Friday, January 7

Matthew 3.13-17: I suggest three points of reflection about the Baptism of our Lord.

First, from the perspective of theology it was an initial manifestation of the identity of Jesus. This is obvious in the way the Church celebrates the feast, of course, but it appears that the Gospel writers themselves regarded the event of the Lord’s baptism very much as it was regarded by the Church Fathers and the traditional liturgical texts, namely, as a revelation, not to Jesus, but to those who were present . . . and to the Church.

This interpretation is perhaps clearest in Matthew, where the Father’s voice speaks of Jesus in the third person, “This is My beloved Son.” In Luke the Holy Spirit’s descent on Jesus was visible-He came down “in bodily form (somatiko eidei) like a dove.” Finally, in the Fourth Gospel John the Baptist confesses, “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.'”

Second, from the perspective of history, this was an important event in the life of Jesus. It was the occasion of a determined resolve on the part of Jesus Himself. This idea, though it suggests an initial problem, points to a solution that touches on the very mystery of Redemption.

The supposed problem is this: Jesus came voluntarily to be baptized by John, even though John’s was a baptism of repentance (Acts 19:4). Why would Jesus do this? After all, the entire witness of the New Testament declares that He was the “lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:19), “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners” (Hebrews 7:26), “the Holy One and the Just” (Acts 3:14), who “knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Moreover, Jesus was conscious of being sinless, for He challenged His enemies, “Which of you convicts Me of sin?” (John 8:46) Why, then, did the unoffending Jesus seek a baptism of repentance?

The answer to this question has to do with the very motive of the Incarnation. God’s Son, in the assumption of our humanity, took upon Himself a radical solidarity with fallen mankind. Even before His saving Passion, in which “He poured out His soul unto death,” we already find Him “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12). The voice from heaven signified God’s acceptance of that redemptive resolve.

And this, surely, is why Jesus approached John, seeking his baptism in order “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). It was not as a private citizen, so to speak, that Jesus came to the waters of the Jordan, but in order to present Himself to the Father as the representative of the human race in this great symbolic act of repentance. Jesus thereby expressed His resolve “to be made like His brethren” (Hebrews 2:17).
Jesus declared in the baptism of repentance His determination that no distance should separate Him from us.

Third, from the perspective of our life in Christ, the Baptism of our Lord is the form and pattern of our own. The solidarity of Jesus with sinful humanity, manifest and expressed in His Baptism by John, is an invitation to all of humanity to share in His Baptism, confessing their sins and receiving the mercy of God.

Once again, this is perhaps clearest in the Gospel of Matthew, which closes with the great commission to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This Trinitarian formula of Baptism, with which the Gospel of Matthew ends, corresponds to the Baptism of Jesus, with which the public life of Jesus begins.

Saturday, January 8

Matthew 4.12-17: In today’s reading from Matthew, we have the first of three pericopes about Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. The next two stories are the calling of the first apostles at the Sea of Galilee (4:18-22) and the gathering of the great multitude (4:23-25) that will hear the Sermon on the Mount in the next chapter.

In the present text Matthew sets the stage for this Galilean ministry by showing it as a fulfillment of prophecy, specifically Isaiah 9:1-2. This prophecy, having to do with Gentiles finding the light, takes up the same theme as the earlier story of the pagan Magi who followed the star.

This early emphasis on the Galilean ministry is important to the structure of Matthew. At the end of his Gospel (in stark contrast to Luke) the revelation of the risen Christ to the Church will take place in this same “Galilee of the Gentiles” (28:7,10,16). Matthew’s story of Jesus ministry thus begins and ends in Galilee, the place where Jews and Gentiles live together. Galilee is thus an image of the Church.

Acts 10.34-43: The Apostle Peter, in the sermon recorded in today’s reading from Acts, begins with this same period of Jesus’ ministry. In this respect he follows the timeframe established for all the early Apostolic testimony: “all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day, when He was taken up from us” (Acts 1:22). This was the time frame for which the apostles were eyewitnesses (10:39-41). The apostle Paul, in his sermon at Pisidia, will also stick to that identical time frame (13:23-37). The gospels of Mark and John also adhere closely to that narrative pattern.

Deuteronomy 8: In the “memory” that establishes the identity of God’s people, there is a particular importance attached to the forty years spent in the desert between Egypt and the Promised Land. It was during that specific period learned to trust God’s provision, to discern his discipline, and to obey his will.

In the Church, from earliest times, this period of Israel’s history was understood to present a sort of parable of the Christian life itself. The Apostle Paul, for instance, treating of Israel’s experience in the desert, declared, tavta de typoi hemon egenethesan,” “these things happened as our types”; “they were written for our instruction” (1 Cor 11.6,11). Similarly, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in his long treatment of Psalm 95 (Greek and Latin 94), perceived a continuity uniting the Christian people to the ancient Israelites in the desert. He even asserted, “we are evangelized like they were” —- esmen evengelismenoi kathaper kakeinoi(4.2).

Sunday, January 9

Matthew 4.18-25: We continue with Matthew’s second story about the ministry in Galilee, the calling of the first Apostles. As fishermen, these men pursue a profession that bears a playful analogy with the ministry of the Church. That is, they become “fishers of men,” drawing the whole world into the Holy Spirit’s net, which is the Church.

In the third Galilean pericope, this fishing is extended to the larger region of the Decapolis and Syria. The Church’s net is spread out to cover a larger area. This text is a step in the preparation of the Great Commission, given in Matthew’s final chapter, about the disciplizing of “all nations.” The people are gathering here, of course, to hear the Sermon on the Mount, which will fill the next three chapters of Matthew.

Hebrews 3.1-11: Having contrasted Jesus to the prophets (1:1-2) and to the angels (1:5-14), the Epistle to the Hebrews proceeds to contrast Him to Moses. In all cases, God’s Son and Heir is contrasted with His mere servants. In the cases of the angels and Moses, the words used for “servant” have a religious meaning.

First, with respect to the angels the descriptive word is leitourgos (1:7), translated in the KJV as “minister.” In describing the angels further, the author resorts to an equivalent expression, leitourgika pnevmata, translated in the KJV as “ministering spirits.”

Second, with respect to Moses, the descriptive word is therapon (verse 5). Since this word is normally translated into English as simply “servant,” the reader may not suspect the religious meaning it sometimes has. The noun therapon often refers to someone who serves in a temple. This is how we should understand Moses as God’s “servant.”

In his quotation from Psalm 95, the author of this work begins to introduce what is arguably his major moral concern: the danger of turning away from the faith professed by the Christian at the time of his baptismal rebirth.

He refers to this baptismal profession (homologia in the first verse of this chapter: “Consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession [homologia], Christ Jesus” (3:1). Explicit references to this baptismal profession appear two other times in Hebrews: “Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession “ (4:14). And again, “Let us hold fast the confession of hope without wavering” (10:23).

Throughout this work the author several times reveals some sense of alarm that his hearers/readers are in danger of not finishing the course undertaken in that profession. In fact, this book contains the New Testament’s clearest warnings against apostasy.

Deuteronomy 9: The identical theme—the danger of apostasy—dominates today’s reading from Deuteronomy. The long exhortation of this book is directed to Israel’s second generation. Here Moses reminds them that the first generation, the generation that actually left Egypt, had fallen away and had perished in the desert for their disobedience, idolatry, and unbelief.

Monday, January 10

Matthew 5:1–12: The Sermon on the Mount begins with two very solemn verses, as though to allow everyone to sit down and get settled for a long discourse. The Sermon functions in more than one way to serve the structure of Matthew’s entire composition. For example, taking place on a mountain at the very beginning of the Lord’s ministry, it is the initial component of a parallel with the mountain at the end of the Gospel, the mountain from which Jesus sent the Apostles to teach what he had taught (28:20).

Again, the Sermon is the first of the five great discourses—a New Testament Chumash as it were—which are the didactic backbone of Matthew’s Gospel. Functioning thus, it stands in chiastic correspondence to the last of these five discourses, the lengthy sermon on the Last Things (chapters 23–25).

Close readers of Matthew have long observed that this Sermon itself forms a commentary on the Beatitudes with which it begins (verses 2–10). This commentary is also chiastic, meaning that it reverses the order of the Beatitudes. Thus, for example, verses 11–12 form a commentary on verse 10, verses 13–16 are a commentary on verse 9, and so forth.

Compared to the shorter Beatitudes in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (6:20–22), we observe that, whereas Luke’s version contains only “situations” (poverty, hunger, etc.), Matthew’s version commends ethical norms (mercy, purity of heart, etc.). Luke’s version is entirely kerygma, or proclamation, whereas Matthew’s is also a didache, or instruction. In addition to a proclamation of the Kingdom, it includes a practical moral code.

Hebrews 3.12-19: The author continues his warning about the danger of ultimate spiritual failure. The call of God must not be taken lightly. It is not only grace; it is also trial. To demonstrate the possibility of a radical falling away, our author’s first example comes from the period of the Israelites’ wandering in the Sinai desert. He was much impressed that only two adults, among the 600,000 who left Egypt, actually made it to the Promised Land. The rest of the people defected in the wilderness.

He has made this point by citing Psalm 95 (94), and here he beings to comment on it over the space of two chapters: “Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, In the day of trial in the wilderness, Where your fathers tested Me, tried Me, And saw My works forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, And said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, And they have not known My ways.’ So I swore in My wrath,‘ They shall not enter My rest.’” Once again, the identical theme dominates today’s reading from Deuteronomy 10.

Tuesday, January 11

Matthew 5:13–20: In verse 11 the address of Jesus shifted from the third to the second person: “Blessed are you.” The addressed party is the Church—or rather, the Christians—inasmuch as the number of the address is plural. That plural, addressed to Christians, is maintained in the verses now under consideration: “You are the salt of the earth,” this section begins, and it ends, “for I say to you (verse 20).

We start with the metaphors of salt and light, both of them referring to Christians. In each case the beneficiary of these two blessings is the earth (ge) or World (kosmos), meaning those who are not Christians (verse 13). Salt and light describe the very people that the world persecutes and maligns (verses 11–12). No amount of persecution justifies the forfeiture of the Christian vocation to be salt and light to the rest of humanity. Neither salt nor light exist for themselves. Should Christians fail in this vocation, they are no longer of any use. They are to be “thrown out,” like the tares (13:40) and the inedible fish (13:48).

The metaphor of light on a lamp stand is transformed into a city seated on an acropolis, where it is visible to everyone (verse 14). Neither can Christians be concealed if they do the “good works” (ta kala erga) that their heavenly Father expects of them (verse 16). Those who see these good works belong to the same “earth” or “world” that persecutes the Christians. The world is to be enlightened by the very people it persecutes.

What Matthew has in mind here is the Christian vocation to holiness, by which the world is instructed in the ways of God. This holiness, according to the present passage, pertains to the missionary mandate of the Church. It is the way the Church shares the Gospel with “all nations” (28:19–20). This is the light that shines on those sitting in darkness (4:16).

The connecting link of verses 13–16 with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount is “your Father in heaven” (verse 16). This reference will become a leitmotif in the following chapter.

The rest of chapter five, starting with the present verses, is concerned with Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament Law. This theme is related to the metaphors of salt and light through the continuity linking the Church to ancient Israel, the legitimate continuation of God’s redeemed people. It is the Church that continues Israel’s vocation to “salt” and illumine the world. For this reason it is imperative to speak of the Church’s relationship to the Torah, and this relationship is the subject of the rest of the present chapter.

Matthew has already begun to say a great deal about Jesus’ fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Now he starts to speak of Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law. Indeed, the word “prophets” in the present passage (verse 17) does not refer to the fulfillment of biblical prophecies in the Old Testament. It refer, rather, to the prophets in their role as interpreters of the Law—the prophets as moral teachers. The sense of this verse, then, is that Jesus completes, or brings to fulfillment, the moral doctrine of the Law and its continuation in the Prophets. Throughout the rest of this chapter, therefore, Matthew speaks simply of the Law, not mentioning the Prophets again.

Wednesday, January 12

Hebrews 5.1-14: The chief point our author wants to make here, with respect to the priesthood of Jesus Christ, is His compassion for sinners. He is compassionate, says Hebrews, because He suffered temptation. This theme was already introduced in Hebrews, at the end of that section dealing with the Incarnation: “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted” (2:17-18).

This author insists that this is kind of priest we need: He must feel the same weakness the rest of us feel: “For we do not have a High Priest unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but was, like ourselves, tempted in everything.”

The temptations faced by Jesus were recorded chiefly in two blocks of narrative in the New Testament: His temptation for forty days in the wilderness, and the agony in the garden. For all that, however, we should probably not imagine that these were the only times Jesus was subject to temptation. As the religious leaders of the Jewish people started to reject Jesus and His claims—an experience that apparently grew more intense during the course of His ministry—He began to realize that He would finish his life nailed to a cross. In fact, the gospels tell us, “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed” (Mark 8:31).

It is reasonable to think that the sadness and fear of Jesus, which became critical during His agony in the garden, took hold of His soul much earlier, as He came gradually to understand how sternly His fidelity to His Father would be tested.

Jesus also knew the Scriptures. He had long ago learned the stories of Elijah, Jeremiah, and Job. He was fully aware that all those who would serve God must endure suffering. He could take personal charge of the admonition laid down by Sirach: “Son, when thou comest to the service of God . . . prepare thy soul for temptation. . . . Humble thy heart, and endure. . . . Wait on God with patience: join thyself to God, and endure . . . Take all that shall be brought upon thee: and in thy sorrow endure, and in thy humiliation keep patience. For gold and silver are tried in the fire, but acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation” (Sirach 2:1-5).

This trial of Jesus’ spirit, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, made Him compassionate. Indeed, says Hebrews, compassion is quality God requires of every: “For every high priest taken from among men is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also subject to weakness.”

Thursday, January 13

Matthew 5.31-37: With respect to divorce, Jesus clearly goes beyond the obvious letter of the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 24:1) by forbidding divorce altogether. Later in the Gospel, Jesus will describe the Old Testament rule on divorce as a concession allowed by Moses (19:8).

Efforts to find in verse 32 an exception to the Lord’s prohibition of divorce are unfounded. The expression “except sexual immorality” (ektos logou porneias) does not refer to violations of the marriage vow. It simply means that the Lord is forbidding the dissolution of a true marriage, not the break-up of an illicit sexual liaison. It may be paraphrased: “Whoever divorces his wife — not his mistress — causes her to commit adultery.”

Matthew goes on to cite Jesus’ warning about recourse to oaths. Whereas the Mosaic Law prohibits perjury—an imprecation in testimony to a lie (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11)—Gospel righteousness forbids oaths in testimony to the truth.

The examples given in these verses, particularly that related to one’s own head (verse 36), contain some measure of disguise or subterfuge, to avoid using God’s name explicitly (“heaven,” “earth,” “Jerusalem”—verse 34; cf. 23:16-22). This suggests an “unofficial” context for the prohibition. In solemn and more formal settings, after all, such as a courtroom, there would be no such disguising of the references to God’s holy name.

In fact, this is how the ethical tradition of the Church has interpreted the prohibition of oaths—that is, as pertaining to ordinary conversation, not a more solemn setting in which an oath is reasonable and expected. Thus, we observe the Apostle Paul’s complete lack of scruple in this matter (cf. Romans 1:9; 2 Corinthians 1:23; Philippians 1:8; 1 Thessalonians 2:5). The Church has followed suit, not understanding this prohibition in the same strict sense as the prohibition against divorce.

The point of the prohibition is to avoid frivolous, unnecessary, and irreverent appeals to God, no matter how such appeals may be disguised. Invocations of this sort encroach on the realm of the divine, and the biblical Lord would be treated with the same nonchalance that pagans felt toward the Homeric gods. Oaths of this kind are irreverent to the divine presence, much like the uncovered head of a woman in prayer. Such oaths—frivolous invocations to the divine truth as guarantor of human claims—demean the divine majesty by forcing God to participate in a merely human conversation. Gospel righteousness recognizes the insult implied in such behavior and such an attitude.

The Lord’s prohibition of oaths extends and perfects the Mosaic proscription against taking the Lord’s name “in vain” (that is, on behalf of a false assertion) and strengthens the Old Testament’s care to reverence the holiness of God’s name (Leviticus 19:12). In this sense Jesus’ prohibition goes to the root of the divine intention in the Torah, much as His prohibition of divorce and adulterous thoughts more profoundly asserts what the Old Testament says of the sanctity of marriage.

In addition, the Lord’s injunction here forces the believer to assume full responsibility for the “truth content” of what he says (verse 37; cf. James 5:12; 1 Corinthians 1:19). He cannot evade this moral responsibility by a casual invocation of the supernatural. Such invocations, says Jesus, are far from harmless; they come “from the Evil One” (ek tou Ponerou), from whom we pray to be delivered (apo tou Ponerou–6:13).

Finally, let us note that the Lord Himself declined the high priest’s adjuration to swear to His own divinity (26:63, in Matthew only).

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.