:24). Our author wrote earlier, “Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (9:11-12).

Everything on earth will pass away, as the tabernacle of Moses passed away, but the things of heaven are permanent: “Now this, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we serve God acceptably” (verses 27-28).

Third, the blood of Christ, speaking to us from heaven, “speaks better [kreitton] than that of Abel” (verse 24). The blood of Abel, we recall, cried out for vengeance, but the blood of Christ speaks “better.” This word, —kreitton, invokes the entire message of the Epistle to the Hebrews, where everything represented by Jesus is described as “better.”

Indeed, this word appears more in the Epistle to the Hebrews than in the rest of the New Testament put together. Thus, Jesus became “so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they” (1:4). In fact, He brought in “a better hope, through which we draw near to God” (7:19). For this reason, “He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises” (8:6). This fact is based on the premise that the things of heaven had to be consecrated “with better sacrifices” than the tabernacle of Moses (9:23). And by reason of what Christ has done for us, we “have a better and an enduring possession” (10:34). This possession includes what our author calls “a better resurrection” (11:35).