Archive for February, 2013

1 Peter 1 (day 1152) 25 February 2013

1-2: As with James and Hebrews the authorship of 1 Peter is uncertain. There is little internal evidence to his identity. He identifies himself as an apostle in the first verse, and as an elder in the church and as one who witnessed the crucifixion (5:1). He has a close relationship with Silvanus (Silas) and Mark, as did Paul. Although in ancient times it was accepted that the author is Simon Peter the disciple. In more recent times the popular view is that it was written around 67-68 A.D. following the first persecution of Christians in Rome. Both 1 Peter and James are addressed to believers “in the Dispersion,” James to “the twelve tribes” and 1 Peter to “the exiles.” 1 Peter is however specifically addressed to those who live in five regions in the Roman provinces of Asia Minor north of the Taurus Mountain range. It was a common thing for the early Christian communities to style themselves after some period of Jewish history; thus we have the “twelve tribes” in James and the “exiles” here. The “Dispersion” was the term used in reference to the scattering of the Jews following Assyrian and Babylonian conquests, but here (and in James) probably simply refers to those Christian communities scattered about the Empire.

3-9: He wastes no time laying out the basic teachings of the faith: the resurrection of Christ gives us new birth; the outcome of our faith is the salvation of our souls; God preserves believers for a future yet to be revealed; faith is that attitude of the soul that enables us to believe even when we have not seen.

10-12: Peter makes reference to the prophets who foresaw the coming of Christ and his suffering and death (see, for example, Isaiah 52:3-9) for our salvation, and avers that they knew their prophesies were for future generations – that is, for the people to whom Peter is writing.

13-16: So, he says, live for the future when Christ will be revealed (when he returns to rule). Prepare for it by living holy lives, striving to be like him. (The quote is from Leviticus 19:2.)

17-21: Three important ideas are contained here: First, the “time of exile” is the time from the resurrection of Christ until his return. Peter, along with all the New Testament writers, believed the return of Christ was imminent. Second, the ransom theory of Christ’s suffering and death is put forward – that Christ paid for our freedom from the law of sin and death with his own blood. Third, Christ’s work on our behalf was determined “before the foundation of the world.” This is an important and rather controversial idea because it means that God knew that every prior attempt to save humankind would fail.

22-25: Given all the above, he tells them their task is to learn to love one another because they are of one family – those who have been born anew through the gospel. (The quote in verse 24 is from Isaiah 40:6-8.)

 

1 Peter 2 (day 1153) 26 February 2013

1-3: Many commentators see in the first 2 chapters of 1 Peter a description of the pre-Christian, the new Christian, the maturing Christian, and the future hope of the followers of Jesus, albeit not in any easily discernable order. Here, however, we do have a list of the kinds of behaviors believers are expected to overcome once they come to faith: malice, deceit, insincerity, envy and slander. And the new believer is encouraged to earnestly desire the basic teachings of the faith (“the pure, spiritual milk”) so that spiritual growth will continue.

4-8: The image of Christ as the “living stone” developed out of the identification of Christ with the “cornerstone” of Old Testament prophecy. The author describes the church as a building made with living stones (see Isaiah 28:16). Christ is precious to believers. To unbelievers he is the “stone the builders rejected,” now become the stone that holds the building together (Psalm 118:22). The cornerstone was the stone at the apex of the main doorway arch which literally did hold together that wall. Continuing the metaphor, he sees unbelievers “stumbling” over the cornerstone (Isaiah 8:14); that is, they cannot make progress toward salvation because they refuse to recognize Christ.

9-10: “Chosen race,” “royal priesthood,” “holy nation” are all epithets applied to Israel in the Old Testament (for example, Exodus 19:5-6, Deuteronomy 7:6). The author now applies those terms to the church. Before Christ came, of course, Christians were “not a people.” Now, he says, Christians are “God’s people” (Hosea 1:10). It cannot be deduced from these verses that he means that the church has replaced Israel, but it can certainly be argued that these verses point to the early belief that the church was called into existence to be God’s people in much the same way as Israel had been called (and, in the estimation of at least some New Testament writers, had failed in that calling).

11-12: In the same way, Christians were becoming aliens and exiles, just like their Jewish forebears. He urges them to conduct themselves honorably before unbelievers so that the good name of Christ would be protected.

13-17: There are a number of places among the letters of the New Testament where believers are urged to obey and respect the governing authorities (see, for example, Romans 13:1). Lawlessness was not to be engaged in; the reputation of the church was of the utmost importance, especially in those places where the Christian faith was not well established. For the survival and growth of the church it was necessary to silence the foolish, to honor everyone (particularly the emperor!), to love one another, and above all to fear God.

18-25: It is clear that the early church appealed especially to the poor and underprivileged because of its message of mercy and salvation. Slavery was common all around the Mediterranean world, and it is likely that a significant percentage of the membership of many congregations was comprised of slaves. It would have been extremely important not to develop a reputation of stirring up trouble among the slaves, and we find a number of places in the New Testament where slaves are urged to be obedient, even if they are mistreated. In fact, the author insists here that suffering under the heavy burden of a harsh master was a credit to the slave, because it was a way of emulating the suffering of Christ. So, they are encouraged to be like Christ and do their work well and practice no deceitfulness (Isaiah 53:9). Christ trusted God and did not return abuse for abuse but suffered willingly. Believers are therefore freed from sin and the burden of the law because they are healed by Christ’s suffering (see Isaiah 53:4-5), but it was important for the survival of the church – and of each individual believer – to live exemplary lives.

1 Peter 3 (day 1154) 27 February 2013

1-6: Advice for husbands and wives is standard fare in the New Testament epistles. Note that the phrase “accept the authority” is used four times in 1 Peter: All Christians should “accept the authority of every human institution” (2:13); slaves should “accept the authority of your masters” (2:18); wives should accept their husband’s authority (3:1); and “you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders” (5:5). Here, however, the instructions to Christian wives seems to be specifically aimed at wives of unbelievers, in hope that their purity and reverence will win their husbands over to the faith. Inner beauty is more lasting and more to be sought after than outer beauty, he says – advice our modern narcissistic culture casts aside. (By the way, I have not been able to find any occasion in which Sarah referred to Abraham as her lord.)

7: Husbands are advised to honor their wives. After all, he says, “they too are also heirs of the gracious gift of life” – a rare concession of equality between men and women. I’m not sure why this particular point has anything to do with answered prayers.

8-12: Again relying on the scripture (the Old Testament – the only scripture he knew) to support his directions (see Psalm 34:12-16) the author presents a list of characteristics to be pursued: unity, sympathy, love, tenderness, humility, and so forth.

13-17: It is apparent that the author is writing during a time when followers of Jesus were often persecuted. His argument is that the best defense against persecution is to live an exemplary life. There’s nothing wrong with doing good, and if you are punished for doing good that is a good thing, a blessing because you are suffering for doing what God wants you to do.

18-19: This is a summary of the work of Christ. He, the righteous one, suffered for the sins of the unrighteous in order to save them. He was killed, but his spirit survived to visit the “spirits in prison” – that is, the dead. (This is the source for the line in the Apostles’ Creed, “he descended into hell.”)

20-22: Now he goes all the way back to the story of Noah and the flood in Genesis 7-8. God saved Noah, his wife, their three sons and their wives – 8 people in all – through water. Actually, they were saved by boarding a boat that carried them on the water. The flood event, he says, prefigures the ritual of baptism, which he sees as “an appeal to God for a good conscience.” The appeal is carried by Christ who, after his resurrection, now rules “angels, authorities, and powers.”

 

1 Peter 4 (day 1155) 28 February 2013

1-6: If you are willing to suffer for your faith that is a pretty good indication that you are maturing in the faith, and also gives you an inner assurance that you are forgiven. Early Christian teachers emphasized over and again that the goal of faith is to move from being guided by your own desires to being guided by God’s will. Verses 3 and 4 are significant – here is the difference between those who have had an honest encounter with Jesus and those who have not. Their lives are changed. Old habits based on human desires – licentiousness, passions, etc. – are replaced by habits based on the guidance of the Spirit. Unbelievers who used to be their companions are surprised and fall into slandering those who no longer enjoy their company. But all will be judged, both the living and the dead. Here the author returns to the idea that Christ preached the good news to the dead (see again 3:19). The dead through Christ will live “in the spirit” though no longer in the flesh.

7-11: First generation Christians, especially those who had known Jesus personally, expected the “end of all things” at any moment. The church had to make adjustments to expectations as time went by, and that it did so successfully is one of the great success stories of Christianity. Discipline, love and hospitality were therefore especially important: discipline, to keep the individual believer faithful; love, to preserve unity in the congregation; hospitality, to bring in as many as possible into the fold of the faith. The author exhorts his readers to heroic levels of faith and loyalty.

12-19: The letter is addressed primarily to those who are undergoing persecution for being Christians. Evil is against God and God’s people, and they can therefore expect to suffer for the faith. He encourages them to refrain from sin – listing a handful of the worst ones in verse 15 – so that their suffering will not be deserved and therefore will be counted as a sharing in the suffering of Christ. He tells them to redouble their efforts to be faithful, quoting Proverbs 11:31. Righteousness in this instance should be understood as law-abiding. Simply keeping the law does not suffice for salvation; therefore how can sinners expect to be saved – unless, of course, they obtain the forgiveness of their sins.

1 Peter 5 (day 1156) 1 March 2013

1-5: The metaphor of the church as a flock of sheep and the elder or leader as the shepherd goes back to the sayings of Jesus (see especially John 10:11), but also dates to the Old Testament where Israel is the flock and God or God’s chosen leader is the shepherd (as early as Numbers 27:17). In that vein the author urges the other elders to “tend the flock of God that is in your charge.” In order for that arrangement to work, though, it is imperative that those in the “flock” deal with each other humbly and not “lord it over” the others. It is also important that elders be respected by younger members of the community. Humility is an especially important attitude particularly in light of Old Testament teachings about God’s relationship with the proud as contrasted with God’s relationship with the humble (the quote in verse 5 is a direct quote from James 4:6 – one of the few places in the New Testament that quotes from other New Testament writers).

6-11: Humility is all important. Anxiety must be discarded, of course; faith cannot admit of such a thing. Discipline is essential. Alertness – not just for Christ’s return but also for the devil’s machinations – is also essential. The devil is personified as a roaring lion prowling about for unsuspecting souls. There is solidarity in suffering. The readers of this letter are not the only ones being persecuted – he’s telling them to trust that they are not alone in that. Persevere; Christ will come and save.

12-14: Silvanus would seem to be the one to whom the letter is dictated, reminding us of Paul’s use of secretaries. The mention of Babylon here is certainly a reference to Rome, which leads many to the conclusion that the letter was written from there.

James 1 (day 1147) 20 February 2013

          1: The very first verse of James presents problems for the Biblical scholar. Ancient tradition ascribes the letter (sermon?) to James the brother of Jesus, although there are arguments that “brother” may mean “half brother” or “cousin” or even simply “a member of the church.” Another theory is that it was a Jewish text (“James” is the English form of the Greek “Iakobos;” “Jacob” in the Old Testament) which made its way into the New Testament. There is little in James which could not be embraced by Jews. There is no mention of the resurrection, and the few specifically Christian references in it could easily have been added later. A telling clue, according to those who hold to this theory, is the reference to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” This is a standard way of referring to the Jews who were scattered during the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests of Israel. So, take your pick.

2-4: Right away we have a reference to persecution of some sort. The community’s faith is being tested. James tells them to endure, that being tested is the way faith matures.

5-8: The other side of the faith coin is doubt, which causes instability, in the community as well as for the individual.

9-11: One of the hallmarks of James is its solidarity with the poor and its antagonism toward the rich. If it is indeed a Christian work, it falls into line with early Christianity’s countercultural affinity with the poor and the powerless.

12-16: Here is an interesting take on temptation: it is neither instigated by evil or by God, but by the individual’s desires. Resisting temptation strengthens the soul; giving in to temptation destroys it.

17-18: Generosity, on the other hand, is instigated by God, and thus is a sign that the giver is attuned to God’s will.

19-21: The attitude necessary for receiving holy instruction is one of meekness.

22-25: Put what you receive (in the way of holy instruction) to work; otherwise it is worthless.

26-27: In the same vein, refrain from talking too much. The result of faith should be seen in your treatment of those on the lowest rung of society; widows and orphans.

 

James 2 (day 1148) 21 February 2013

1-7: A curious but undeniable logic is at work here. The tendency for most people is to treat the rich with special favor because they are powerful, and to ignore the poor because they are weak. But it is precisely the weakness of the poor that prevents them from ever being the oppressor, and the wealth and power of the rich that encourages them to oppress others. Therefore it is foolish to treat the rich as if they are more important than the poor.

8-13: It follows that you should love your neighbor as yourself; not higher than or lower than yourself but as yourself. “Mercy triumphs over judgment” is another way of saying “don’t stand in judgment of your neighbors; just love them.”

14-17: Faith without works is dead, says James. Martin Luther had problems with this saying, for we are justified by faith, not works. But James’ point is still valid. If we have faith in Christ we ought to behave like Christ and do good works.

18-26: It is interesting to compare James’ understanding of Abraham’s faith with Paul’s. Paul makes a big deal of Abraham’s faith apart from works (Romans 4:2-5). James points out that Abraham did actually put Isaac on the altar and raise the knife, and thus “faith was brought to completion by the works.” He put his money where his mouth was, we might say. To add to his argument James points to the harlot Rahab who saved Joshua’s spies at the risk of her own life: her faith was demonstrated by her actions, in other words (see Joshua 2:1-3 and 6:17).

 

James 3 (day 1149) 22 February 2013

1-5: Speech is controlled by the tongue, which makes the tongue a powerful instrument. It is likened to the bridle which guides the horse and the rudder which guides the ship. Indeed, in Proverbs the tongue is accorded the power of life and death (Proverbs 18:21). Therefore, those who spend their lives teaching others are undertaking an extreme risk, for the tongue – that it, the words that it forms – can set people afire. Rare is the individual that can handle such responsibility.

6-12: The tongue can no more be controlled than can a spring gush both fresh and brackish water, or a fig tree bear olives, or a grape vine figs, or salt water turn fresh. It is a dangerous tool; another reason why only a few should undertake to use it for instruction of others.

13-18: Envy and selfish ambition are named as the causes of wickedness and disorder, and a bit of reflection certainly confirms this. Wisdom “from above” is the antidote. The qualities listed in verse 17 are certainly the things that make for peace and should be sought at all costs.

 

James 4 (day 1150) 23 February 2013

1-10: He returns to a previous thought; that our ill behavior – even murder, theft, conflict and adultery – is caused by our own internal desires and cravings. These must be submitted to God’s control with repentance and humility; necessary conditions for God’s favor.

11-12: These verses perhaps shed some light on a similar saying of Jesus (see Matthew 7:1) about judging others. It is the function of the law to judge, not the individual. We may accuse, we may testify, but judgment belongs to God, via God’s law.

13-16: These verses gave rise to a famous quote from Thomas a’ Kempis in “Of the Imitation of Christ,” a still widely read devotional classic. A’ Kempis wrote, “For man proposes, but God disposes.”

17: This verse seems unrelated to the previous section or to what follows in chapter 5.

 

James 5 (day 1151) 24 February 2013

1-6: The final chapter begins with a withering diatribe against the wealthy who have contributed to the suffering of the poor.

7-11: Now he moves on to encourage his fellow believers. The clear implication is that the community (communities) to which he is writing is made up mostly of the very poor (which, by the way, argues for an early date for the writing of James, before Christianity had become more organized and moved into the cities where wealthy believers were drawn in). He encourages them to be at peace with one another and to endure with patience, like Job.

12: Compare Matthew 5:34-37.

13-18: Finally, he says, pray. Pray if you’re suffering. Praise if you’re cheerful. If you’re sick, call on the spiritual leaders in the church to pray for you and anoint you with oil. He does not claim that such a ritual will heal the sick, but that it will save them. The anointing with oil may well be intended as a sort of last rites: the story of Mary the sister of Lazarus anointing Jesus’ feet comes to mind (John 12:1-7).

19-20: In the same way, rescuing one who has “wandered from the truth” is an act of salvation. Whoever does that “covers a multitude of sins.” But is that a reference to the one who wandered or to the one who rescued? On that ambiguous statement the sermon (letter?) comes to an abrupt end.

Hebrews 1 (day 1134) 7 February 2013

          The letter to the Hebrews does not read like a letter, but more like a sermon. We don’t know who wrote it; Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Priscilla, Apollos all have their fans. We don’t know to whom it was written or from where it was composed. At some point early on someone penned the title “Letter to the Hebrews” to it, and that is the name that stuck. Perhaps it is called that because it treats the Jewish priesthood with great familiarity. But, none of these questions need burden us. Our task is to understand what it says.

1-4: The introduction is not a greeting but a faith formula, a creed. The “our ancestors” does indicate that the author and intended readers were Jewish Christians. The statement is about the Son, without giving his name (but of course that is not necessary). It lingers on the origin of the Son and on the exaltation of the Son, condensing his earthly ministry, told in all the gospels, into seven words: “When he had made purification for sins…” He is an “exact imprint of God’s very being,” an eloquent way of expressing the incarnation. He is now superior to the angels; but wasn’t he always?

5: Quoting Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14, the author demonstrates a relationship between God and the Son which the angels do not share.

6: This quote is more difficult to place, but is close to Psalm 97:7 except the psalm does not specifically mention angels.

7: Psalm 104:4 bestows upon the angels mighty and mysterious qualities.

8-13: Psalm 45:6-7, clearly a coronation hymn, describes how God has elevated the Son “beyond all your companions.” I am at a bit of a loss to explain why Psalm 102:25-27 is quoted in verses 10-12. Perhaps the idea that the heavens “will all wear out like a garment” is intended to show that the angels are not immortal, but the Son is? And, of course, only the Son, not the angels, are invited to inhabit an exalted position in God’s hierarchy as verse 13 has it, a quote from Psalm 110:1.

14: He asks a rhetorical question, intended to demonstrate that the angels are in service to the followers of the Son, Jesus.

The whole point, then, of verses 5-14 is to prove the superiority of Jesus Christ over the angels.

 

Hebrews 2 (day 1135) 8 February 2013

1-4: The argument continues: if angels are “in divine service … for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (1:14), then “we must pay greater attention” to their witness. If the angels’ message is valid, and if every sin is punished, and if we don’t heed the message, then we cannot escape punishment. That message was handed down to us from the Lord Jesus “by those who heard him,” (this means that the writer of Hebrews and his readers are second generation Christians) and God punctuated the message by adding miracles etc.

5-9: The coming world referred to here is that world of which the prophets spoke, where everyone will have God’s law written on the heart and sin and death will be no more. That world, he says, will not be under the control of the angels, but under the control of God’s faithful ones. He quotes from Psalm 8 to make the point. The problem is that people obviously aren’t in control. So, the subjection of the world cannot be to human beings. Jesus, however, fits what was said in the psalm; he was made lower than the angels, at least for a time, and suffered, tasting death “for everyone.”

10-13: Jesus, the “pioneer of our salvation,” was thus made perfect through suffering, and his suffering made him a brother to us mortals. He then quotes Psalm 22:22, Isaiah 8:18 and 12:2 show that the Lord was indeed made our brother.

14-18: Being like us and yet conquering the power of death makes Christ, therefore, conqueror of the devil. His act of conquest over death sets free all who feared death, and that means people, not angels. In order to do so he had to become one of us “in every respect,” and that qualified him to serve as the high priest who makes atonement for our sins (this, by the way, is the first time in the Bible Jesus is referred to as the high priest  – it will become a major theme of the book). His suffering was a test; therefore he can help all who are tested.

 

Hebrews 3 (day 1136) 9 February 2013

1-6: Jesus is referred to as “apostle and high priest.” As apostle he was sent (“apostle” means “one who is sent”) to bring to humankind the message of God’s salvation. As high priest he made the sacrifice to atone for our sins. Christ was faithful as was Moses, but Christ is superior to Moses, he argues, because Moses was a servant but Christ is Son. “God’s house” in these verses means God’s heritage – first the people of Israel, then the church.

7-19: He quotes a lot of scripture, primarily from the Psalms. Verses 7-11 paraphrase Psalm 95:7-11, and repeats selected phrases though the rest of the chapter. The author is using these passages to undergird the warning to his readers that they must stay on guard against evil, emphasizing that in the wilderness it was those who were disobedient who were punished.

Hebrews 4 (day 1137) 10 February 2013

          1-11: Repeating quotes from the last chapter, the author moves on to focus on the concept of God’s rest, a reference to the new world where God rules supreme, where sin and death are finally and forever vanquished. Since the people under Moses did not enter that new world (because they sinned), God’s “rest” is still out there as a prize to be won – another reason to “make every effort” to remain faithful.

12-13: God sees all. We already knew that, though, did we not?

14-16: Hold fast; approach the throne of grace with boldness to seek mercy and grace because we have a high priest in Jesus who has been through the same trials that we go through.

 

Hebrews 5 (day 1138) 11 February 2013

1-4: Some points about the high priests who have served in that office since the time of Aaron: 1)the high priest is in charge of offering sacrifices on behalf of the people so that they can be forgiven of their sins; 2) the high priest can deal gently with sinners because he shares their weaknesses; 3) the high priest must offer sacrifices for his own sins as well as for others; 4) the high priest doesn’t select himself (although in Israel’s history that has happened a few times when the high priesthood could be purchased from a foreigner who ruled Israel); 5) the high priest is chosen by God. This last point is the only qualification for becoming a high priest; the other items outline the dutiesafter attaining the office.

5-6: Christ qualifies as high priest because God chose him. (The quote in verse 5 is from Psalm 2:7, but also check John 8:54. The quote in verse 6 is from Psalm 110:4.) He thus satisfies the qualification for becoming the high priest.

7-10: Here are some corresponding points about Jesus: 1) He was designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek (verse 10); 2) he was resurrected from death because of his reverent submission; 3) he learned obedience through suffering; 4) he was made perfect (through his resurrection); and 5) he is the source of salvation for all who obey him.

11-16: None of this should be hard to explain, but it is hard to explain to the readers of this letter (sermon?) because they are not mature in their understanding of the faith. In other words, it is time for them to be weaned from their simplistic ideas and go on to more substantial teachings and concepts.

 

Hebrews 6 (day 1139) 12 February 2013

1-8: Having told them that they are still living on “milk” and aren’t ready for “solid food,” he now urges them to advance in their understanding. They should now be done with the basic teachings and move on. After all, they have repented. If, having repented, they fall back on their old ways, they are in effect crucifying Christ again and they are lost. I think the author is wrong on this count because I believe one might have to repent more than once and I believe God is always ready to receive a repentant sinner even if he or she is a repeat offender. Burning over a field that produces thorns does not destroy the field but merely readies it for future use.

9-12: The author is certain, though, that his readers aren’t among those who fall away. Their support of “the saints,” meaning the truly holy men and women among them or those who have passed their way, is evidence that they are made of good stuff, he thinks.

13-20: God has given promises of blessings through Abraham and through Jesus. These two “unchangeable things” (verse 18) give us hope for salvation. The author pictures hope as a tangible asset that “enters the inner shrine behind the curtain” where Jesus is the great high priest – our hope is in Jesus, in other words. The imagery of the inner shrine is of course taken from the arrangement of the tabernacle in the wilderness and the later temples in Jerusalem.

 

Hebrews 7 (day 1140) 13 February 2013

1-3: The story of Melchizedek is found in Genesis 14:17-20. The author of Hebrews makes a lot more of it than is there. The name Melchizedek occurs only twice in the Old Testament (Genesis 14:29 and Psalm 110:4), and eight times in the New Testament, all in Hebrews. Verses 1 and 2 repeat what we already know about Melchizedek; verse 3 adds legendary material. Melchizedek, it was supposed, had no parents since none are mentioned, and neither his birth nor his death is recorded which led to the legend that he was a supernatural priest. The author’s purpose, of course, is to elevate him as high as possible since he wants to make a comparison with Jesus.

4-10: Melchizedek is here shown to be greater also than Abraham because Abraham paid tithes to him; and greater than the entire priesthood of Israel because Levi, ancestor of all the priests, also paid tithes to Melchizedek through Abraham, being “in his loins” – that is, it was imagined that future generations somehow already existed within the body of the ancestor. Not a bad description of DNA, actually.

11-14: If the Levitical priests had been perfect there would have been no need for another priest like Melchizedek. But they weren’t perfect, needless to say, and so God appointed another high priest – Jesus – like Melchizedek, not from Levi but from Judah; in other words, outside the order of human priesthood: outside the law.

15-19: His argument gets a little obscure here, but hispoint is that the law is not able to make anything perfect (having only the power to condemn) and therefore, quoting Psalm 110:4 again, God appointed another high priest like Melchizedek who is the introduction of “a better hope.”

20-22: Jesus’ appointment to the high priesthood was accompanied by God’s oath; an authorization other high priests do not have.

23-25: All the other high priests died, but Christ is high priest forever and is thus available in every generation to grant salvation to all who approach God through him.

26-28: The imperfect law appointed the other high priests who daily have had to offer sacrifices for themselves as well as everybody else; the perfect oath (Psalm 110:4 again), however, appointed Jesus as high priest, and he offered his own body as the sacrifice for everyone’s sins, for all time.

Hebrews 8 (day 1141) 14 February 2013

1-7: What the author seems to have in mind is the very Greek idea that everything has a form on which it is based. The form is the reality of which the thing is a copy. The wilderness tabernacle, he is saying, was based on the form of the heavenly tabernacle – the true tabernacle – where Jesus as the great high priest now sits at the right hand of the “throne of majesty” which, in turn, corresponds to the mercy seat in the old tabernacle. The old wilderness tabernacle was based on the form or pattern of the heavenly one. In the same way the old covenant was based on the law, which is but a “sketch and shadow” of the new and better covenant based on “better promises” – that is, the hope of salvation.

8-13: Verses 8-12 quote Jeremiah 31:31-34 almost verbatim. The old covenant, he says, has been replaced by the new covenant, a covenant in which the heart of every believer will be attuned to the will of God and the law will be obsolete.

 

Hebrews 9 (day 1142) 15 February 2013

1-5: He describes the first tabernacle recorded in Exodus 40, which by New Testament times was part of Israel’s distant history and he admits that “of these things we cannot speak now in detail.”

6-10: He describes the ministrations of the high priest under the old order. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the high priest offered sacrifices for himself and the whole community, and entered the Most Holy Place in the center of the tabernacle with some of the blood of the sacrifice. Leviticus 16 describes the ceremony. The author’s point is that this ritual was imposed as a stop-gap measure until “the time comes to set things right,” that is, until the sacrifice of the Son of God.

11-14: That was the old form of atonement given to Israel to atone for sins until the new form arrived. The new atonement has Christ entering the true tabernacle, the one “not made with hands,” (see 2 Corinthians 5:1) with the sacrifice of his own blood, a sacrifice sufficient to atone for all sins forever.

15-22: Under the old covenant blood was sprinkled on everything considered holy – the tent, the altar, even the scroll on which the law was written. The basic Jewish belief was that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” The death of Jesus, then, and the shedding of his blood sufficed for the forgiveness of the sins of the whole world, not just Israel. Another way of looking at it is that salvation and eternal life is the will of God for believers. The provisions of a will do not go into effect, however, until the death of the one who made the will. The death of the Son of God completes the requirement.

23-28: Christ offered himself as the sacrifice of atonement – a sacrifice that need only be made once for all – and just as human beings are decreed to die but once and then stand for judgment, so Christ died but once and will appear again to defend his followers (those who are waiting for him) in the judgment, that they may be saved.

 

Hebrews 10 (day 1143) 16 February 2013

1-10: The author of Hebrews sees the law as merely a precursor of the reign of Christ (the “good things to come”). The law specified the offerings to be made, and the fact that these offerings had to be made over and over again is a demonstration of their limitations. Since they had to be made over and over it is obvious that the “blood of bulls and goats” cannot take away sins for good. He paraphrases Psalm 40:6-8 to show scriptural support for his statement about the inefficacy of the law and how Christ’s coming is the abolishment of the law and the establishment of his reign. This is God’s will, that we be sanctified through the sacrifice of Jesus.

11-18: The offering by Christ of his own body provides the means by which sins are forgiven, once and for all. Paraphrasing Jeremiah 31:33-34 he shows how Christ establishes the new covenant in which God’s law and God’s will is an integral part of those who are sanctified. There is no longer a need for a written law, for it is written “on their hearts.” Through Jeremiah God had declared that their sins would not be remembered, and if sins have been forgiven and forgotten there is no longer a need to sacrifice animals.

19-25: That forgiveness, then, ought to result in certain things; steadfastness in the faith, encouragement of one another in love and good deeds, and “meeting together” regularly to uphold one another in faith and good works.

26-31: Those who persist in wrongdoing are therefore in danger of the judgment. The mention of the “fury of fire” that consumes God’s enemies is often used as evidence that hell is a place of flames, but the author is simply using imagery from the descriptions in the Bible about the burning of sacrifices on the great altar. Since the law of Moses provided for the death penalty if guilt could be established by at least two eye witnesses (see Deuteronomy 17:6), the author thinks it reasonable to expect that denying Christ must surely call for an even worse fate. “Vengeance is mine” is from Deuteronomy 32:35 (the “I will repay” was added at Romans 12:19). “The Lord will judge his people” is perhaps from Psalm 96:13. Given the author’s understanding of how things are to be, it is indeed a fearful thing to fall into God’s hands.

32-39: He reminds them of the time, perhaps not long past, when they were persecuted for their faith and had to endure extreme hardships. They were able to endure it only because of confidence in their faith. Hang in there, he tells them, because the Lord is coming soon (see Habakkuk 2:3).

 

Hebrews 11 (day 1144) 17 February 2013

1-3: Verse 1 is perhaps the most often quoted verse in Hebrews. The author is undertaking in this chapter to describe faith. It is “the assurance of things hoped for.” It is “the conviction of things not seen.” It is the understanding that God created all things.

4-7: He gives examples of the evidence of faith: Abel’s “more acceptable” offering of the best of his sheep; Enoch’s mysterious disappearance, proof that he had pleased God; Noah’s building of the ark.

8-12: He dwells for some time on Abraham as an example of the faithful life: he left his homeland to go to a strange place at God’s behest; and sired a son in his old age.

13-16: The actions of the patriarchs show that they were looking ahead to the fulfillment of God’s promises. They desired a better home and believed it would be given them. God, in answer, has prepared a city for them – a new world of peace and abundant life.

17-19: Abraham’s faith enabled him to be willing to sacrifice Isaac, trusting that God would still provide.

20-28: Other examples of faith are given, of Isaac, Jacob and Joseph; of Moses’ parents and of Moses himself when he was grown, shunning material wealth because he saw what glory lay ahead. Faith enabled him to stand up to Pharaoh, and faith helped him to trust in the blood of the lamb to protect his people from the angel of death.

29-31: Faith enabled the people to pass through the sea with water piled up on either side of them. Faith caused the walls of Jericho to collapse. Faith caused Rahab to harbor the spies Joshua sent into Jericho.

32-38: Quickly he “calls the roll” of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets and others, and lists all the suffering they endured.

39-40: He makes a surprising statement here, that none of them received the promised reward. Instead, they were waiting- along with the readers of this letter/sermon – for the institution of the reign of Christ and the perfection of his followers.

 

Hebrews 12 (day 1145) 18 February 2013

1-2: The author encourages his readers to keep the faith as did the saints of old. He tells them to “run the race with perseverance,” a very Pauline-like phrase (compare 1 Corinthians 9:24), but “cloud of witnesses” is unique to Hebrews, as is the designation of Christ as the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

3-11: Although there have been persecutions, he assures them they have not yet suffered nearly as much as Christ suffered on their behalf. They should consider their hardships as the Lord’s discipline, and, quoting Proverbs 3:11-12, tells them to keep in mind that the Lord disciplines those he loves. He launches into a praise of discipline, comparing the Lord’s discipline to that of earthly parents. It seems painful while you’re going through it, he says, but you’ll be all the better for it.

12-13: These verses contain a rather curious saying. Perhaps we can paraphrase it thus: “Stand up straight and walk with a steady gait. So you made a few mistakes, but don’t let it get you down. You may be sore, but you’ll get well.”

14-17: Some practical advice follows: pursue peace, pursue holiness, help others to experience God’s grace and don’t let bitterness fester. And by all means, hang onto your faith; once you let it go it’s hard to get it back.

18-24: Now he provides a contrast between the old covenant and the new. The old covenant of the law emphasized the terror of being confronted by God. He describes the Hebrew people gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai which glowed with fire (Deuteronomy 4:11). The people, even their animals, could not touch the mountain upon pain of death (Exodus 19:12-13). God is all mystery and terror. The new covenant, however, emphasizes the communion the faithful will have with God in the new Mt. Zion, the new Jerusalem. He pictures the faithful being greeted by the angels and by the faithful who have gone before. He sees them before God the judge and the “spirits of the righteous made perfect” (there was an early belief that a certain number of the saints would attain a position of holiness that allowed them to gather around God – see Revelation 14:1-5 for a fuller description) and, finally, Jesus himself, the one who established this new covenant. The blood of Jesus is seen as kind of counter to the blood spilled by Abel at the hands of his angry brother, Cain (Genesis 4:8).

25-29: The new world of the new covenant is an eternal world that cannot be shaken or destroyed. The old world of the old covenant, however, will be shaken (the quote is from Haggai 2:6-7) and will not remain.

 

Hebrews 13 (day 1146) 19 February 2013

1-6: The author suddenly turns from the future scene around Mt. Zion to address the present community of faith. Continue to love one another, he says, and let love also guide your actions toward strangers and prisoners. Fidelity in marriage is again upheld as a primary rule for the protection of the coherence of the faith community. Likewise frugality is named as an important virtue in the faith community because desire for wealth is paramount to a lack of faith in God’s power to care for them – there are several places in the Old Testament which have God declaring, “I will never fail you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6, 8; Joshua 1:5, 1 Chronicles 28:20). Verse 6 is from Psalm 118:6.

7-16: He encourages them to follow the faith of the ones who declared the gospel message to them. That message is constant; it doesn’t change. He tells them not to pay attention to those who insist on dietary restrictions. (We suspect that the letter was written near the end of the first century; it is surprising to find that there is still concern for those who were trying to convince new Christians to obey the Jewish dietary laws.) Again he draws a comparison between the sacrifices offered under the old law and the sacrifice offered by Christ of his own body and blood; just as the old animal sacrifices called for the remains to be burned outside of camp, so Jesus was buried outside the city walls of Jerusalem. Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in 70 a.d., so Christians are encouraged to “go outside the camp,” that is, to leave the fold of Judaism and offer “sacrifices of praise” – in other words, preach the gospel.

17: For good order in the church he entreats his readers to obey their leaders so that they will be a source of joy to them.

18-19: He asks them to pray for him, and intimates that he is being held against his will and plans to visit them soon. This sounds like one of Paul’s letters, but most of Hebrews does not read at all like one of Paul’s letters.

20-21: This is a particularly beautiful benediction, unique in the Bible.

22-24: The mention of Timothy and Italy remind us of Paul’s letters as well. There is much speculation that (since the previous verses constitute a closing) these verses were added later in order make it look as though Paul were the author. The bulk of the evidence, however, seems to indicate that someone else wrote Hebrews.

 

Philemon 1 (day 1133) 6 February 2013

          1-3: The letter is from Paul and Timothy to Philemon, Apphia and Archippus. Timothy we know. Philemon is only mentioned in this letter, nowhere else; the same with Apphia. Archippus, however, is mentioned elsewhere. In the letter to the Colossians Paul closes with, “Tell Archippus to complete the task he has received in the Lord.” (Colossians 4:17). This leads to the tantalizing theory that this letter was not written just to Philemon but to the leaders of the church in his community, probably Colossae, although some scholars think the nearby town of Laodicea is the address to which the letter is sent and that this letter which we call Philemon is the “letter from Laodicea” Paul mentions in Colossians (4:16). Following that theory, the command for Archippus to “complete the task” is a reference to Paul’s demands for their treatment of Onesimus when he is sent back to them. In other words, Paul wants the decision to receive Onesimus gracefully to be a community decision, not an individual one. Even if Philemon is the owner of the slave Onesimus, he should give way to the wisdom of the church in dealing with the situation. But we get ahead of ourselves.

4-7: However, we have to concede that the “you” in this paragraph (and through verse 21) is in the singular form. Which of the three addressees, then, is Paul giving thanks for in this passage? Nearly everyone agrees it is Philemon, but it is possible that the “you” is intended as a reference to the congregation as a single unit and the singular form would thus be appropriate. In verse 6, where the NRSV translates “we,” some ancient manuscripts have “you” plural. Enough of this speculation: It is apparent that these are people Paul knows personally, and his greeting is most complimentary.

8-16: Now Paul is making an appeal and asking them to grant it for two reasons: because of their “love for all the saints and faith toward Christ Jesus” (verse 5); and because poor Paul is an old man in prison. In verse 10 we have the first mention of Onesimus, and every indication is that Onesimus is a runaway slave who has made his way to Rome (where scholars believe the letter was composed) and has become Paul’s attendant. The name means “useful” or “profitable,” and Paul makes a play on words from it, praising Onesimus for his usefulness to him. He wants to keep Onesimus with him, he says, but needs Philemon’s (or Apphia’s or Archippus’) consent. But he goes on to say that Philemon should receive him back not as a slave but as a brother. I doubt that he intends that Onesimus be set free, but he certainly does mean that because of their mutual faith their relationship has changed. On more than one occasion Paul has declared that in Christ there is no slave nor free (1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11).

17-21: Like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), Paul offers to pay whatever cost is involved in receiving Onesimus back. There may be an implication that Onesimus had stolen something when he ran away and Paul is offering to make it good. He pads his case by reminding Philemon that he, Paul, is responsible for his very being, probably meaning that Paul is the one who brought him to faith in Christ.

22: Although in prison, he is the consummate optimist. Get ready for me to come for a visit, he says.

23-25: He closes with greetings from others who are with him, all of whom we have met before. Epaphras was from Colossae (Colossians 4:12). Mark is John Mark (Acts 12:25), with whom Paul had a falling out (Acts 15:39), but now they seem to be back in good standing. Aristarchus from Thessalonica was one of Paul’s traveling companions (Acts 20:4 and 27:2, Colossians 4:10). Demas was another one with whom Paul had a falling out (2 Timothy 4:10), but now is reconciled. Luke is, of course, “the beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14) and, we think, the author of the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts.

Postscript: The early church father and martyr for the faith Ignatius, about 50 years after this, wrote a series of letters to churches in Asia Minor while he was on his way from Antioch to Rome to stand trial for treason. One of those letters was to the church in Ephesus, and in it he praises the bishop of Ephesus, whose name is given as Onesimus. Could the runaway slave of Philemon have become a bishop of the church in Ephesus?

Titus 1 (day 1130) 3 February 2013

          1-4: Paul’s introduction of himself in Titus is longer than in his other letters. He sees himself as the God-appointed defender of the true faith.

Titus, like Timothy, was one of Paul’s most faithful companions and helpers. Paul refers to him in verse 4 as “my loyal child in the faith,” a hint that Titus was one of those of whose conversion to Christianity Paul was responsible. He was a Gentile Christian who apparently was never circumcised (Galatians 2:3), evidence of Paul’s victory over the Circumcision Party’s efforts to demand that Gentile converts first become Jews by circumcision before being allowed to take part in the church. Elsewhere Paul refers to him as “my brother (2 Corinthians 2:13),” and as “my partner and coworker (2 Corinthians 8:23).” It was Titus by whom Paul sent his stern letter to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 12:18), and who was responsible for a reconciliation between them and Paul (2 Corinthians 8:23, 7:13 and 7:6). When Paul made his first trip to Jerusalem to defend his mission to the Gentiles before the leaders of the Church, Titus went with him along with Barnabas (Galatians 2:1).

5-9: We learn that Titus was used by Paul in a significant role in Crete. Unfortunately, we don’t know when Paul was in Crete or what was accomplished there. The only mention of Crete in the book of Acts comes late, when he is sailing under guard to Rome and passes south of that island, but makes no landing there. However, it is apparent that Titus was given a great deal of authority: he was to appoint elders in towns all over Crete, and bishops as well. (The qualifications for bishops were also given in 1 Timothy 3:1-7.) Those who serve as leaders in the church have always been held to higher standards of behavior than others.

10-16: Paul doesn’t have a very high opinion of the populace on the Island of Crete. He cautions Titus that he will be confronted by many who will try to contradict everything he says. He must be firm in resisting any attack on the pure faith that Paul has passed on to him. Verse 15 is an extraordinary insight into human character. There are some people who are able to see the good in everything; they are the “pure,” as Paul calls them. There are others, however, whose corrupt character makes it impossible for them to see the good in anything.

 

Titus 2 (day 1131) 4 February 2013

1-2: Doctrine does not exist for itself, but is rather an instrument by which right behavior can be directed. So, Titus is to advise older men to behave in such a way that exhibits sound doctrine. His primary concern in this chapter is that Christians must present a good face to the community so as not to bring disgrace on the church. It would damage the church’s reputation (and thus the strength of its witness) for older men to behave rashly or foolishly.

3: Older women should likewise behave in such a way that demonstrates how their lives have been ordered by the gospel.

4-5: Older women are charged with the responsibility of teaching the younger women “what is good,” and there follows a list of things such character should produce, including family responsibilities and personal character. In that culture, for a wife to refuse to submit to her husband would have been scandalous and might have damaged the church’s reputation by proxy.

6-8: Likewise, young men are to conduct themselves in such a way that does not invite censure by opponents of the church.

9-10: Model behavior of slaves would in a similar way serve to show the church in the best light possible to the outside world.

11-15: All of this is predicated on a basic doctrine of the church: Christ gave himself up so that salvation might be available to all. God’s grace trains us to exhibit those qualities that make for peace in any community – self control, upright and godly living. This is what Titus should teach them with boldness so that no one would have reason to look at him condescendingly.

 

Titus 3 (day 1132) 5 February 2013

1-7: Another checklist is given Titus to use as a teaching outline. Seven dos (be subject to authorities, be ready for good works, speak evil of none, avoid quarreling, be gentle, be courteous) are followed by seven don’ts (foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to pleasure, full of ill will and envy, despicable, hating). We used to live by the don’ts, he says, but Jesus saved us through his mercy, not our deserving. Salvation was transmitted through “the washing of rebirth” – probably a reference to the change of heart that leads us to baptism, what John Wesley would call justification – and through “renewal by the Holy Spirit” – what Wesley would call sanctification. Being justified by the grace of Jesus Christ is not the goal, but is the necessary step toward “becoming heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

8-11: Coming to faith is therefore not the ultimate goal, but devotion to good works leads us through the process of sanctification – the process of being made holy. Avoid stupid controversies, he says, and I’m sure he was thinking about the circumcision debate. Avoid genealogies; God can raise up stones as children to Abraham, said John the baptizer (Matthew 3:9). Avoid arguing about the law, since the law does not have the power to save (Romans 3:28). Avoid contentious people, since they lead you into stupid controversies.

12-13: Paul often sent his letters by courier. Tychicus is mentioned in other letters (Ephesians 6:21, Colossians 4:7); Artemas is otherwise unknown. Nicopolis is on the western coast of Greece, and Paul says he is going there for the winter and wants certain people to come to him there. Zenas the lawyer is not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, but is venerated as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Tradition has it that Zenas was one of the seventy disciples sent out by Jesus into the villages of Galilee (see Luke 10:1-24). That he is called a lawyer may mean that he was a Jewish scribe or rabbi who converted to Christianity. Apollos, of course, was a travelling apostle mentioned often by Luke and Paul (Acts 18:24 and 19:1; 1 Corinthians 1:12, 3:4-6, 3:22, 4:6 and 16:12).

14-15: One last entreaty to do good, and Paul signs off with a typical closing.