Friday, February 16

Romans 5.12-21: Having earlier treated of Abraham and David in regard to justification, Paul now turns to a consideration of Adam, whose sin introduced death into the world. Our mortality is the Fall that we sinners inherit from Adam. If, apart from Christ, sins reigns, “sin reigns in death” (verse 21). By reason of Adam’s Fall, man without Christ is under the reign of death and corruption, because “the reign of death operates only in the corruption of the flesh” (Tertullian, On the Resurrection 47).

In the death and resurrection of Christ, on the other hand, are unleashed the energies of life and incorruption. This is the foundation of Paul’s antithetical comparison of Christ and Adam.

Paul goes to Genesis 3 to explain what he calls “the reign of death” (verses 14,17). In the Bible death is not natural, nor is it merely biological, and certainly it is not neutral. Apart from Christ, death represents man’s final separation from God (verse 21; 6:21,23; 8:2,6,38). The corruption of death is sin incarnate and rendered visible. When this “last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:56) has finally been vanquished, then may we most correctly speak of “salvation.” This is why the vocabulary of salvation normally appears in Romans in the future tense.

Because of men’s inheritance of Adam’s Fall, “all sinned.” (Paul is not considering infants here, but this consideration makes no difference to the principle. What has been handed on in Adam’s Fall is not, in the first instance, a sense of personal guilt, but the reign of death. “Sin reigns in death” [verse 21]. Infants, alas, are also the heirs of death, and therefore of Adam’s Fall.)

The reign of death was present from Adam to Moses, but because the Law had not yet been given, men were not held invariably held accountable for their transgressions (verse 13; 3:20; 4:15). No matter—they still died! Death reigned (verse 14).

Did the coming of the Mosaic Law improve the situation? Of course not. The Law not only did not take away the reign of death, it made men more consciously aware of their fallen state (verse 20; Galatians 3:13,19). “For as the Law was spiritual, it emphasized sin but did not destroy it” (Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3.18.7).

It was by way of antithesis that Adam prefigured Christ, the new Head of humanity, who introduces a life more abundant, more extensive, more powerful than Adam’s Fall (verses 15-21). No matter how much sin abounded, grace and mercy abound the more. That is to say, Christ has more than made up the “shortfall” of Adam. The abundant mercy of God is demonstrated by the fact that the whole blighted history of man’s transgressions culminates, because of Christ, in man’s acquittal.

The reign of death, then, is replaced by the reign of the saints. In contrast to the reign of death, this is a reign “in life” (verse 17), “justification of life” (verse 18, clearly an appositional genitive), even “eternal life” (verse 21).

The contrast between the obedience of Christ and the disobedience of Adam (verse 19) was evidently a theme of early pre-Pauline hymnography (cf. Philippians 2:5-10).

In what sense did Adam’s sin make all men sinners? By the transmission of death as the human inheritance. “Sin reigns in death” (verse 21). In the Bible, death apart from Christ is man’s final and definitive separation from God, which is the essence of sin. Men are conceived and born as sinners because death reigns in their very being. Death is the essence of Adam’s legacy to the human race. It is from the reign of death that Christ came to set us free. Our salvation will be complete when our bodies themselves have been set free from the tyranny of death.

Saturday, February 17

Matthew 14:13-21: The great significance of the multiplication of the loaves among the early Christians may be discerned from the fact that: (1) outside of the events of Holy Week, it is one of the very few scenes recorded in all four gospels; (2) aspects of it are depicted numerous times in the earliest Christian iconography; (3) normally recorded in language identical to, or at least reminiscent of, that of the Last Supper, it is clearly one of the events of Jesus’ life perceived to be weighted with the greatest theological significance. This is clearest in John, where it is accompanied by the lengthy and elaborate Bread of Life discourse.

This miraculous event brought to the minds of those present the expectation that the coming Messiah would renew the events of the Exodus, including the feeding of the people with miraculous bread in the wilderness. This sense of expectation and fulfillment accounts for the considerable emphasis on Messianic themes in early Eucharistic texts of the Christian Church.

Even as Matthew begins this story, we observe a significant way in which he alters the narrative in Mark. Whereas Mark (6:34), describes Jesus as “teaching” the people in the wilderness, Matthew says that Jesus “healed” them (verse 14). This change of perspective is consonant with Matthew’s other indications that Jesus had begun to withdraw from teaching the Jews in public and to concentrate, instead, on the immediate band of His disciples. Nonetheless, Jesus still expresses His messianic compassion through healing and feeding them.

Romans 6:1-14: The sole person who has overcome the reign of death is Jesus Christ, who could not be held by the clutches of death. As soon as death grabbed hold of Him, it knew that it had met more than its match. The sin that reigned “in death” was thus vanquished, death of Christ atoning for the sins of the whole world. Thus, the death that He died, “He died to sin” (verse 10; 2 Corinthians 5:21). His death, embraced in obedience to the Father’s will, reversed the disobedience of Adam and redeemed, for God, all of Adam’s children. By His death, the sacrificial Lamb of God took away the sins of the whole world.

By His rising again, likewise, Jesus Christ conquered and brought to an end the reign of death. “Death no longer has dominion over Him” (verse 9). Thus the death (including the shedding of His blood and all the sufferings attendant on that death) and the resurrection (including the ascension into heaven, the entrance into the Holy Place, and the sitting at the right hand of the Father) of Jesus Christ form the single activity of our redemption. No part of that mystery is separable from the other, such is its integrity, its wholeness, its catholicity (kath’ holon=”according to the whole”).

At their baptism in the faith of Christ, Christians are plunged under the water in sacramental imitation of Jesus’ burial, and their emergence from that water symbolizes in mystery Christ’s rising from the tomb. Baptism, therefore, is regarded by Paul as the normative and essential foundation for the life in Christ (verses 4-5,8; Colossians 2:15; Ephesians 2:5-6; 1 Peter 4:1).

It is instructive to observe that Paul expects all Christians to know this, even those who have never met him or heard him preach (verse 3). He presumes this doctrine to pertain to the common deposit of the Christian faith that he himself received from the inherited apostolic teaching. Indeed, such explicit teaching about the significance of baptism was part of the pre-baptismal catechesis, in which new believers learned the meaning of what they were about to do (cf. Hebrews 6:1-2; Acts 19:1-5).

Sunday, February 18

Matthew 4.1-11: We observe that in Matthew—unlike Luke—the culminating temptation takes place on a very high mountain. It is on this mountain that Satan promises to give Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” This is the final and most serious temptation.

In what sense is this temptation the most serious? It is the most serious because Jesus already knows that he is to receive “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.” What is Matthew saying here? This mountain, where he is offered all the kingdoms of the world as Satan’s gift, is contrasted with the mountain on which Matthew finishes his Gospel, the mountain of the Great Commission. Let us recall how Jesus begins that Commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”—edothe moi.

We observe, once again, what Satan says to Jesus on this first mountain: “All these things I will give you”—tavta soi panta doso.

That is to say, what Satan offers Jesus is a shortcut. He can be given right now, says Satan, what he has coming to him. No need for the agony in the garden, no need for the crowning with thorns, no need for the scourging at the pillar, and no need for the crucifixion. Jesus can have the final reward right now.

All Jesus must do is to allow Satan to take the place of the Ancient of Days: “All these things I will give you if you fall down and worship me.”

This was also the temptation of David in the desert, we recall. David already knew, from the prophecy of Samuel, that he was to become the king. The crown already belonged to him by right. But the crown still stood on the brow of Saul, while David was in exile in the wilderness.

All David had to do was put forth his hand to kill Saul, something he had two opportunities to do. Each time, however, David refused to take the shortcut; on both occasions he spared the life of Saul.

This was also the temptation of Macbeth. He, too, the three witches had prophesied, was to become king. He, too, would wear the crown. Unlike David, however, Macbeth determined to take the shortcut. Instead of waiting for the hand of God, as David did—-as Jesus did—Macbeth chooses to be master of his own destiny. Spurred on by ambition, Macbeth succumbs to the temptation to seize the crown by taking the life of Duncan.

The foil to Macbeth in this story is Banquo, who likewise heard the words of the three witches. And it is the soliloquy of Banquo that reveals the nature of Macbeth’s temptation. Banquo discerns that a man can be deceived, not just by lies, but also by the truth.

If the Devil only told lies, temptation would be a great deal easier to deal with. Satan is far more effective at deception when he tells us the truth. You see, Satan never tells us the whole truth. He tells us only the truths he wants us to know.

Monday, February 19

Jeremiah 17: God spoke to and through the prophets, and some of those prophets, on occasion, spoke back to God. None of them did so, however, as often and fervently as Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a man of prayer.

This trait, discernible throughout the man’s life and ministry, is introduced right from the opening scene in the book that bears his name. That scene, the account of his call when he was still very young, consists entirely of a conversation between himself and God (1:4–14).

Such conversations between the Lord and this prophet, moreover, are a unique and distinguishing characteristic of Jeremiah among the prophetic books (cf. 4:5–21; 9:1–6; 11:1–5, 18–23; 12:1–6; 14:1–22; 15:10–21; 17:12–19; 18:19–23; 20:7–18; 23:9–12; 24:1–5; 32:16–26).

The prayers of Jeremiah, intense in their tone and unique in their frequency, are essential to the understanding of his message and his historical significance.

If, especially after the tragic death of King Josiah at the Battle of Megiddo in 609 BC, Jeremiah’s prayers became progressively darker, this trait reflected but the deepening shadows of his life, and these shadows, in turn, were cast by the inevitable, trampling fate that trod its way toward Jerusalem. Nearly all of the Book of Jeremiah was composed under the grim, gathering cloud that stormed forth at last in 587, when the Babylonian invader came to destroy Jerusalem and its temple. The inevitability of that coming destruction had been foretold by Huldah the prophetess in 622 (cf. 2 Kings 22:16–17), and the keenly perceptive Jeremiah discerned its taking shape in the politics and cultural life of his day. Interpreting that approaching doom was the very substance of Jeremiah’s ministry, and his prayer was integral to that interpretation.

The Lord was on the point of destroying the very institutions that He had for centuries cultivated and sustained, and in the heart of Jeremiah the city’s looming destruction assumed metaphysical dimensions. It suggested to his mind both the overthrow of nature and the dissolution of history. Thus, it was Jeremiah’s destiny to assume the impending tragedy of Israel into the fabric of his own heart, an experience that filled him with a deep feeling of radical alienation from God. He struggled in the darkness: “O the Hope of Israel, his Savior in time of trouble, / Why should You be like a stranger in the land, / And like a traveler who turns aside to tarry for a night?” (14:8) . . . “Will you surely be to me like an unreliable stream, / As waters that fail?” (15:18) . . . “Do not be a terror to me; / You are my hope in the day of doom” (17:17).

Jeremiah’s prayer was shaped, therefore, by the contours of Israel’s tragedy: “Oh, that my head were waters, / And my eyes a fountain of tears, / That I might weep day and night / For the slain of the daughter of my people!” (9:1) . . . “Woe is me, my mother, / That you have borne me, / A man of strife and a man of contention to the whole earth!” (15:10) . . . “But His word was in my heart like a burning fire / Shut up in my bones; / I was weary of holding it back” (20:9).

His was an extremely lonely life. Most of Jerusalem’s citizens, suffering from chronic shallowness and terminal optimism, thought him something of an oddity, a crank, and a nuisance, maybe even a public menace. They accused him (37:14), conspired against him (18:18), seized him (26:8), sought his life (11:21), struck him and put him in stocks (20:2), imprisoned him (32:3), kidnapped him (chs. 42—43), threw him in a deep pit where he nearly died from hunger (38:6–9). In short, Jeremiah was obliged to “go it alone.” His was a more than ordinary personal desolation, inasmuch as he embraced a life of consecrated celibacy and asceticism as a prophetic sign of Jerusalem’s approaching devastation (16:1–5).

Tuesday, February 20

Matthew 15.1-9: When Jesus finished the Sermon on the Mount, it was remarked that “He taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” It did not take long for the scribes to take note of this, so there soon began a series of debates about Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah (9:10-15; 12:1-4). The series continues here.

The question about washing hands before eating bread (verse 2), we observe, follows closely on the story of the miraculous bread (14:13-21). In addition, it is soon followed by Jesus’ reference to the “children’s bread” (verse 26), a second account of miraculous loaves (verses 29-37), and another discussion about bread (16:5-12).

Whereas the scribes and Pharisees accuse the disciples of violating “the traditions of the elders” (verse 2), Jesus’ counter-question goes much further, indicting the accusers of violating the Law of God. This indictment elevates the seriousness of the debate. Indeed, Jesus sets that “tradition” in opposition to God’s commandment, and by reason of this opposition He calls the accusers “hypocrites” (verse 7), citing Isaiah (29:13 LXX) to enforce the point.

In making this argument, Matthew has recourse to prophecy as a means to interpret the Torah. It seems likely that this approach characterized the early Church’s polemic against Pharisaic Judaism.

Romans 7.1-12: Already in this epistle Paul has touched on the function of the Law with respect to the reign of sin and death. In the present chapter he treats this theme in a more ample fashion. How is it, he wonders, that something so godly as the Law, given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, should actually serve the interests of sin and death?

When Paul had reflected on the historical function of the Law a few years earlier, his attitude had been more positive (Galatians 3:22-23): “we were kept under guard by the Law.” Now, however, it has become clear here in Romans that Paul’s views of the Law have shifted and deepened (3:20,31; 4:15; 5:13,20). They have shifted in the direction of a dialectic and deepened in the perception of a mystery.

The real problem, Paul will argue here in Romans, was not with the Law in itself; the problem was in man, whose bondage to sin and death rendered him incapable of observing the Law. The Law, remaining external to man, did not alter him within. Grace, he will argue later in this epistle, alters man from within.

To illustrate the Christian’s freedom from the Law, Paul resorts to an analogy prompted by his considerations of death in the previous chapter. He compares the Law to the regulation of marriage, which provides for the dissolution of marriage at the death of one of the partners. Now, as has already been shown, Christians died to sin in their baptism. Since they are dead, therefore, the Law can make no further claim over them (verses 1-6; 6:9,14).

Wednesday, February 21

Matthew 15.10-20: Addressing those who heard the debate about hand-washing, Jesus summons them to “understand” (syniete–verse 10). We recall that “understanding” is the essential requirement for a profitable hearing of the Word (13:13,15,19,23,51).

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and scribes left unanswered the question of the washing of hands before eating. It is now taken up (verse 11), as it is a question of importance to Matthew’s Jewish Christians. The dominical principle is clear: Real purity is an internal reality, not a ritual compliance.

Although the reference to “blind guides” is also found in Luke 6:39, the context of this metaphor in Matthew 15:12-15 is proper to Matthew alone. The reference to their blindness will also appear in 23:16 (cf. 7:5), when the Lord once again takes up His case against the scribes and Pharisees at greater length. The irony of the metaphor has to do with the habit of the rabbis of regarding the Jews—because of their possession of the Torah—as the “leaders” of the blinded human race (cf. also John 9:40f; Romans 2:19).

Once again the disciples, observing the offense given by the teaching of Jesus (verse 12), need further instruction (verse 15). Are they, too, without understanding (asynetoi–verse 16)? Are they as blind as the Pharisees (verse 14)?

The problem, of course, lies in the condition of the heart. An evil heart, the radical source of all evil in man (verse 19), is the reason the disciples do not yet understand God’s Word (13:15,19). An evil heart is recognized by its infidelity to the Torah, of which the second tablet of the Decalogue receives special attention here (verse 19).

Romans 7.13-25: Although the “I” in these verses represents the human experience generally considered, it would be wrong to assume that Paul is not speaking from personal experience. Very wrong. Paul knew on his own pulses what it was to offend God. He had offended God grievously. He had experienced the dilemma described in these verses. He was well aware what it meant to be a great sinner, even while meticulously observing the smallest parts of the Mosaic Law (Philippians 3:6; Galatians 1:13-14).

Indeed, it was Paul’s own strict adherence to the Law that had led him to the most serious sin of his life, the only personal sin on which he ever comments — the persecution of Christians. In Paul’s conversion he was made aware, in a way that he would never forget, that his endeavor to achieve righteousness by the observance of the Law had led him into his worst sin: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?”

It was in that experience of his conversion that he discerned “another law in my members, working against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (verse 23).

That is to say, it was his very zeal for the Law of God that had occasioned his worst sin against heaven. He had not been doing what he had intended to do (verse 15). Sin had taken over his life. He had been acting as a slave of sin. Thus, in his conversion Paul learned the experience common to all the children of Adam—the radical inability to find justification before God without the reconciling grace of Christ.

No, this dilemma was not the fault of the Law. It was, rather, the manifestation of the power of sin in man’s very flesh, this flesh burdened with death. Sin is not in the Law; sin is in man’s very flesh, working through death (verses 13-15). Inherited sin is internal to man, which is why grace must become internal to man.

With his mind, then, man contemplates the Law, but it remains external to him. There is another “law” internal to man, the law of sin and death, the law that man really obeys (verse 19).

Thursday, February 22

Matthew 15.21-31: Jesus now turns from the Jewish unbelievers to a Gentile whose faith will bring about the healing of her daughter. It is significant that in both Mark and Matthew this story follows the discussion about ritual uncleanness, a preoccupation of the Jews.

Matthew began his gospel by drawing attention to Jesus as “the son of David” (1:1). It was the name by which he was invoked by the blind men (9:27). Now it is by this title that the Canaanite woman addresses him (verse 22). Later on, this messianic designation will come more into evidence. It is the title by which He will be greeted in Jericho (20:29) and Jerusalem (21:9). The Lord’s acceptance of this title will rankle His enemies (21:15; 22:41-45). If it is striking to find “son of David” on the tongue of a Gentile, we should bear in mind Matthew’s earlier citation from Isaiah with respect to that Galilean border with Phoenicia (4:13-15; Isaiah 9:15).

In Matthew’s version of this story, the accent lies on faith: “Great is your faith” (verse 28; contrast Mark 7:9). The woman’s “great faith” is reminiscent of the earlier Gentiles in Matthew, such as the Magi and, more explicitly, the centurion in 8:10. This woman thus becomes a kind of first-fruits of Jesus’ final Great Commission to “all nations.”

Indeed, like the Magi at the beginning of this gospel and the disciples at the end of it (2:11; 28:17), this woman is said to adore Jesus (proskynein–15:25).

The symbolism of the future universal calling is also foreshadowed in verse 30, where the “great multitudes” come to the Lord with their various needs and distresses. This detail, too, is proper to Matthew. (Compare 10:1; 12:15; 14:13-14).

Psalms 124 (Greek & Latin 123): The Bible is a book of salvation. Its dominant theme, above all things, is deliverance. Its varied components, written and edited in different cultural settings over many centuries and in places as diverse as Mesopotamia and Rome, are collected into one volume under a single unifying head: soteriology, the study of salvation.

The God of the Bible is the God of deliverance. He is the saving Lord, the God who rescues His servants from a great variety of perils, including an imminent destruction at the Red Sea, the repeated threat of annihilation by multiple foreign armies, a menacing giant in the Valley of Elah, the conspiracy of Absalom and the counsel of Ahithophel, the search parties of Jezebel, the dungeon of Malchiah, the plot of Haman, the intrigue of Sanballat, Aretas guarding the walls of the Damascenes, wild beasts at Ephesus, tribulation on the island that is called Patmos, and a host of other hazards.

Most of all, this God “has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood” (Col. 1:13, 14). This is the God who says to us: “Do not be afraid, but speak, and do not keep silent; for I am with you, and no one will attack you to hurt you” (Acts 18:9, 10). He is the God who saves, for the servants of this saving God seem forever in danger, finding themselves in a fiery furnace and a den of lions, “in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness” (2 Cor. 11:26, 27).

Deliverance from a “close call” is the resonating message of one of the loveliest of the psalms, Psalm 124: “‘Had the Lord not been among us,’ let Israel now say, ‘had the Lord not been among us, when men rose up against us, they would have swallowed us alive. When their fury raged against us, the water would have engulfed us. Our soul would have passed through a torrent, our soul would have passed through the overwhelming water.’ Blessed be the Lord who did not give us over as a prey unto their teeth. Our soul, like a sparrow, was delivered from the snare of the fowler. The snare was thrown, but we were delivered. Our help is in the name of the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”

The specific images of danger in this psalm are the engulfing flood and the bird-snare. The Bible’s best example of the first, of course, is the peril of Israel at the Red Sea in Exodus, an image destined to assume archetypal significance all through Holy Scripture (e.g., 1 Cor. 10:1, 2). Another is the deluge in Genesis 6—8, which, like the crossing of the Red Sea, became a type of our deliverance through baptism (cf. 1 Pet. 3:20, 21). The image of the engulfing waters is especially prominent in Isaiah (cf. 8:8; 30:28; 59:19, etc).

Friday, February 23

Romans 8.12-25: Hitherto Paul has considered how the Christian’s heart is sustained by his memory of the past, his recollection of what God has already done for him in Christ. Now, however, he will speak of the Christian’s encouragement by bearing in mind what God will yet do for him in the future. As we have had several occasions to observe, the vocabulary of salvation (such as “saved”) in the Epistle to the Romans tends generally to be in the future tense. Man’s definitive salvation consists in the resurrection of his body, the final victory over the reign of death.

It was in man’s body, after all, that sin “reigned in death.” Mortality was the essence of Adam’s legacy to us, the very embodiment of his sin. Salvation is not complete, therefore, until the resurrection of our bodies. Several years earlier Paul had argued that thesis in 1 Corinthians 15. He returns to it several times, as we have seen, in Romans, and he deals with it again in the present passage. The final object of the Christian hope, for Paul, is not even the soul’s departure to be with God in heaven. It is, rather, “the redemption of our body” (verse 23), this very body laid low by death, but from which the Holy Spirit refuses to depart (verse 11).

It is by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of adoption, or sonship (huiothesia—Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5), that we are made the children of God (verses 14-17). It is for this reason that the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father,” is supremely the prayer of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, we can only pray it in the Holy Spirit. It is only the Holy Spirit who gives us to say, “Abba, Father,” just as it is only the Holy Spirit who gives us to say, “Jesus is Lord.” Only in the Holy Spirit do we know the identity of the Father and the Son.

The Holy Spirit both makes us the children of God and alters our consciousness so that we know ourselves to be the children of God (verse 16). The Holy Spirit, then, is the new, internal principle by which we are untied to the Father and the Son in knowledge and in love.

But there are obstacles to the Holy Spirit in our hearts, and these must be resisted and overcome. The Christian must mortify, “put to death,” whatever in himself that is inimical and recalcitrant to the Holy Spirit (verse 13). This effort will involve a measure of suffering, which we unite, by intention, with the sufferings of Christ (verses 17-19,25).

This suffering pertains to the very birth pangs of Creation, which awaits the revelation of God’s glory in the resurrection of our bodies (verses 18-23). Just as the sin of Adam left the mark of death on all of Creation (Genesis 3:17), Christ’s final victory over death is the object of Creation’s hope and longing. Creation itself will be delivered from its “bondage of corruption” (verse 21). This physical corruption, this decay, was not part of God’s original plan. It is the mark of the reign of death, and it will be removed forever when Christ, at the end of time, returns to claim the bodies of the redeemed (1 Corinthians 15:23-28).

This final salvation of all Creation, which Paul speaks of here in Romans 8, will become a major theme, the recapitulation of all things in Christ, in his letters to the Colossians and Ephesians, written during the two years that he will soon spend in prison in Caesarea (Acts 24:27).

Although manuscripts vary on the point, it appears that the words “the adoption” do not properly belong in verse 23 and should be left out. The expression is not found in the earliest papyrus copy of the text, and its insertion here, difficult to explain, seems at odds with the context.

Verse 24 is one of the few places in Romans where “saved” is in the past tense. Significantly it is qualified by “in hope.”