THEME OF THE DAY
Sorrow for sin and the way out. The occasion for the day and its assigned lessons serve to stimulate our awareness of sin as well as the need for repentance (its urgency, which relates to Sanctification and Realized Eschatology) and God’s forgiveness (Justification by Grace).
A lament Psalm for healing and moral renewal traditionally ascribed to David after being condemned by Nathan for sexual transgressions with Bathsheba. Of course as we have previously noted, it is unlikely that David is the author of the Psalms attributed to him (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 512). In fact some scholars conclude that references to David in the Psalms may be a way of using him to represent the inner life of all his subjects, and so of all the faithful (Ibid., p. 521). In that sense this lament and plea for healing and renewal is our song.
The psalmist urges God to have mercy and cleanse our sin (vv. 1-4, 7, 9). Reference to being purged with hyssop in verse 7 suggests a ceremony of sprinkling such as those reported in Exodus 12:22 and Leviticus 14:51. God has no interest in sacrifice, as the psalmist notes (vv. 16-17). He adds that sin is only sin if committed against God (v. 4). Presumably ordinary guilt is not sin. A reference is made to being born in sin (suggesting the Christian doctrine of Original Sin) (v. 5) and also to being rejected by the Holy Spirit (v. 11). The psalmist proceeds to note that God desires inward truth and wisdom (v. 6). After reiterating the plea for deliverance and mercy (even from physical distress), the psalmist pleads for joy and gladness (vv. 7-9; cf. v. 12). This leads to hope for transformation that the forgiven sinner be given a new and right heart and a willing spirit. Reference to the Holy Spirit [ruach qodesh] given to the believer seems to be a reference even in this Old Testament context to God’s sustaining presence (vv. 10-11). Such a transformation will lead to evangelism (v. 13) and praise of God (vv. 15, 17).
Application: The lament invites at least two possible directions. One could focus on David’s life as a model for our own — despite the appearance of respectability he is a sinner, just like the flock (exploring our sinful sexual proclivities), and yet God used him to do great things for the kingdom and so we have the hope of doing great things (though perhaps not as great as David) for God (Sin and Sanctification). Other possibilities include helping the flock to recognize that mere guilt is not a consciousness of sin until we realize that what we have done to produce the guilt is an insult to God, and also focusing on the Holy Spirit (God’s presence), without whom forgiveness and the desire to do good, including evangelism (vv. 10-13), are worthless and will not happen (Pneumatology, Justification by Grace, and Sanctification).
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
The book reports on the ministry of a cultic prophet who did his work in the Jerusalem Temple, probably during the period of Persian domination after the return of the Babylonian exiles (539 BC–331 BC). (Some speculate that the concluding sections of the book [2:28ff] may be the work of an editor of the period of the Maccabees in the second century BC.) The book’s historical theme is the plague of locusts that had destructively descended on Israel (1:4). It is also characterized by apocalyptic/eschatological elements — references to the Day of the Lord (2:1-11, 28-32; 3:1-3, 9ff). There is an evolution in this concept from being a day of judgment, not one of salvation, to the suggestion that it is a theme of hope and salvation (3:1ff).
The text is a cry of alarm since the cataclysmic day of the Lord is coming. Reference to a great and powerful army and to the clouds of thick darkness is probably a way of talking about the plague of locusts ravaging the land (though they might just symbolize the eschatological cataclysm) (vv. 1-2). Yahweh even seems at the head of this plague in verse 11, but then the prophet abruptly changes to a more gentle tone. He proceeds to make a call to repentance by which the calamity might be averted (vv. 12-17). Fasting, weeping, mourning, and offerings in the temple are commended, but above all a repentance of the heart is exhorted (vv. 12-13, 15). Yahweh is said to be gracious and merciful (a phrase often attributed to the Lord as it is rooted in Israel’s ancient formulations of faith [Exodus 34:6; cf. Nehemiah 9:17, 31; Psalm 86:5]). An assembly to sanctify the people is called (vv. 15-16). These verses and the one continuing to the end of the lesson take the form of a traditional liturgy. Priests (also called “ministers [sharath] of the Lord”) are called on to weep for the people in the temple (especially in the inner court reserved for priests — between the vestibule and the altar) and urge God to spare the people, so that the truth of their commitment to Yahweh will no longer be questioned by Gentiles (v. 17).
Application: The text affords a good opportunity to call the congregation to repentance and to explain why confession of sins is part of worship, and why they both are driven by grace (the gracious and merciful God Joel describes) (Sin and Justification by Grace). There is an urgency in such repentance (Realized Eschatology).
2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10
This epistle was written by Paul to address relations with the Corinthian church that had further deteriorated during the period after 1 Corinthians had been written. Chapters 10-13 of the book are so different in style and tone from the first chapters as to lead scholars to conclude that they are the “severe letter” mentioned in 2:4. In this text Paul is either responding to critics or writing part of a letter of reconciliation.
Paul begins the lesson by urging the Corinthians for Christ’s sake to be reconciled [katallasso, to be changed thoroughly] to God (5:20b); Christ, it is noted, became sin (assumed our sinful nature [Romans 8:3]) so that we might become the righteousness of God (5:21; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:30). Justification and righteousness [dikaiosune] are here woven together. They have a similar Greek root, for justification [dikaioma] resembles the Greek equivalent for the term “righteousness.” You cannot be declared right without “rightness” or “justice.” There is much controversy in New Testament scholarship about what Paul means by “righteousness of God,” a tendency to critique the idea it entails that God declares us righteous. This argument is made on grounds that there are no Old Testament precedents for such an idea. But the concept of righteousness as not having to do with distributive justice but with relationships (with God’s relationship with the faithful and so salvation) is an Old Testament concept (Nehemiah 9:8; Isaiah 57:1; Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 371). And New Testament scholarship tends to understand the concept this way — in terms of a restored relationship (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 271). And so it seems appropriate in this text (and elsewhere in Paul’s writings) to interpret God’s righteousness in terms of his faithfulness to his relationship with his people, and it is his righteousness which restores the relationship (Psalm 71:2; von Rad, p. 373). The concept of “reconciliation” in verse 20b as entailing, being thoroughly changed supports this idea. God’s righteousness, restoring our relationship with him, thoroughly changes the faithful. And even the Pauline idea of the righteousness of a righteous one being given to those who have fallen (a vicarious death) is itself a Hebrew concept; see 2 Maccabees 7:37-38; 4 Maccabees 6:28; 17:22.
The apostle proceeds to urge that we not accept God’s grace in vain (6:1). Citing Isaiah 49:8 about God listening at an acceptable time, helping the faithful on the day of salvation, Paul notes that now is the moment to act (the end is near) (6:2). No obstacle will be put in the way of any believer, and so no one can rightly criticize his ministry (6:3). He accounts the suffering and persecution he has experienced in ministry (6:4-7). In antiquity, hardship and virtue were closely linked. The apostle concludes with seven antithetic clauses illustrating the hiddenness of the gospel — under dishonor, death, suffering, sorrow, and poverty (vv. 8-10).
Application: The text exhorts the faithful to appreciate the urgency of repenting, interpreted as God’s work in Christ (Realized Eschatology and Justification by Grace). Other possibilities include a sermon on the Atonement (on how Christ’s work on the Cross taking on our sin restores our relationship with God [thoroughly changes us]) or on how the Christian life is hidden (not a smooth life of prosperity, but one prone to ups and downs, to persecutions and hardships [Sanctification and Theological Method]).
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
This lesson reports another segment of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, teaching practical piety. Most of the text is peculiar to Matthew and his efforts to address Jewish Christians in Antioch who were no longer in communion with the synagogue. Jesus begins with a warning against a hypocritical piety (especially doing merciful deeds; Matthew usually has the Pharisees in mind when referring to “hypocrisy”) that aims for others to notice one’s faith (v. 1). Likewise it is said to be better to give alms (gifts of charity in synagogues, the foremost act of piety in the eyes of first-century Jews) without fanfare, so that “the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing” (vv. 2-4). In a similar manner, it is said to be better to pray privately than ostentatiously in public (vv. 5-6).
After a critique of long public prayers (vv. 7-8), teaching the Lord’s Prayer (vv. 9-13), and exhorting forgiveness (vv. 14-15), Jesus urges that fasting not be done ostentatiously so that only the Father knows (vv. 16-18). (In this era, pious Jews fasted twice a week.) Here we observe Matthew’s anti-Pharisaism coupled with a moral strategy. Jesus critiques trust in worldly goods, which are prone to destruction (vv. 19-20). In ancient times a large part of wealth consisted of costly garments liable to destruction by moths. Then Matthew has Jesus add that one’s treasure is indicative of one’s heart [kardia] (v. 21), i.e. one’s moral priorities (see 9:4; 12:34; Psalm 24:3-4).
Application: This lesson affords an opportunity to condemn the sin of hypocrisy and works righteousness that often infects the faithful. Opportunity is also given to critique the mad quest for wealth that characterizes American life (Sin and Social Ethics). By helping parishioners recognize their sin, they will be prepared for the call to repentance of the First Lesson and the word of forgiveness in the Second Lesson (Justification by Grace and Sanctification).
THEME OF THE DAY
The focus on Original Sin again makes us sense our own unworthiness and need for God’s forgiving grace (Justification by Grace). In some of the texts the consequences of this grace for daily life are also considered (Sanctification). These emphases emerge from the tradition of commemorating the First Sunday in Lent in relation to its roots as the beginning of a period of religious instruction preparing those who would be baptized on Easter to confess their faith.
A Psalm of thanksgiving for healing attributed to David. It is a Maskil Psalm, which is an artful or didactic song composed with artistic skills, though with didactic elements. Since it is unlikely that David wrote the Psalm or had a role in collecting Psalms attributed to him (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 512), it is difficult to determine the date of the lesson.
The psalmist begins by singing that those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered [kasha], are happy [ashar, which also connotes being blessed, for one cannot be happy apart from the things of God, see Psalm 1] (vv. 1-2). This concept of having sins covered is language most consistent with Pauline thinking, and also is present elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (Psalm 85:2; Jeremiah 23:6, 33:16) teaching that God’s righteousness covers our sin or at least makes salvation happen (Romans 3:21-26, 4:6-8, 5:18-19; 2 Corinthians 5:19-21). Healing seems to be involved in this happiness, as reference is made by the psalmist to his body wasting away and that the Lord’s hand was heavy upon him (vv. 3-4). Disease was commonly regarded as punishment for sin in Old Testament times. The Hebrew word Selah appearing in the text after verse 4 and other verses refers to the introduction of musical interludes at these points.
Following the acknowledgment of sin and forgiveness, it is noted that healing came (v. 5). The Psalm proceeds to observe that all who are faithful offer prayers at a time of distress and will be preserved, for the Lord is a hiding place (vv. 6-7). (The reference to “the rush of mighty waters” in v. 6 is a common Old Testament image for terrible distress that threatens to overwhelm the one suffering.) The Lord’s word is introduced and he assures us that he will teach us the way to go, always with his eye on us (v. 8). We are warned against being like a horse or mule without understanding, for steady love surrounds those who trust in the Lord (vv. 9-10). Consequently we (the righteous [tsaddiq], not just those who are good but those who are in right relation with the Lord [Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 371]) are exhorted to be glad in Yahweh and rejoice (v. 11).
Application: The song affords an occasion to reflect on how sin seems to overwhelm us at times, putting us in the deepest distress. After exploring this kind of empathy with the congregation, the Psalm also encourages opportunities to proclaim the good news that God has forgiven us (Justification by Grace). But we also learn from the song of the happiness that follows from this awareness, for we are surrounded by God’s love (Sanctification). A sermon on the text could also be an occasion to explore how happiness is related to living with and among the things of God (a crucial theme of the book of Psalms) (Sanctification).
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Like all of the first five books of the Bible, Genesis is the product of several distinct oral traditions, all originating between the tenth and sixth centuries BC. This lesson is the account of the story of the fall into sin. This version is probably the work of a tenth/ninth-century BC strand called J because it refers to the Lord as Yahweh.
The story begins with the testimony that Yahweh Elohim gave man the Garden of Eden to keep and till, allowing man to eat of every tree in Eden except the tree of knowledge [ets daath] (2:15-17). It may be useful to consider the narrative parallel in 1:29, written by the priestly oral tradition composed in the sixth century BC. The serpent (nachash, a creature craftier than any wild animal God made) tempts the woman. The role of a serpent here is reminiscent of the snake in the ancient Mesopotamian story The Epic of Gilgamesh (11.287-289), who steals from Gilgamesh a plant conferring immortality. Returning to the Genesis account, the serpent then asks her if God forbade eating of any tree in the Garden, and she responds that only the tree in the middle of the Garden may not be touched (3:1-3). The serpent responds that she would not die, for God knew that eating of the tree’s fruit would open her eyes, and like God (or the gods, for the Hebrew term used in the account, elohim, is plural) she would know good and evil (3:4-5). So the woman seeing the tree a delight to the eyes and that the tree made one wise, ate of its fruit and gave some to her husband (3:6). The idea that eating from the tree would give wisdom links with the Hebraic Wisdom [chokmah] of the book of Proverbs (which seems to make that link in 3:18). Consequently it seems that the disobedience involved in eating of this tree not only involved trying to be like God but also that now behavior is no longer spontaneous obedience, but because of our exercise of freedom and self-reflection we must now be taught through wisdom, and we must be instructed by others (often by existing law and custom) in order to know what is good. Doing good no longer comes naturally.
The narrative continues. Eating from the tree, the eyes of both the woman and the man were opened, and they knew they were naked; then they covered themselves with loincloths — losing innocence (3:7). Sin also seems to make us ashamed of the body (see 2:25).
Application: Although the Jewish community does not read the text as Christians do, this is an excellent text for proclaiming and explaining Original Sin. Focus may be placed on sin as idolatry (trying to become like God or exercise the divine privileges) and how in our state of sin we are now no longer able to do good spontaneously (as the first human beings did), but now with our ability to choose and discern right from wrong, with all the behavioral options presented to us, doing good is hard work, a burden against which we rebel. Embarrassment about the body, resulting from self-awareness, which is really burdensome and the cause of much anxiety, might also be noted as a consequence of sin. Awareness of our unhappy state makes us more eager to hear the word that we are forgiven (as proclaimed in the Second Lesson below and the Psalm above), the gospel’s proclamation that Christ overcomes all temptations, fear, and death.
Continuing to write his letter of introduction to a church, which to date he had never visited, Paul offers in this text a contrast between Adam and Christ. Sin came into the world through one man, Paul contends, and death through sin spread to all because all sinned and were reckoned sinful by the law (vv. 12-13). Death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam. Adam is said to be a type [tupos, that pattern or model] of Christ who is to come (v. 14). By contrast, Paul notes, the free gift is not like the trespass, for if the many died through one man’s trespass, much more will the grace of God in the gift of grace of the one man Jesus Christ abound for many (v. 15). The free gift is not like the effect of one man’s sin. The judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification (v. 16). If because of one man’s trespass [Adam] death exercises dominion [basileuo, reigns] through that one [Adam], so much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness [dikaiosune] exercise dominion in life through the one man Jesus (v. 17). As one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification [dikaiosin] and life for all (v. 18). Just as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience many were made righteous (v. 19).
Application: This is another text for helping people see how they are mired in Original Sin. Use insights from the application for the First Lesson. Also note the idea of how, because of Adam’s sin, death and so sin now reign in us, dominate in us. The law (commandments of God) now condemns us, for we need these commands to direct our behavior amidst all the choices, and it functions as a mirror now again and again to show us how far short we fall.
In articulating the free gift of forgiveness, it is important to sort out the role of Christ’s righteousness in saving us or justifying us. Both terms have a similar Greek root, for justification resembles the Greek equivalent of righteousness (see above). You cannot be declared right without “rightness” or “justice.”
We have previously noted the controversy in New Testament scholarship that exists about what Paul means by the righteousness of God and the righteousness of Christ, a tendency to critique the idea it entails that God declares us righteous. This argument is made on grounds that there are no Old Testament precedents for such an idea. But the concept of righteousness as having to do not with distributive justice but with relationships (with God’s relationship with the faithful and so salvation) is an Old Testament concept (Nehemiah 9:8; Isaiah 57:1; Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 371). And New Testament scholarship tends to understand the concept this way — in terms of a restored relationship (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 271). Therefore it seems appropriate in this text (and elsewhere in Paul’s writings) to interpret God’s righteousness in terms of his faithfulness to his relationship with his people, that it is his righteousness which restores the relationship (Psalm 71:2; von Rad, p. 373).
God’s righteousness, restoring our relationship with him, thoroughly changes the faithful. And even the Pauline idea of the righteousness of a righteous one being given to those who have fallen (a vicarious death) is itself a Hebrew concept; see 2 Maccabees 7:37-38; 4 Maccabees 6:28; 17:22. The righteous one, Christ, restores the relationship of the faithful with God by sharing with us the wholeness and healthiness (righteousness) of his relationship with us (Justification by Grace). The text also provides occasion to proclaim and teach Christ’s atonement. He breaks the dominion of death and of the consequences of Adam’s fall over us. But this in turn entails that the faithful are now under the dominion of Christ. We cannot but do his thing (live righteously in right relation with God) (Sanctification).
In a manner most consistent with Jewish expectations in the first century about the Messiah, the text reports Jesus’ temptations by the devil. (All the Synoptic Gospels include an account like this [Mark 1: 12-13; Luke 4:1-13].) The Jewish orientation of this gospel focuses again in the author’s efforts to root the events in Old Testament prophecies. It is reported that after Jesus’ baptism he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil [diabolos, tempter or accuser] (v. 1). He fasts forty days and was famished (v. 2). The forty days in the wilderness are another example of linking Jesus’ life to Old Testament precedents. Both Moses and the prophet Elijah spent forty days in a wilderness experience (Exodus 24:18; 34:28; 1 Kings 19:8). The tempter came and said to Jesus that if he is Son of God, he should command the stones to become loaves of bread (vv. 2-3). This temptation was a function of Jewish expectations in Jesus’ day, as they had come to expect the Messiah to repeat the miracles of the Jews’ time in the wilderness with Moses (Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew, pp. 58-60, 65-66). In accord with Matthean concerns to relate Jesus to Hebrew scripture, he is recorded as responding with Deuteronomy 8:3 and its teachings that one does not live by bread alone, but by the words of the Lord (v. 4; this citation also appears in Luke 4:4, but not in Mark).
The devil next took Jesus to the holy city [Jerusalem] and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, daring him if he is the Son of God to throw himself down. Jesus cited Psalm 91:11-12, which speaks of God commanding his angels (vv. 5-6). Jesus responds with Deuteronomy 6:16, which speaks against putting the Lord to the test (v. 7). Finally the devil took Jesus to a high mountain, promising to give him all the nations that could be seen if he would worship him (vv. 8-9). Jesus responds that Satan should go away, citing Deuteronomy 6:13 that only the Lord God is to worshiped and served (v. 10; cf. Luke 4:8). Then the devil is reported to have left Jesus, and angels came to serve him (v. 11). Elijah was also served by angels at the end of his wilderness experience (1 Kings 19:5-8).
Application: The temptations endured by Jesus can be used to help clarify and enlighten the ones we face (Sin). References to the wilderness experiences of Moses and Elijah can aid in making these points.
Jesus overcomes the devil and evil indicates that because the faithful are in him, these realities cannot prevail over them (Justification by Grace).
THEME OF THE DAY
Hanging around the Lord changes you. This theme meshes with the historic purpose of the Second Sunday in Lent, aiming to call candidates for baptism on Easter to practice purity. The themes of Sin, Justification by Grace, Predestination, and Sanctification are crucial to the assigned texts.
This is a Song of Ascents (a family of Psalms which may be pilgrim songs by those on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, perhaps [at least in the case of Psalm 126] returning from exile in Babylon after 538 BC) functioning as a liturgy of blessing. The psalmist begins by claiming to lift his eyes to the hills (to the high places where local fertility gods were worshiped [cf. 2 Kings 23:5]), but no help comes from there (v. 1). Having begun with a question of where to find such help, the remainder of the Psalm seems to be in the form of an answer given by a priest, who then concludes in verses 7-8 with a blessing. Such help, the priest contends, comes only from Yahweh, the maker of heaven and earth (v. 2). He proceeds to sing that the one who keeps Israel and its people will not slumber (vv. 3-4). Yahweh is said to be our keeper [shamar], and so the sun and moon will not strike us (vv. 5-6). He will keep the faithful free from all evil, protecting us in our comings and goings (vv. 7-8).
Application: The Psalm affords occasion to remind the congregation that all we have is of God, and our only source of help when times are tough is God (Providence). The idols and false gods in our lives have no power to help.
Again we consider a text from Genesis, which like all the the first five books of the Bible is the product of several distinct oral traditions, all originating between the tenth and sixth centuries BC. This lesson is J’s version of God’s call of Abraham, and so was probably written in the tenth or ninth centuries BC. And of course God is referred to as Yahweh by this strand of Genesis.
The lesson begins with Yahweh instructing Abram to leave his family and travel from his country (in Haran in northwestern Mesopotamia [11:31]) to the land he will direct (v. 1). Apparently none of the earlier life of Abram (later in 17:5 renamed Abraham) is relevant to God’s plan for him. Separation of parent and child is a familiar theme in Genesis (2:24; 22:2; 27:41-45; 37:12-36). The promise made is that Yahweh would make of Abram a great nation [goi gadol] — making his name so great that in him the families of the earth would be blessed (v. 1-3). The use of this concept “nation” rather than “people” [am] may reflect the national consciousness of the early Hebraic monarchy, suggesting that it was in that era that the final form of this story took shape (early in the tenth century BC). In view of Jesus’ Jewish roots, this promise seems fulfilled. Abram proceeds as directed, and his nephew Lot goes with him. His response is immediate and unquestioning. Abraham is reported to have been 75 at the time (v. 4). It is difficult to know what to make of these references to the age of the patriarchs except to recognize that they could serve to underline the miraculous character of Yahweh’s fulfillment of his promises to them or to highlight that the stories are about Israel, not just the patriarchs (in this case Abraham). The message to the primary audience was that Abraham and Sarah represented Israel, and so the nation had been chosen to play a decisive role in God’s historical purpose (Isaiah 19:24; 51:2-3).
Application: The story affords the opportunity to proclaim God’s unmerited love, since nothing prior to God’s call of Abraham mattered to the Lord (Justification by Grace) with the reminder that this is a theme that reflects throughout the Bible, even in the Old Testament. Other options include a consideration of the doctrine of Election/Predestination or a sermon on faith as a willingness (like Abraham) to give everything up, even one’s own family and identity (note Abram’s changed name).
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Continuing to write his letter of introduction between 54 AD and 58 AD to a church which to date he had never visited, Paul reflects on God’s saving work in Christ. In this text he offers his interpretation of the call of Abraham and his true descendants (Genesis 12:1-4a). Paul identifies Abraham as our ancestor according to the flesh (presumably here addressing Jewish Christians in Rome) (v. 1). He adds that if Abraham is justified by works, then he has something about which to boast (v. 2). But scripture says it was reckoned [logizomai] to him as righteousness [dikaiosune] (v. 3).
Last week we reiterated the importance of sorting out the need for righteousness in saving or justifying us. Both terms have a similar Greek root, for justification [dikaiosin] resembles the Greek equivalent of righteousness (see above). You cannot be declared right without “rightness” or “justice.”
And we have previously noted the controversy in New Testament scholarship that exists about what Paul means by the righteousness of God and the righteousness of Christ, a tendency to critique the idea it entails that God declares us righteous. This argument is made on grounds that there are no Old Testament precedents for such an idea. But the concept of righteousness as not having to do with distributive justice but with relationships (with God’s relationship with the faithful and so salvation) is an Old Testament concept (Nehemiah 9:8; Isaiah 57:1; Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 371). And New Testament scholarship tends to understand the concept this way — in terms of a restored relationship (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 271). Consequently, it seems appropriate in this text (and elsewhere in Paul’s writings) to interpret the righteousness God reckons to the faithful as a restored relationship with God, which God has created through Christ and faith embraces.
Paul then notes that for one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something that is due. But to one who without works trusts [the Greek word pisteuo, meaning faith, is actually used here] God, who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness (vv. 4-5). Subsequently the apostle observes that the promise made to Abraham or his descendants did not come through the law [nomos] but through the righteousness of faith (v.13). If adherents of the law are heirs, faith is null and void, for the law brings wrath (vv. 14-15). For this reason, Paul adds, it depends on faith, so the promise may rest on grace not only for adherents of the law but also to those who shared Abraham’s faith (v. 16). Famed New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann (Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, pp. 259ff) has pointed out that this understanding of the law is not a Christian diminution of the high Jewish estimate of it (2:20), but simply an awareness that because we are under the power of sin (3:9), the law (or Torah) cannot be fulfilled. The law is then for the purpose of leading us to Christ by showing us our need for his righteousness, and so to claim salvation by works is a denial of faith in Christ.
Application: Not surprisingly, the themes noted in the first sentence of the application for the First Lesson (see above) are appropriate when preaching on this lesson. To this can be added Paul’s insistence that we are not justified by works of the law (by how we live), for the law condemns us. In so doing it makes clear that God is the one who sets the relationship right with us (conferring righteousness on us). In addition, the fact that Gentile Christians are saved in the same manner as Abraham, the father of Judaism and in a sense Islam, reminds us that to believe in salvation by grace entails that who you are or what you do does not matter before God. This word breaks down barriers.
John is the last gospel to be written, probably not until late in the first century in a sophisticated literary style (and so not likely the work of the apostle John), probably written for a Jewish Christian community actually expelled from the synagogue and particularly concerned to assert Jesus’ divinity. This story of Jesus’ interactions with official Judaism (especially one of its leaders, a Pharisee named Nicodemus) appears only in this gospel. The focus on Jesus as the object of faith, as well as the polemic with official Judaism in this text, is very Johannine. In fact, Nicodemus may not be intended as an individual but may be a cipher for official Judaism in this account.
The account begins with Nicodemus coming to Jesus in the night, noting that the Lord must be of God for none could do the signs he had done apart from God’s presence (vv. 1-2). Jesus responds, noting that no one can see the kingdom if not born from above (v. 3). The ancient Greek word anothen translated “from above” can also mean “born again.” Nicodemus then asks how one can be born again when he is already old (v. 4). Jesus responds that no one can enter God’s kingdom without being born of water and of the Spirit, that is, born from above [or born again] (vv. 5-7). He adds that just as the wind blows where it will, so it is with the Spirit (v. 8). Jesus then chides Nicodemus for not understanding such things (vv. 9-10).
Jesus proceeds to contend that he speaks of things he has seen, yet the testimony is not received. If hearers have not believed what he teaches about earthly things, how will they believe his testimony on heavenly matters [epourania] (vv. 11-12)? For only the Son of Man has descended from heaven (v. 13). Jesus proceeds to note that as Moses lifted up a serpent in the desert (reported in Numbers 21:9), in order to provide a remedy to those made ill by the bites of poisonous snakes who were sent to punish the Hebrews for their sin, so the Son of Man will be lifted up that whoever believes in him will have eternal life (vv. 14-15). The Cross is here foretold. John’s use of the title “Son of Man” is not like that of the Synoptic Gospels. The gospel’s author seems to understand the title in a Gnostic way that is as a designation for the pre-existent one who became man and must be exalted again, though combined with the earliest Christian meaning of letting Jesus be understood as Messiah, an apocalyptic figure who at the end of time will come down from heaven and hold judgment (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 2, p. 37; Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 49). These Christological themes fit the dichotomy between heaven and earth articulated in earlier verses.
In closing, God’s love for the world in giving his only Son that all who believe may have eternal life is affirmed (vv. 16-17). This famous statement echoes elsewhere in John’s gospel (5:24; 6:40, 47; 11:25-26).
Application: Obviously the text affords the opportunity to proclaim God’s love (Justification by Grace). But since this love is for the world, the text invites an interpretation of it in terms of Single Predestination (God’s Election of All). Other options include a focus on being born again, on how it happens through baptism (water and the Spirit), or on the Johannine meaning of Jesus as Son of Man as the one who descends to earth and will be glorified, who is of heaven yet comes to intermingle with the things of the earth, even the Cross (Christology and Atonement).
THEME OF THE DAY
Confess your sin and turn around! God will see to it. This theme meshes with the historic purpose of the Third Sunday in Lent, at which time the ancient church candidates for baptism on Easter were given careful scrutiny. Once again Sin, Justification by Grace, and Sanctification receive a lot of attention, with some attention to Atonement.
This is a liturgy of God’s kingship (perhaps for use in the temple), beginning first with a hymn and then from verse 7b on providing an oracle warning the congregation against disobeying God’s Law. The hymn begins with a summons to worship, calling people to sing and make a joyful noise, coming into Yahweh’s presence with thanksgiving. He is said to be the rock of our salvation (vv. 1-2; cf. 89:26). As such this and the next three verses may have been part of a processional hymn for entering the temple. Yahweh is said to be a great God, a great king above all gods (v. 3). The Hebrew people were still clearly aware of the pantheon of gods that existed in the ancient Near East. Yahweh is said to control all things on the earth (Providence and Creation) (vv. 4-5). We are summoned to bow and worship him, as his people and sheep (vv. 6-7a). The faithful receive a prophetic warning not to harden their hearts as the Hebrews did in the wilderness of Meribah (about 150 miles north of Mount Sinai) and Massah (another name for Meribah) (cf. Exodus 17:1-7; Numbers 20:1-13) (vv. 7b-9). It is noted that as a result of such unfaithfulness the Lord hated that generation for forty years, and they did not enter the Promised Land [the Hebrew word menuchah, literally "rest," is used here] (vv. 10-11).
Application: The first five verses can be the basis for praising God. The idea of the Lord being the greatest of gods invites a critique of the idolatry we practice in everyday life, putting other things ahead of God. Other warnings against unfaithfulness (with precedents in the stories of the Hebrews during the Exodus [Sin]) flow from the Psalm. But this confession of sin needs to be balanced, just be treated as preparation, by the word of forgiveness in the first two lessons (Justification by Grace) or by the awareness that ultimately God is in control of all there is in nature, working for our good (Providence).
Like all of the first five books of the Old Testament, Exodus is the product of several distinct literary strands, all originating between the tenth and sixth centuries BC. The book is so named for the Greek term referring to the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Its Hebrew name (meaning “these are the names”) refers to the first words of the text’s prologue. In this lesson we consider the story of water in the wilderness of sin (which has a parallel version in Numbers 20:2-13). Sin was probably fifty miles west of Mount Sinai in modern-day Saudi Arabia.
Continuing to travel by stages (making various stops in the Exodus) (v. 1), camped in the wilderness the people had no water and quarreled with Moses to receive it (v. 2). They wonder why he had brought them out of Egypt to such suffering (v. 3). Moses is reported to have accused the people of testing [the Hebrew word nasah is more properly translated "try," implying a court hearing for] the Lord (v. 2). He pleads with Yahweh, asking what he is to do with the people (v. 4). (They had complained earlier about the need for water and been delivered with both water and bread from heaven [15:22ff].) The Lord replies that he is to take leaders with him along with the staff with which Moses had stuck the Nile (v. 5; 7:20). Unlike in the version in Numbers, this earlier literary strand tells the story without a reference to a shrine from which to seek divine counsel. The Lord promises to be standing in front of Moses on the rock at Horeb and commands Moses to strike the rock so the people would receive the drink (v. 6). Water lies below the limestone surface in the region of Sinai. The place was called Massah and Meribah (meaning “test” and “find fault” in Hebraic; see the Psalm for more on the location of these wilderness areas), because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord (v. 7).
Application: The text provides an occasion for confessing our sin as we identify ourselves with the Hebrews, never content with the miracles in our lives. But the fact that we and they did not deserve it does not stop God from giving his people what they need (Justification by Grace and Providence).
In this text Paul continues introducing his theology and himself to the Roman church with a discussion of the consequences of justification for living the Christian life. He begins by noting that justification by faith brings peace [eirene] with God through Christ, through whom the faithful obtain access to the grace in which they stand. Insofar as Paul was Jewish it seems appropriate to understand his comment here to align with the Hebrew equivalent shalom, so that the peace brought about by justification is a state of well-being and thriving, including social justice. Paul continues to claim that the faithful may boast in the hope of sharing God’s glory (vv. 1-2). Thus they may boast in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, character, and a hope that does not disappoint, for God’s love has been poured into their hearts through the Holy Spirit (vv. 4-5). While the faithful were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (v. 6). Paul elaborates on how rarely anyone will die for a righteous person. But God proves his love by dying for us while we were still sinners (vv. 7-9). As a result we have more certainty now that we have been justified by Christ’s blood and will be saved by him from God’s wrath (Atonement) (v. 9). While we were still enemies of God we were reconciled to him through the Son’s death, and so we will be saved by his life (v. 10). Consequently, the faithful can boast in God through Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (v. 11).
Application: Many themes related to Justification by Grace, the Atonement, and Sanctification emerge from this text. Among the myriad possibilities, it affords opportunities to reflect on how we have been enemies of Christ (Sin) with the reminder that he still died for us. We might explore how it is that Christ’s blood saves us (why his death was necessary to placate God’s wrath [Satisfaction Theory of Atonement]). Another possibility pertains to sermons emerging from the text on Sanctification. Preachers could explore how justification launches us onto a life of peace (see the description of Paul’s vision of peace above, including Social Ethics) and the suffering that accompanies Christian living, so that the only boasting Christians do is in Christ, not what they do.
The lesson recounts the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman and other teachings. This is an account unique to this highly stylized final gospel, not written until late in the first century, probably not by John the Son of Zebedee but perhaps by a disciple of his. It is a gospel about encouraging readers to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and this is clearly the word emerging from this text. This theme along with an appreciation of the gospel’s universal outreach is evident in this story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman and its consequences.
Jesus comes to the Samaritan city of Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to Joseph, where Jacob’s well was located. (Sychar is about forty miles north of Jerusalem.) He is reported to have been tired by his journey and sitting by the well (vv. 5-6). A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus asked for a drink. Jesus’ disciples had gone to the city to buy food (vv. 7-8). Both Jesus’ request for water from the woman and the disciples’ venturing into a Samaritan town to buy food were unusual, given hostilities of ritual purity between Judeans and Samaritans. This encounter suggested to pre-modern Jews that a marriage for Jesus might be in the offing, since the Hebrew ethnic heritage was built on meetings at a well between a Jewish lad and a foreign woman. Moses, Jacob, and Abraham all met their foreign-born wives under these circumstances (Exodus 2:15-21; Genesis 29:1ff; 24:1ff). The same ritual barriers emerge in the woman’s response of surprise that Jesus would make such a request of her to provide him with water (v. 9). Jesus in turn states (it was rare for a rabbi to converse with a woman) that if she knew the gift of God who it is that requests the drink she would have asked for the living water [hudor zao] (v. 10). (The phrase “living water” correlates with the Hebrew term for “spring” [mayim] [Jeremiah 2:13].) The woman in turn responds that Jesus has no bucket and the well is deep, so it is unclear where he can get the living water. She asks if he is greater than Jacob, who gave the well before which they stand (vv. 11-12). Jesus answers that the water of the well does not quench thirst, but the water he will give will become a spring gushing up to eternal life (vv. 13-14).
The Samaritan woman then requests the water about which Jesus has spoken, so that she might never thirst again (vv. 17-18). He responds that she should call her husband and return (v. 16). Further dialogue between them leads Jesus accurately to report (without being told) that she has had five husbands, and then she reveals that she now lives unmarried with a man (vv. 17-18). The number five corresponds to the five false gods worshiped by the Samaritans (2 Kings 17:30-34). The woman exclaims as a result of Jesus’ discernment of her married state that he must be a prophet (v. 19). She then proceeds to note that the Samaritan ancestors had had a temple on Mount Gerazim, but the Judeans say that worship must be in Jerusalem. (The disagreement had been crucial to the tensions between the Northern Kingdom [Israel] and the Southern Kingdom [Judah].) To this observation Jesus responds that the hour is coming when the Father will be worshiped in neither location, for God is Spirit and those who worship him must do so in spirit and truth (vv. 20-24). The woman responds that she knows the Messiah (also called Christ) is coming, and Jesus says it is he (vv. 25-26). This use of the phrase “I am” [ego eimi] is characteristically employed by John’s Jesus. It is most suggestive of God’s revelation of himself in the name Yahweh (I am who I am [Exodus 3:14; Isaiah 43:10-11, 25]), and so it is in a sense the Johannine Jesus’ claim to divinity. The disciples return and wonder why Jesus was speaking to a woman (v. 27). Jewish religious teachers in this era did not speak with women in public.
The woman leaves the water jar to return to the city and witnesses to what transpired, so that people wondered if Jesus might be the Messiah and go to see him (vv. 28-30). Meanwhile the disciples urge Jesus to eat, and he responds that he has food to eat that the disciples do not know about. After they express puzzlement, Jesus responds to them that his food is the will of the one who has sent him (vv. 31-34). He further elaborates on the field now being ripe for harvesting and that the reaper can already gather fruit for eternal life. (The harvest seems to refer to those who accept Jesus, including the Samaritans.) He claims to have sent them to reap that for which they did not labor [since Jesus has done the labor through his life and impending death] (vv.35-38).
In closing it is reported that many Samaritans from Sychar came to believe in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony reported above. They come to him and ask him to stay, and he stayed for two days (vv. 39-40). As a result many more come to believe (v. 41). (The theme of coming to believe is stressed far more in John than in the other gospels.) The Samaritan believers told the woman it was no longer because of what she said that they believed, but because they had heard for themselves they believed that Jesus is truly Savior of the world (v. 42).
Application: A text this lengthy offers a myriad of sermon possibilities. One could focus on Jesus’ interaction with Samaritans, despite Judean suspicions of the religious convictions and ethnic purity of these targets of the ministry in this lesson. This is a witness to Justification by Grace with Social Ethical implications (the inclusivity of a Christian perspective). That Jesus’ interaction with the foreign woman at the well connoted marriage to the Hebraic mind reminds us that the relationship between Christ and the faithful is like a marriage (cf. Song of Solomon; Galatians 2:19-20). A testimony to the divinity of Jesus (Christology) is given in the lesson (relate his “I am” statement to the name Yahweh, see above) and also a testimony to evangelism and that coming to faith is not a matter of merely believing what has been heard, but faith with conviction (Sanctification).
THEME OF THE DAY
Seeing the light! Historically this Sunday in Lent was called Laetare (Rejoicing Sunday), a time to relieve the austerities of Lent with a mood of celebration. Consequently, although the themes of Sin and Repentance are evident in the texts, the focus is on hope (Realized Eschatology), complimenting Providence as well as Justification and Sanctification by Grace.
This famed Psalm expresses confidence in God the shepherd’s protection, extolling the comfort of providence. This is a Psalm attributed to David, but as we have noted he is not likely the author or even the collector of the Psalms attributed to him (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 512). Consequently we cannot be sure when this Psalm was written. This inability to pin-point the place or time of origin of the Psalm indicates that the Psalm is properly read as a living voice for the present, not bound to its historical point of origin (Ibid., p. 523).
The image of Yahweh as shepherd or the faithful as sheep is not unique to this Psalm; see 95:7; 100:3; Ezekiel 34:11-16. The Lord is said to lead us in right paths (v. 3). Thus we need to fear no evil (v. 4). Surrounded by goodness and mercy, the psalmist pledges regular worship in the temple (v. 6). This is a Psalm about gratitude to God. The believer is pursued not by enemies, but by God’s love.
Application: This is a great opportunity to rejoice (Sanctification), for we are pursued by God’s love (Providence and Justification by Grace). The Psalm also invites us to help the faithful see themselves as sheep, as followers, and not as autonomous as we think (Sin and Sanctification).
1 Samuel 16:1-13
This book’s origin as a distinct literary work derives from the original Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures (The Septuagint), which divided the story of Israel’s monarchy into four sections (1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings). This book is probably the result of two or three sources: 1) Early traditions about Samuel and Saul; 2) editor-molded materials into a connected history implying a critique of the events, deeming kingship as problematic, and so maintaining that Israel should be set under the rule of God and his prophet Samuel; and 3) incorporating the previous strand into the more Deuteronomistic history (which is a product of the sweeping religious reforms under Davidic King Josiah in the late seventh century BC).
The lesson is the story of the anointing of David. The account begins with Yahweh asking Samuel how long he will grieve over Saul (as a result of Yahweh’s rejection of Saul as king due to his disobedience [ch. 15]). He sends Samuel to Jesse in Bethlehem, from whose sons he has provided a new king (v. 1). Samuel fears he will be killed by Saul if he undertakes such a mission. The Lord instructs him to take a heifer with him, claiming Samuel has come to offer a sacrifice to the Lord (v. 2). The idea then is to invite Jesse to the sacrifice, at which time Yahweh plans to show Samuel whom to anoint as the new king (v. 3).
Samuel follows the command. In Bethlehem he is met by elders, to whom he assures his peaceful intention. He sanctifies Jesse and his sons and invites them to the planned sacrifice (vv. 4-5). Seeing Jesse’s son Eliab, Samuel first thinks he is the chosen king, as he has impressive size and stature. But Yahweh claims to have rejected this young man (vv. 6-7). Then Jesse calls his sons Abinadab and Shammah to pass by Samuel, and he responds that the Lord has not chosen them (vv. 8-9). Next Jesse makes seven of his sons pass before Samuel with the same judgment (v. 10). Finally Jesse indicates that Samuel has seen all his sons, except for David the youngest who is keeping sheep. Samuel asks that he be summoned (v. 11). David is reported to have been ruddy and handsome. Yahweh directs that he be anointed. Samuel does so and from then on the Spirit of the Lord was on David, and then Samuel departs (vv. 12-13).
Application: This is a story of God finding a way to help his people out of a difficult situation by providing new leadership. This invites reflection on what is wrong with the nation (Sin and Social Ethics) as well as a confidence that God will not abandon his people and will find a new way (Providence).
It has been noted that this letter portrays itself as having been written by Paul from prison, late in his career. But in view of the fact that the book includes vocabulary and stylistic characteristics different from the rest of the Pauline corpus, some scholars have concluded that it may be the work of a follower of Paul who had a hand in assembling the collection of his epistles. The fact that Paul’s salutation in 1:1 does not appear in many ancient manuscripts suggests the non-Pauline origin of the work.
Ultimately the book’s origin really does not seem to matter, because the purpose of the letter appears to have been addressed to later generations of Christians (1:15). It is a book for each succeeding new generation of the faithful, not tied to its original historical context. (For a similar assessment, see Brevard Childs, The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction, pp. 324-328.)
This text is part of an appeal to the faithful to renounce pagan ways. It is noted that the Ephesians had been in darkness [skotos -- obscurity] but now are in light, and so are light [phos -- radiance]. (The author borrows Gnostic concepts at this point or else images common of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Such a metaphor has no precedence in the Old Testament.) Readers are urged to live as children of light — whose fruit is all that is good, right, and true, taking no part in the unfruitful works of darkness (vv. 9-11). It is shameful to mention what people do secretly, the author notes. But light exposes everything (vv. 12-13). An ancient Christian hymn (based on Isaiah 60:1) is cited, urging sleepers to wake up from the dead, for Christ will shine on them (v. 14).
Application: The text affords opportunities to reflect on how we are mired in darkness/obscurity (Sin), but now are illumined/radiant with grace (Justification by Grace) which transforms us (Sanctification). Calls for waking up (repentance) may also be joyfully issued.
We have already noted that this gospel, the last of the four to be written, likely by a disciple of John the son of Zebedee, had as its target audience a Jewish Christian community in conflict with the synagogue from which they had been expelled. This story of Jesus’ healing of a blind man fits nicely with the gospel’s characteristic distinctions between light and darkness (1:5; 3:19-21; 8:12). The account is unique to this gospel.
Encountering a blind man, Jesus is asked by his disciples whose sin (his own or his parents’) had made him blind; Jesus responds it is neither, for the man was born blind in order that God’s works might be revealed in him (vv. 1-3). This was a somewhat startling perspective since the average Hebrew in Jesus’ lifetime regarded suffering as a consequence of sin (cf. Exodus 20:5; 34:7; Psalm 109:13-15). Jesus claims that the works of the one who sent him must be done while it is day, for night is coming when no one can work, and that as long as he is in the world he is the light of the world (vv. 4-5). Jesus then spits on the ground, makes mud with saliva, spreads it on the blind man’s eyes, and tells him to wash in the pool of Siloam (a pool in Jerusalem fed by underground waters, whose name means “sent”). The man does see (vv. 6-7)! (It should be noted that in ancient times saliva was thought to have medicinal value.)
The healed man responds to neighbors and others who knew him, and they wonder if the man who could not see is the same blind man who had begged (vv. 8-9). To further questions he recounts the miracle (vv. 10-11). To inquiries regarding where Jesus was, he cannot respond (v. 12). People bring the healed man to the Pharisees, since the healing had transpired on the Sabbath, and again he gives an account of the healing (vv. 13-15). The Pharisees are divided about Jesus, some certain he could not be from God since he had not observed the Sabbath, and others wonder how a man of a sinner could perform such deeds (v. 16). They ask the healed man whether Jesus was a prophet (v. 17).
Jews then challenge the healed man about whether he had in fact been born blind, calling on his parents to authenticate this, but they claim that they do not know how the miracle had transpired (vv. 18-21). The parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews’ plans to put followers of Jesus out of the synagogue (excommunicate them) (vv. 22-23). Jesus’ followers were not put out of the synagogue until well after his lifetime, perhaps not until 80 AD, a fact which says something about the date of this gospel’s composition. The healed man is recalled to testify before the Pharisees and will not conclude that Jesus is a sinner (vv. 24-25). He then asks them if they would become Jesus’ disciples (vv. 26-27). The Pharisees revile the man, calling him a disciple of Jesus. They continue to take the position that they do not know from whom the healer comes (vv. 28-29). The healed man claims to be astonished that the Pharisees cannot see that since God does not listen to sinners the miracle performed on him must be of God (vv. 30-33; cf. Psalm 66:18; Proverbs 15:29). Pharisees respond by claiming the healed man must be born in sin and drive him from their presence (v. 34).
Hearing the story, Jesus finds the man and asks him if he believes the Son of Man. In a previous analysis of the gospel we noted the gospel of John’s unique understanding of this title. The author seems to understand the title in a Gnostic way — that is, as a designation for the pre-existent one who became man and must be exalted again, though combined with the earliest Christian meaning of letting Jesus be understood as Messiah, an apocalyptic figure who at the end of time will come down from heaven and hold judgment (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 2, p. 37; Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 49). The healed man asks who that is. Jesus responds that the man has seen the Son of Man, he is the Son, and the man responds with a confession and worships Jesus (vv. 35-38). Jesus proceeds to teach that he has come into the world for judgment, so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind (v. 39). It is not that Jesus comes to judge us, but his presence leads to judgment with regard to how we respond to him. Pharisees nearby hear this and say to Jesus that they are not blind. He responds that if they were blind they would not have sin, but since they see their sin remains (vv. 40-41).
Application: The story provides an occasion to consider our human blindness (Sin) and how Christ heals us (Justification by Grace). The Christian who is healed by Christ in this way is set free from the old rules to serve God (Sanctification construed as freedom from the law). As Christ’s presence implies judgment (for we must decide for or against him) there is an urgency about Jesus’ presence in our lives (Realized Eschatology).
THEME OF THE DAY
With God you get a new way up ahead. Looking ahead to Easter, these texts focus us on Sin, Atonement, Justification by Grace, Sanctification, and Eschatology.
This is a prayer of lament for deliverance from personal trouble. It is also one of the Songs of Ascent, a collection of Psalms referring to the ascent of pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem and its sanctuary.
The Psalm begins with a cry out of the depths [maamaqqim, deep places] to Yahweh to hear the psalmist’s supplication (vv. 1-2). It is acknowledged that if the Lord marks [shamar, observes] sin, none can stand. Yet the psalmist proceeds to assert that there is forgiveness in him (vv. 3-4). He resolves to wait for Yahweh (v. 6). Israel is advised to take a similar attitude, recognizing that with Yahweh there is hope and love, for he will redeem [padah, connoting free] the people (vv. 7-8).
Application: The Psalm affords an opportunity to reflect on the trials of life in our sinful condition, but also to offer comfort that God wipes the slate clean, and out of his love he sets us free from all the anxieties and despair (Justification by Grace). The way in which the psalmist’s confidence in the love of God has implications for the nation of Israel and opens the way to reflect on the implications for Social Justice is this word we have for America today.
Ezekiel was a prophet from a priestly family whose ministry to his fellow exiles during the Babylonian captivity extended from 593 BC to 563 BC. Some oracles predate Jerusalem’s fall. The original collection of prophecies was rewritten and expanded by an editor.
This text recounts the famed vision of the reviving of the dry bones. These bones represent the exiles and the hope of Israel’s resuscitation (vv. 11-13). For use of the image of dry bones as a description of physical malaise, see Psalm 31:10; 35:10. Ezekiel’s response to whether the bones can come back to life bespeaks an affirmation of God’s power (v. 3). The word of the Lord is the means of giving new life (v. 4). References to the “breath” to be put on the bones (vv. 5, 9-10) use the same Hebrew word ruach as is translated “the Lord’s Spirit” (v. 14), bringing the bones to life. The Spirit of God gives life. Note how the Hebraic holistic view of persons, not a Greek view of the immortal soul, operates here. It is promised that the Hebrews will return to the land (v. 14; cf. 36:27-28). There is a continuity here with the old covenant, as a reference is made to obedience to the law even after the resuscitation of the people (v. 24). The lesson also prefigures anticipation of the resurrection from the dead embodied by Jesus in Holy Week.
Application: This is another text for reflecting on the trials of life in our sinful condition (perhaps with special attention to the injustices in society and how they drain minorities and the poor of hope), but also combined with the hope that now and in the future God comes to give new life to those who are suffering (Justification by Grace and Eschatology).
In this text Paul is beginning to conclude his discussion of life in Christ for his readers in Rome to whom he was introducing himself. His specific topic in this lesson is a consideration of life in the flesh [sarx] and in the spirit [pneuma]. The term “flesh” connotes sinfulness, living under the domination of selfish passions, not merely the bodily character of human beings, when the term is contrasted with “spirit” in order to imply that humans set their minds on the things of the flesh and live in a way that is only oriented by the things of the created world (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, pp. 239ff). Paul teaches that to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace [eirene] (v. 6). It is helpful to note again, as we have previously, that insofar as Paul was Jewish it seems appropriate to understand his comment here to align with the Hebrew equivalent shalom, so that the peace brought about by justification is a state of well-being and thriving, including social justice. The apostle adds that the life set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s Law. Indeed, it cannot do so and so cannot please God (vv. 7-8).
Paul reminds the Romans that they are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in them. Reference is made to the Spirit of Christ. Anyone without the Spirit does not belong to God (v. 9). If Christ is in us, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness [dikaiosune] (v. 10). If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus lives [oikeo] in us, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to our mortal bodies through the Spirit which dwells in us (v. 11). It is important here to keep in mind that righteousness for Paul, like most Jews, had to do not with justice but right relationships (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 271). To have the Spirit of Christ living in us entails that our relationship with him is secure.
Application: Another text for focusing on our sinful condition (especially clarifying what the Bible means by flesh and how our focus on the things of the world leads to death and makes us unable to keep God’s law). This would also be an opportunity to reflect on death and the fear of death. Like with the previous texts, the Second Lesson also affords occasion to proclaim a word of good news that we have been given the Spirit of Christ, who brings Christ to live in us and restore our relation with him (Justification by Grace). To have Christ in us entails a life of peace. Elaborate on the Pauline, Old Testament vision of peace above (Sanctification and Social Ethics). Other sermon possibilities might be to reflect on how the Spirit gives comfort in the face of death (Justification and Sanctification) or to explore the Trinity (the relationship between the Holy Spirit and Christ entailed by calling him the Spirit of Christ).
The story of the raising of Lazarus, another account unique to this, the last of the four gospels to be written. This was probably not written until late in the first century and so not by the disciple John; some speculate that one of his disciples was the author. Hints of that possibility are apparent in a document of the early church by Eusebius of Caesarea, who claimed that the gospel was written on the basis of the external facts and so is a “spiritual gospel” (not based on eyewitness accounts of the author) (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1, p. 261). If we can assume this spiritual character, then it makes sense that the narratives would have a deeper meaning, pointing to other realities. This seems evident in this lesson; the raising of Lazarus by Jesus points us to his own resurrection. The result of Jesus giving life in the story is a reference Jesus’ own death and resurrection (vv. 45-53).
The account begins with a report that Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Martha and Mary (who had anointed Jesus with perfume [Luke 10:38-42]), is ill. (This is not the Bethany across the Jordan River where John had baptized Jesus, but a town just east of Jerusalem.) Lazarus is their brother (vv. 1-2). One of the sisters sends Jesus a message, and receiving it he notes that the illness does not lead to death but is for God’s glory that the Son of God may be glorified through it (vv. 3-4). Consequently, though he loves the family, Jesus stays two days longer in his location (vv. 5-6). As elsewhere in this gospel, Jesus acts on his own time (2:3-4; 7:1-10). But Jesus then decides to return to Judea, even though the disciples warn him that the Jews are trying to stone him. (He is referred to as “rabbi.”) Jesus responds that those who walk in the day do not stumble, because they see the light of the world, but they who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them (vv. 7-10). This distinction between darkness [skotos, obscurity] and light [phos, radiance] is characteristic of John’s gospel.
Jesus then tells the disciples that Lazarus has fallen asleep, but he resolves to go to revive his friend. The disciples do not understand that this means Lazarus had died. Then Jesus tells them plainly (vv. 11-14). He expresses gladness that he was not present for the death, so now the disciples can believe. Thomas the Twin tells his fellow disciples that they should all go, to die with Jesus (vv. 15-16). Arriving in Bethany, Jesus finds that Lazarus has been in the tomb for days (v. 17). The city is only two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews have come to Martha and Mary to console them (vv. 18-19). When Martha hears Jesus is coming she goes to meet him while Mary stays home. She laments that had Jesus been present Lazarus would not have died, noting she is sure that God will give Jesus whatever he asks (vv. 20-22).
Jesus promises that Lazarus will rise again (v. 23). Martha responds that she knows that he will rise on the last day (v. 24). (This was a common Pharisaic teaching.) Jesus identifies himself as the resurrection [anastasis] and the life [zoe, motion or activity], so that those who believe in him will live though they die, and everyone who believes in him will never die. Jesus asks Martha if she believes this, and she confesses him to be Messiah, the Son of God (vv. 25-27). Martha returns home to report to Mary, who goes with others to meet Jesus before he comes to the village, telling him when they meet that had he been present Lazarus would not have died (vv. 28-32). Jesus is disturbed by the displays of grief, asks where the body has been laid, and weeps (vv. 33-35). Jews remark about Jesus’ love for Lazarus, but others claim he could have kept Lazarus from dying (vv. 36-37). Arriving at the tomb (a cave with a stone lying against it), Jesus has the stone removed. Martha reports there was a stench from the corpse (vv. 38-39). (Rolling a stone in front of a cave was a common burial practice in Jesus’ lifetime.) He responds that if she believes she would see the glory of God. The stone is removed and Jesus looks upward, thanking the Father for hearing him (vv. 40-41). He calls Lazarus to come out, and the dead man comes out with his hands bound and face wrapped in cloth. Jesus commands that he be unbound (vv. 43-44). (Such binding and wrapping of the corpse was a common burial practice.) Many of the Jews who had come with Mary and see what Jesus does, believe (v. 45).
Application: This is another text offering an opportunity to reflect on death and how Jesus overcomes death, foreshadowing the Easter-event to come (Sin, Justification by Grace, and Eschatology). A sermon could be developed on the light-darkness theme in John (see above), and how having Jesus in our lives overcomes the obscurities of daily life in sin (Justification and Sanctification). Another possible option is to focus on Jesus’ compassion, his weeping, which gives us a glimpse of God feeling our emotions.
THEME OF THE DAY
God’s love shines through the Cross and changes us. This is a Sunday for reflection on the Atonement, the love of God and its implications (Justification and Sanctification by Grace), along with some reflection on our Sin.
This is a prayer for deliverance from personal enemies attributed to David. Since it is not likely that David is the author or even the agent in collecting this and other Psalms attributed to him (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 512), it seems appropriate not to contend that the song is only about David, but rather to read it as a pertaining to the Davidic line, to pertain to Jesus as a prophecy of his sufferings. The psalmist begins by articulating his distress and grief (v. 9). The reference to soul [nephesh] in this verse is not an embrace of the notion of soul in Greek philosophy or as most of us understand the term, but a mere reference to the life-source. The psalmist proceeds, claiming to be in sorrow — scorned, a broken vessel, and the object of schemes (vv. 10-13). He prays for vindication that we may be saved by God’s steadfast love. Awareness is expressed that our whole life is in God (vv. 14-16).
Application: On a Sunday when we observe our sinfulness in contributing to Christ’s death and the tragic condition of our sinful plight, the text celebrates the conquest of God’s love (Justification by Grace). The idea of our whole life being in God and so in Christ has rich implications for living the Christian life (Sanctification).
This lesson probably has its origins in the second oldest of the three distinct historical strands of prophecy that comprise the book. It seems quite clearly not to have been the work of the eighth century BC prophet Isaiah who worked in Judah (the Southern Kingdom) but to have emerged soon after the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 539 BC and so during the Babylonian captivity. The text is taken from the Book of Consolation, a series of eschatological prophecies. It is the so-called Third Servant Song. There is much dispute about the identity of the servant in these songs (42:1-4; 49:1-6: 50:1-6; 52:13–53:12). Historically the church has claimed that the referent of these texts is an individual (the Messiah, and specifically to Jesus). But many scholars understand them to refer to the role the nation of Israel would play in propagating God’s mission.
The servant says that God made him a teacher, to sustain the weary (exiled Israelites) (v. 4). The servant is said to do the Lord’s bidding and accepts the insults received (vv. 5-6). Using a law-court image, the servant expresses unshakable confidence that God will vindicate him (vv. 7-9).
Application: If this text is read as referring to Jesus, it suggests the Easter event of Christ accepting the insults that he received in going to the Cross in anticipation of his Easter vindication, all to sustain the weariness of the faithful (Atonement and Justification by Grace). The theme of what makes us weary in American life (Sin) could first be developed. Another possibility would be to interpret the faithful or the church (the New Israel) as the servant, who accepts insults for God but proceeds with confidence of God’s vindication (Sanctification).
This letter was written by Paul while a prisoner to Christians in a province of Macedonia. There is some debate about whether the epistle in its present form might be a combination of three separate letters (for an early theologian of the church named Polycarp spoke of several of Paul’s letters written to Philippi [Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 33]). Its immediate occasion was to thank the Philippians for their gifts, by way of the return of Paul’s coworker Epaphroditus to Philippi (2:25-30), the church member who had brought these gifts to Paul. The main purpose of the apostle is to urge persistence in faith in the face of opposition.
After urging the faithful to love and be concerned with the interests of others (vv. 2-4), Paul exhorts them to have the mind of Christ Jesus (v. 5). Christ is depicted (in hymn form) as divine (in the form of God), but also as one emptying himself into humanity and on the Cross (vv. 6-8). In turn, God has exalted him (vv. 9-11). It is possible that the hymn is inspired by the Fourth Servant Song of Isaiah (52:13–53:12).
Application: Several options are suggested by the text. It might occasion a sermon to the sacrifice of Christ, his emptying himself for us for our sakes (Justification by Grace and Atonement). But it could also inspire a sermon on living the Christian life (Sanctification), urging the faithful to live like Christ (having his mind as a result of being united to him in faith), and so committing to empty ourselves in order to serve in love the interests of others.
Matthew 26:14–27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54
In this detailed account of the Passion we consider the version of the most Jewish of all the gospels. Likely not written by the apostle who bears the gospel’s name, its Jewish character is likely a function of the original audience addressed — Jewish Christians in Antioch no longer in full communion with Judaism (23:25-32; 24:20). As a result a lot of attention is given in the gospel (and in this text) to presenting Jesus as the messianic fulfillment of Torah.
The account begins with Judas Iscariot’s initiation of efforts to betray Jesus to the chief priest (26:14-16). New Testament scholarship increasingly understands Judas to have been a Zealot trying to press Jesus into starting a revolution. The name Iscariot is related to the Latin word sicarius [knife-man], a common Roman reference to Zealots. At least one other disciple, Simon the Cananean, has a name from the Aramaic qan’an, meaning “the Zealot” (10:4). The thirty pieces of silver given to Judas were probably about 120 days’ wages. Then we read of the successful efforts of Jesus to find a host for him and his disciples for the Passover meal (26:17-20). During the meal, he indicates that one of the disciples will try to betray him (26:21). They become greatly distressed. With reference to Psalm 41:9, he speaks of woe to the one who betrays him. Judas protests, but Jesus says, “You have said so” (26:22-25).
After initiating the Lord’s Supper, Jesus claims he will never drink of the fruit of the vine until he drinks it new in his Father’s kingdom (26:26-29). After singing a hymn they go to the Mount of Olives. Jesus tells them that they will all become deserters because of him. Quoting Zechariah 13:7 and its reference to striking the shepherd and then the flock will be scattered, he adds that after he is raised up he will go ahead of the disciples to Galilee (26:30-32). Peter objects, claiming that he will never desert Jesus, and the Lord in turn prophesies that Peter will deny him three times that night (26:33-35).
The account continues with Jesus going to Gethsemane (an unknown site somewhere on the west side of the Mount of Olives) and withdrawing from the disciples to pray (22:36). He takes Peter and the son of Zebedee with him, then gets agitated and throws himself on the ground, asking the Father to let the cup pass while being determined to submit to God’s will (26:37-39). He finds the disciples asleep, has them pray, and notes that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (26:40-41). Two more times Jesus prays that the cup he is to drink pass from him, and the disciples sleep. The third time he notes that the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is to be betrayed for the betrayer is at hand (26:40-46). Jesus often refers to himself as “Son of Man” in connection with prophecies about his death or as a way of referring to his humility. The betrayal by Judas’ infamous kiss to an armed crowd is reported (26:47-49). Kissing a rabbi as a greeting was a common sign of respect in this era.
Jesus’ arrest is reported, as well as his role in putting an end to violence when one of his followers takes action against a high priest’s slave. He claims that he could appeal to protection from the angels (12 legions was about 74,500 solders), but then the scriptures would not be fulfilled (26:50-54). He then addresses the crowd, asking why they have come to arrest him as though he were a bandit when they did not arrest him while he was teaching in the temple. He again notes that this takes place to fulfill the scriptures of the prophets. All the disciples desert him and flee (26:55-56). Jesus’ appearance before Caiaphas the high priest and the whole council [Sanhedrin] follows. It is reported that Peter followed at a distance (26:57-58). Seeking false testimony in order to put him to death, the council finds none, though false witnesses come forward accusing Jesus of claiming he could destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days (26:59-61). Jesus refuses to answer the high priest’s questions, but to the question of whether Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God, he responds that the high priest has said so. He then cites a compilation of Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 110:1 concerning how the Son of Man is seated at the hand of power (26:62-64). The high priest tears his clothes (a gesture of distress), accusing Jesus of blasphemy. Those assembled claim Jesus deserves death, and he is mocked as a false messiah (26:65-68).
Meanwhile when confronted by two female servants and some bystanders, Peter denies Jesus again. The cock crows and he remembers Jesus’ prophecy of his denial, leading to weeping (26:69-75). After Jesus is tried before the Sanhedrin who turn him over to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate (27:1-2), Judas repents and returns the thirty pieces of silver he had received for the betrayal back to the chief priests and elders, but they say that that is his problem. In despair Judas throws down the pieces of silver in the temple and hangs himself (27:3-5). The chief priests find it unlawful to return the pieces of silver to the treasury since they represent blood money. They buy a potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. It is said to be called to this day the field of blood, a place to bury foreigners. This fulfills Jeremiah (18:1-3; 32:6-15; cf. Zechariah 11:12-13) referring to the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, giving them for the potter’s field (27:6-10). This story of Judas’ remorse is only told in Matthew.
The text next reports Jesus’ appearance before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. It is noted how he refuses to respond to charges that he is king of the Jews, which amazes Pilate. The crowd’s choice of the notorious prisoner Jesus Barabbas over Jesus himself, as a result of the prodding of chief priests is noted. Pilate’s wife is reported as warning him to have nothing to do with Jesus since he is innocent (27:11-23). With a riot likely to develop, Pilate washes his hands claiming innocence of Jesus’ blood, contending that responsibility is on the crowd and their children; Pilate hands Jesus over for crucifixion. The flogging Jesus is said to have endured was typical of Roman efforts to weaken a prisoner prior to his crucifixion (27:24-26). Only the Roman government, not local rulers, had the authority of capital punishment in its empire.
The soldiers’ actions in bringing Jesus to crucifixion and the mocking of the crowd are reported. Simon, from the African district of Cyrene (a region with a large Jewish population), is made to bear Jesus’ cross to the crucifixion site Golgotha (Place of the Skull). There Jesus receives wine mixed with gall (though he refuses to drink it), his clothes are divided by lot, and the charge “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews” is affixed to the cross (27:27-37). It is noted how bandits are crucified on each side of Jesus, and how he is mocked by the crowd regarding the charge of destroying the temple and rebuilding it in three days, but now cannot save himself (27:38-44). Darkness covers the land from noon until 3:00 p.m., perhaps a reference to Amos 8:9-10 where mourning for an only son is related to the sun going down in daylight (27:45). When Jesus cries out to God about being forsaken, bystanders claim he is crying out for Elijah. His cry is a transliteration in the Aramaic language which he spoke of Psalm 22:1 (27:46-47). Popular belief at the time regarded Elijah as a helper of the oppressed. Another witness to the crucifixion provides Jesus with a sponge filled with sour wine for him to drink. Others mock him by saying that they will wait to see whether Elijah will save him. Jesus cries out with a loud voice and dies (27:48-50).
At the moment of his death the curtain of the temple is reported to have been torn (perhaps symbolizing the possibility of direct access to God), the earth shook, tombs were opened, and the bodies of saints were raised (27:51-52). After Jesus’ resurrection, the text notes, these saints came out of the tombs and appeared to many in Jerusalem. The centurion at the site of the crucifixion sees the earthquake and what happens then confesses Jesus as God’s Son (25:53-54). Many women (especially Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee) are watching at a distance (27:55-56). James and Joseph are likely not Jesus’ brothers, and so the Mary referred to here is probably not his mother. The text continues to report on the rich man Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus, who asks Pilate for his body. After Pilate allows this, Joseph wraps the body in his own tomb, rolling a stone before it. This is witnessed by Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (27:57-61). The next day the chief priests and Pharisees meet with Pilate, reminding him of Jesus’ apparent claim that he would rise in three days. (They refer to the allegation that he would rebuild the temple in three days [26:61; 27:40].) They ask Pilate to secure the tomb, lest his followers steal the body and claim he rose (27:62-64). Pilate tells the Jewish leaders that they must do it themselves, and they proceed to secure the tomb with a stone (27:65-66).
Application: A lesson this long offers numerous possibilities. One option is to focus on how politics (crowd pressure) led to Jesus’ condemnation by Pilate. This affords an opportunity to assess present American and global social trends that crucify Jesus (Social Ethics and Sin). Peter’s lack of courage as embodying our lack of courage is another insight that could be developed (Sin). But the good news is that God and Christ still go to the Cross for us (Justification by Grace), and how Christ and the ways of God are a threat to all the political maneuverings (Social Ethics). The power of Jesus’ persona continues to haunt the Jewish leaders even in death (as they fear his body might be stolen and a resurrection claimed). This point might be developed later on Easter Sunday to deal with skeptics of Easter and also to suggest God’s power over even those who do not believe (Providence).
Other possible avenues for sermon development include attention to Jesus’ suffering. He knows our suffering and despair and through him God does also. We have a God who can identify with us. The events that transpired in the Jerusalem Temple at his death (the tearing of the curtain barring access of all to the holy place of the temple [Exodus 26:31-35]) and also the opening of tombs remind us both of the saving significance of Christ’s death and resurrection, and also that we now have direct access to God and do not need a priest as our mediator or representative (Justification by Grace, Worship, and Theological Method).
THEME OF THE DAY
In the presence of Christ! The focus of the texts is on the sacraments (especially the Lord’s Supper), Repentance, and Sanctification.
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
This is a thanksgiving for healing and/or deliverance. God is praised for healing us, a witness made amidst the whole congregation in the temple (vv. 1-2, 18-19). Reference is made to lifting the cup of salvation (v. 13). This is probably a libation offered in fulfillment of the vow made by the psalmist when suffering (Exodus 29:40). But for Christians, the reference reminds us of the saving cup from which we drink in the Lord’s Supper. The psalmist identifies himself as a servant of the Lord, the child of a servant girl, yet he has been set free [pathach moser, loosed bonds] (v. 16). If read in relation to the New Testament this could also be applied to Jesus (especially the v. 15 reference to how precious the death of the faithful is to the Lord as well as the comment about the sacrifice in v. 17). Or it could be that the psalmist speaks for the faithful and is celebrating how precious Jesus’ death is.
Application: Several options for sermons present themselves. Because we do not know the historical context for the Psalm (it appears not to have been important to the biblical editors), it seems reasonable to interpret this song as a voice of praise in the present, as a song all the faithful can sing. The work of Christ has indeed healed and delivered us, set free mere servants like us, and so prayers of thanks and praise are appropriate (Sanctification). Also the Psalm might be interpreted as prophecy of what Christ would accomplish, prefiguring the institution of the Lord’s Supper and his atoning death which saves. Sermons either on how the atoning sacrifice saves (vv. 15, 16b-17) or on how the Lord’s Supper saves (v. 13) are appropriate.
Exodus 12:1-4 (5-10) 11-14
We have previously noted that like all of the first five books of the Old Testament, Exodus is the product of several distinct literary strands, all originating between the tenth and sixth centuries BC. The book is so named for the Greek term referring to the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Its Hebrew name (meaning “these are the names”) refers to the first words of the text’s prologue. This lesson, describing the establishment of the Passover, is probably the work of the P (Priestly) strand of the Pentateuch, an oral tradition dating from the sixth century BC transmitted by temple priests or those inclined to regard the Jewish faith primarily in terms of temple sacrifice. Some Old Testament scholars contend that P reinterpreted an earlier nomadic spring festival, the Festival of Unleavened Bread, as a memorial of the Lord’s deliverance of the people from Egypt. Also see verses 14-20; Deuteronomy 16:1-8; Numbers 9:1-14; Ezekiel 45:21-28.
The account in this chapter follows the description of the final plague the Lord worked against Pharaoh, which does not succeed in liberating the people (chapter 11). The month of Nissan (March-April) is to be designated the beginning of the year (v. 2). On the tenth of that month, each family is to take a lamb or share a lamb with its closest neighbor and divide the lamb (vv. 3-4). The lamb is to be one year old and without blemish (v. 5). Instructions are then given to put the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and lintel in the houses of the people (there were the holy places of a house). The lamb was to be eaten the night it was killed, and instructions are given on how it is to be prepared and what is to be eaten (vv. 7-9).
The blood that is on the doorposts represents a kind of sacrifice to Yahweh, most appropriate since it functions for the Hebrews as a symbol of life (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 17:11), and as such must be returned to God (Leviticus 17:3-6; Deuteronomy 12:16). The lamb is to be entirely consumed, except for the remains to be burned the next morning (v. 10). Instructions are given on the attire one is to wear when eating the lamb, which should be consumed hurriedly (v. 11). Presumably this is because the people must be ready for the march in commemoration of Israel’s hasty Exodus after the angel of death passed over [abar] the people of Israel.
Passover explains how the Lord will strike down the firstborn of all living things in Egypt, but the blood on the doorposts will be a sign for him to pass over that house so the plague will not destroy them (vv. 12-13). Henceforth the day is to be one of remembrance, a celebration of perpetual observance (v. 14).
Application: The text provides an occasion to remind Christians of the origins of the Lord’s Supper in the Passover meal. In so doing Passover’s celebration of freedom from slavery and how its celebrants are prepared for pilgrimages into the wilderness entails that the sacrament is also a meal for nurturing freedom for those who have been enslaved and feeding us in our wilderness treks, driving us into the affairs of the world (Sanctification and Social Ethics). Another possibility is to focus on the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, how its blood protects the faithful. We are thereby reminded of the sacrifice of the Christ the Lamb (John 1:29; Revelation 5:6-8) which protects us from death (Atonement).
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
In a letter to a troubled church in Corinth, which Paul had established (Acts 18:1-11), he critiques certain reportedly aberrant practices pertaining to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, addressing those practices that were exacerbating factions in the church (vv. 17-22). He begins to do this by claiming to report what he received from the Lord (v. 23). This may be a reference to the fact that Jesus himself did not directly teach Paul, but what he has learned is from the traditions of Christ, the church’s liturgical heritage. The Words of Institution for the sacrament are cited. We are to remember Christ [anamesis] (vv. 24-25). Of course, the Hebrew equivalent zakar entails that when we remember someone they are really present, as remembrance at Shechem summoned God to engage Israel in covenant (Joshua 24). Paul proceeds to testify that as often as the bread and cup are eaten and drunk we proclaim Christ’s death until he comes (v. 26). There is a testimony here to Christ’s Atoning Work.
Application: Paul’s concern to put an end to practices in Corinth that exacerbate factions in the church provides an excellent opportunity to preach on how the sacrament can enhance unity in the church insofar as an occasion is provided for all recipients to share Christ equally (Sanctification). Another option would be to emphasize verse 26 and relate the sacrament to Eschatology, pointing out that the sharing we do in the meal with Christ and with each other is a sign of what life will be like in heaven or when Christ comes again.
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
We consider the most recent of the accounts of events surrounding the first Lord’s Supper. In fact, unlike the Synoptic Gospels, this account offers no report of the actual words of Institution for the Sacrament, but instead recounts preparation for the supper with Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and then predicting his betrayal. This retelling of the story in terms of speeches by Jesus is typical of this gospel, written late in the first century, probably not by John the son of Zebedee but perhaps by a disciple of his who, according to the writer of the earliest history of the church Eusebius of Caesarea, perceived the external facts made plain in the gospel and inspired by friends and by the Spirit composed a spiritual gospel (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1, p. 261).
The account begins with the claim that before the Passover festival Jesus knew it was time for him to depart and go to the Father. Loving those who were his, Jesus is said to have loved them to the end (v. 1). This failure to relate the Last Supper to the Passover meal is unique to John’s gospel. It is noted that the devil had already put the idea of betraying Jesus in Judas Iscariot’s heart (v. 2). Jesus is said to come from God, receiving all things from the Father, and knowing he is to return (v. 3). He proceeds to wash the disciples’ feet (vv. 4-5). Hosts did not undertake such tasks among the Jews in the first century. In so doing, Jesus makes clear that he recognizes himself to be assuming the role of a servant (R. Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, p. 118).
Peter protests against his Lord washing his feet. Jesus responds that unless one is washed they will have no share of him (vv. 6-9). The Atoning Work of Christ on the Cross is here prophesied.
Jesus says the disciples are clean, but not all of them, indicating his knowledge of his betrayal (vv. 10-11). Some New Testament scholars (notably Oscar Cullmann, Early Christian Worship) contend that the reference to being cleaned by water connotes Christian baptism as preparation for receiving the Eucharist. For a discussion of this controversy, see James Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, pp. 168-169. Pertinent texts for adjudicating the viability of this identification with baptism include John 2:1-11; 4:7-15; 5:2-9; 7:37-39; 9:7; 13:1-16; 19:34.
Jesus explains the significance of his washing the disciples’ feet, though he himself is their teacher and lord. It is an example to the disciples (vv. 12-15). Servants are not greater than their master, nor messengers [apostolos] greater than the one who sent them. If these things are known there are blessings if they are done (vv. 16-17). These comments by Jesus are also unique to John’s gospel, and where parallels exist in the other gospels, they are not uttered like they are here at the Last Supper.
After further discourse and the identification of Judas as his betrayer (vv. 18-20), Jesus leaves the room of the supper. He notes that now the Son of Man has been glorified and God glorified in him (vv. 31b-32). In a previous analysis we noted the gospel of John’s unique understanding of this title. The author seems to understand the title in a Gnostic way — that is, as a designation for the pre-existent one who became man and must be exalted again, though combined with the earliest Christian meaning of letting Jesus be understood as Messiah, an apocalyptic figure who at the end of time will come down from heaven and hold judgment (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 2, p. 37; Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 49). This understanding of the title certainly fits the themes of this lesson, especially the teaching of Christ’s Saving Work (his exaltation) and Eschatology.
Jesus then adds that he will only be with the disciples a little longer. They cannot go with him (v. 33). He gives them a new commandment — to love one another as he has loved them (v. 34). By this everyone will know who his disciples are (v. 35).
Application: The text affords an opportunity to proclaim the virtues of humility and how it adequately prepares us to receive the Lord’s Supper. Of course such humility or repentance (Sanctification) is not an act of holiness on the part of the believer but is nothing more than renouncing his or her privilege and authority, fully depending on God (Justification by Grace). Other issues that might be addressed include Christology (see the discussion of the Son of Man above), an outline for Christian living (to love as Christ loves us), and the nature of the ministry as nothing more than being a messenger of God.
THEME OF THE DAY
How the Cross changes everyday life. The texts and the nature of Good Friday direct us to the doctrines of Christology (the suffering of Jesus and how he then identifies with us in our suffering), Sin, Atonement, Justification by Grace, and to some extent Sanctification.
The Psalm is a lament prayer for delivery from mortal illness attributed to David. The superscript’s designation to the leader according to the deer of the dawn is probably a set of instructions to the music leader in the temple about the melody to be used.
The Psalm begins with a cry for help and defense from forsakenness (vv. 1-2), quoted by Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:34). This suggests that the Psalm can be read as applying to Jesus’ Passion, an especially appropriate reading since this is labeled one of the Psalms traditionally attributed to David, Jesus’ ancestor through Joseph’s lineage. Other references foreshadowing the crucifixion are provided, such as the experience of being scorned, despised, and mocked (vv. 6-7), being forsaken (v. 11), as well as being poured out like water as enriched by evildoers (vv. 14-16) and clothes being divided (v. 18). The psalmist also confesses that God has kept Israel and him safe since birth and that Elohim has been his God since then, a remembrance inspiring the psalmist’s prayer (vv. 3-5, 9-10).
A prayer for healing follows, pleading for Yahweh’s presence and deliverance (vv. 19-21). He concludes with a vow of the sick one to offer a formal thanksgiving in the temple on recovery (vv. 22, 25). The hymn to be sung follows (vv. 23-31). Reference to fear [yare] of the Lord (v. 23) does not connote being terrified by God but is just a term for worship and obedience to him, and the comment that God did not hide his face (v. 24) is a Hebraic phrase for “remaining in relationship” with us. Among this hymn’s other references to praising God include acclamation and affirmation of his hearing cries of the afflicted (v. 24), caring for the poor (v. 25), as well as receiving praise from the whole earth (v. 27), from the dead (v. 29), and from posterity (vv. 30-31). This praise could be applied to the God who raised Jesus.
Application: A least two general directions are suggested. The Psalm can be interpreted as a lament over our own mortality or other crises, pleading for God’s healing with confidence, based on what he has done for Old Testament people and in our own lives, so he is ready to hear and respond to the cries of the afflicted, including the poor (Sin, Providence, Justification by Grace, and Social Ethics). Or if interpreted Christologically, the Psalm offers occasion to focus on the suffering of Christ on the cross, how the events we commemorate were not random and accidental but all part of the divine plan (Providence). This focus on the suffering of Christ makes us feel closer to him and to God, for this suffering reveals that the Lord truly understands our pain because he has actually experienced it.
This lesson is derived from Second Isaiah, the second of three distinct literary traditions that comprise the book and were edited into one after the Hebrew people had returned from exile in Babylon in the second half of the sixth century BC. This lesson does not seem to have been written by the historical prophet to Judah for whom the book is named. Rather, it was likely generated soon after the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587-586 BC. It is a portion of the Book of Consolation, a series of eschatological prophecies. This particular text is the so-called Fourth Servant Song. We have previously noted that there is much dispute about the identity of the servant in these songs (42:1-4; 49:1-6: 50:1-6; 52:13–53:12). Historically the church has claimed that the referent of these texts is an individual (the Messiah, and specifically to Jesus). But many scholars understand them to refer to the role the nation of Israel would play in propagating God’s mission.
The first ten verses of chapter 53 are a congregational reflection on the servant [ebed]. Other verses in chapter 52 and the last two of chapter 53 purport to be God’s word.
This lesson is a song of God’s exalting his disfigured servant (52:13-15; 53:12b). Although in its historical context the song is intended to depict Israel’s restoration, several passages (see below) can be read canonically (in relation to the New Testament and commemoration of this day) as prefiguring Christ’s Atoning Work. The servant is said not to have a desirable appearance (53:2). He was despised and rejected (53:3). He is said to bear our infirmities and was wounded for our transgressions. He took the punishment that made us whole (53:4-5). He was oppressed and afflicted, like a lamb led to slaughter (53:7). His death is said to have been a perversion of justice (53:8). Reference to the servant’s tomb being with one who is rich is most suggestive of Jesus’ burial in the tomb of the rich man Joseph of Arimathea (53:9; cf. John 19:38-42; Matthew 27:57). Yet it is noted that it was the will of the Lord to crush the servant; it was an offering for sin (53:10), for he makes many righteous, bearing the sins of many (53:11-12).
Application: At least two general directions for sermons are suggested by the text, differing depending on who the preacher understands the servant described in this text to be. If Israel, it is an opportunity to proclaim how God has used the Jewish people to do great things, and despite all the afflictions they have endured, through them and their traditions salvation has come in Christ. Likewise we can be servants of God, despite all the tragedies we endure, offering our lives to God. If the servant is understood as Christ the Messiah, a sermon on these texts does well to focus on the Atonement (Christ’s offering for sin and the suffering he undertook on our behalf, a reminder of God’s forgiving love for us [Justification by Grace]).
The book is an anonymous treatise which, given its argument for the superiority of Christ’s sacrifice to those of Levitical priests, was likely written prior to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. Remarks in 2:3-4 suggest it was written by a member of a generation of Christians after the apostles. Modern scholars are inclined to regard the book as a sermon, perhaps modified after it was delivered to include travel plans, greetings, and a closing (13:20-25). The Christians addressed are thought to have been in danger of falling away from their confession (3:1; 4:14; 10:23). They had endured persecution (10:32-36).
In this text, after a brief citation from Jeremiah (31:33-34) concerning the New Covenant ushered in by Christ the high priest (vv. 16-18), exhortations to the faithful are offered. Forgiveness of sin and writing the Lord’s laws on the hearts and minds of the people are said to be the essence of the New Covenant (vv. 16-18). Reference is then made to the blood of Jesus giving confidence to enter the sanctuary [the presence of God] through the curtain (which is said to refer to his flesh) (vv. 19-20). In accord with the book’s agenda, Jesus is said to be a great priest (v. 21). As a result, the faithful can approach a public confession in full assurance [plerophoria, full conviction], for their hearts are clear from an evil conscience [suneidesis, a knowing with oneself] and so may hold fast in hope (vv. 22-23).
The text then calls for those addressed to provoke [paroxusmos, literally "excite"] each other to love and good deeds (v. 24). The author would have the faithful not neglect meeting together (unlike some who do), for the Day of the Lord (the end time) is approaching (v. 25). This eschatological orientation had been anticipated by the Hebrew prophets (Isaiah 2:12; Joel 1:15, 3:14; Amos 5:18, 8:9).
Application: The lesson offers an opportunity to reflect not just on the Atonement (how Christ’s blood gives us access to God) (vv. 19-20); we can also explain how his sacrifice, in leading God to forget our sins (v. 17), makes us worthy of standing in God’s presence. But along with or in addition to this agenda, the text permits sermons on how we have been changed by the Cross (either in the sense of becoming part of a New Covenant in which the law is not something we must act on or as a reality in our hearts which by grace leads us to do good). In this connection we can proclaim how Christ’s death gives us confidence by clearing our hearts from an evil conscience (sense of oneself) (Justification by Grace), gives us hope (Eschatology), and provokes (excites) us to love (Sanctification).
We continue to examine the newest account of the Passion, a gospel, which as we have noted, was probably not written by the apostle John but by a disciple of his seeking to present a spiritual gospel that places a strong emphasis on Christ’s divinity. Following his high priestly prayer (chapter 17), Jesus and the disciples reportedly journey across the Kidron Valley, between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives (18:1). Judas leads Roman soldiers, temple police, and Pharisees to arrest Jesus (18:2-3). (Of the four gospels, only John mentions a role for Roman soldiers in the arrest.) Jesus asks them, though he already omnisciently knows the answer, whom they seek — and when his name is mentioned he uses a phrase suggestive of his identification with God (with the name Yahweh), claiming “I am he” (Exodus 3:14; Isaiah 43:10-11, 25). John’s version of Jesus regularly identified himself this way (8:12; 12:46; 14:6; 15:1, 5). With this identification of himself, Jesus’ arresters fall to the ground in honor of the name (18:4-8a). He urges that his followers be released in order to fulfill earlier prophecies that he would lose no one (18:8b-9; cf. 6:39; 17:12).
Jesus stops Peter from taking arms to free him (though Peter did cut off the ear of one of the high priest’s men [vv. 18:10-11]). He is brought before Annas, the father-in-law of the High Priest Caiaphas, who had advised that it would be better to have Jesus killed as representative of the people of Israel than to have the people and the temple attacked by Roman authorities (18:13-14). Meanwhile, Peter seems to have denied Jesus outside the gate of the high priest’s courtyard. Another disciple known by the high priest enters the courtyard with Jesus (18:15-18). Unlike the other gospels where Jesus first sees the Sanhedrin (in John’s account he had already been judged by this body [11:47-53]), Jesus simply is judged by the High Priest Annas. In the interrogation Jesus claims that all know or have heard his teaching (18:19-21). He is struck for insubordination and sent to Caiaphas for formal trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin (the official Jewish court made up of seventy priests, scribes, and elders, presided over by the high priest) (18:22-24), but as noted, we never receive a report of such a trial. Meanwhile, Peter denies Jesus again after being accused of being a follower by a relative of the one whom he had injured defending Jesus (18:25-27).
Jesus is brought to Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. Jews do not enter headquarters lest they become unclean for Passover by interaction with Gentiles (18:28). Pilate tries to have the Jews punish Jesus themselves, but they note that they are not permitted to inflict capital punishment (18:29-32). In response to Pilate’s questions, Jesus notes that his kingdom is not of the world and that his followers are not defending him (18:33-36). (John’s Jesus does not emphasize the kingdom of God as much as other gospels, so these references to Jesus’ kingship may be the result of John’s dependence on Mark and other gospels or a way to assert the divinity of Jesus as this gospel aims to emphasize. Yet in John’s version of the trial, John emphasizes more than the other gospels the political accusation that Jesus claims to be king.) After more exchanges with Jesus, during which Jesus claims to have come into the world to testify to the truth [aletheia], Pilate surmises that Jesus has claimed to be a king but failed to comment on the truth of his testimony. He then offers Jesus’ release to the Jews, but the crowd prefers the release of Barabbas the bandit/robber [lestes, a Greek term sometimes identified with political revolutionaries] (18:37-40).
Pilate then has Jesus flogged and mocked by clothing him in purple robes, which were king-like attire. (Flogging in the Roman empire was generally reserved for those sentenced to death.) Others mockingly call him king of the Jews (19:1-3). Pilate claims to find no case against Jesus regarding alleged political insurrection, but chief priests and police call for his crucifixion, contending he should die for he has claimed to be Son of God (19:4-7). After this exchange Pilate is fearful. (While the translation says “more fearful,” the Greek term mallon might be translated as “rather,” so this is best translated as “rather fearful.”) Jesus refused to answer further questions (19:8-9). Angered, Pilate threatens Jesus with the power he has over him, but Jesus responds that Pilate’s power depends on God. The one who handed Jesus over is said to be guilty of greater sin (19:10-11). Pilate then tries to release Jesus, but Jews claim he is the enemy of the emperor. Pilate finally announces Jesus as king of Jews; asking if he should be crucified, Pilate hands Jesus to the crowd at noon (19:12-16). Jewish custom was to slaughter Passover lambs on the day of preparation at noon for the festival.
Jesus carries the cross to Golgotha (Aramaic for “skull”). He is crucified between two others, with an inscription on the cross reading “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews” (not precisely the same wording as in the other gospel accounts [cf. Luke 23:38; Mark 15:26]) (19:17-20). Chief priests try to have the inscription changed to make clear that Jesus only claimed to be king of the Jews. Pilate refuses (19:21-22). At the crucifixion Jesus’ clothes are divided by soldiers and they cast lots for his tunic, fulfilling Psalm 22:18 (19:23-24). In the presence of his mother, her sister Mary of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene, Jesus speaks to the disciple he loved (identity uncertain, though in the tradition it is said that this is John), asking him to care for his mother (19:25-27). Knowing the end is near, Jesus seeks to fulfill scripture (Psalm 69:21) by receiving sour wine on a hyssop (a shrub whose branches are too short for this purpose, but which is used in connection with the Passover) in response to his thirst (19:28-29; cf. Exodus 12:22). He then proclaims it is finished/completed [tetelestai] and dies (19:30).
Because the Sabbath (and with it the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, an ancient spring festival) would dawn in the morning and Jews did not allow bodies to be left on a cross, Pilate orders the legs of the crucified to be broken (19:31-32). There’s no need to do that in Jesus’ case for he is already dead; instead his side is pierced. Eyewitness testimony is claimed (19:33-35). Scripture is thereby fulfilled, with reference to not breaking the bones of God’s chosen (as Passover sacrifices cannot have bones broken, as per Exodus 12:46) (19:36). Jesus being pierced is said to fulfill Zechariah 12:10 and its claim that the one pierced will be mourned at the end (19:37).
Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple of Jesus, gets permission from Pilate to take his body. With a leader of the Pharisees, Nicodemus (see 3:1-15), they embalm the body and lay it in a tomb (19:38-42).
Application: The lesson’s length affords several alternatives. Opportunity is provided to identify the sins causing Jesus death, noting that they are our sins — the fickleness of the crowd, Pilate’s lack of courage to buck social consensus, Peter’s lack of courage, the misunderstanding of all about the nature of Jesus’ messiahship, that it is not of this world. This opens the door for a proclamation of the forgiving love of Christ and God so evident in our Lord’s gentle concern about the welfare of his mother before his own death. The question of what truth is, posed in the dialogue with Pilate, could also be explored (the truth being that Jesus is the Messiah). The apparent affirmation by Jesus of his divinity (see the use of the phrase “I am” described above) opens the way for a sermon regarding why it is important for him to be divine if his word on the Cross is to save us, for only God can save us (Christology). Finally the Atonement itself could be proclaimed and explained, how it involves not only Jesus’ sacrifice to God but also his conquest of the forces of evil operating in this story, along with the implications of how this awareness can bring comfort as we face our anxieties over whether we are worthy of God and whether the evils in life are prevailing.
THEME OF THE DAY
The Resurrection: its reality and impact. As a day of celebration of what God has done in Christ, Justification by Grace and its implications for Christian life (Sanctification) are the primary themes.
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
This thanksgiving for deliverance in battle is one of the Egyptian Hallel Psalms (Psalms of Praise) used after the Passover meal. They are called “Hallel” Psalms because of their use of the Hebrew word halal, which means “Praise the Lord.”
The song begins and continues with praise to God and his love (vv. 1-2). Yahweh is identified as the psalmist’s strength and salvation (v. 14). Verses 15-16 are praising works of the right hand of Yahweh and may be an ancient victory song. Reference is made to not dying but living, to being punished but not being given over to death (vv. 17-18). This suggests the Cross-Resurrection sequence, as the concluding call to rejoicing (v. 24) invites an Easter reading. Reference to the gates of righteousness and the gate the righteous enter, though originally intended to refer to entering the Jerusalem Temple (vv. 19-20), imply the outcome of Easter, the righteousness associated with Justification by Grace (Romans 3:21-26). Then the joy and awe that follow from this awareness of what Yahweh has done is expressed (vv. 21, 23-24).
The Christological interpretation further reflects in verses 22-23 and its reference to the stone the builders rejected. This is frequently attributed to Christ in the New Testament (Matthew 21:42; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7). The legitimacy of applying these texts to Christ and Easter, as living voices of the present, has been suggested by eminent Old Testament scholar Brevard Childs (Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 523). He notes that the final editors of the collection do not seem to have been concerned to present them as bound to their place of origin, for they could be sung any time.
Application: Interpreting the Psalm in light of the Theme of the Day, it seems appropriate to move from the text to a proclamation of how Christ has overcome death, and as a result we have much to celebrate (Christology, Atonement, and Sanctification). A sermon on the joy and sense of awe associated with the Christian life (Sanctification) is a related option. Noting the Egyptian origins of the Psalm also opens the way to a celebration of multiculturalism, how celebrating the Resurrection takes root in Africa and all over the world (Church and Social Ethics).
This book is the second half of the two-part early history of the church attributed to Paul’s Gentile associate Luke (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). It is particularly concerned to affirm the universal mission of the church (1:8), a theme reflected in this story of Peter’s confession of the gospel justifying his efforts to convert the Gentile Cornelius in Caesarea. The background of the lesson is that Cornelius is reported to have summoned Peter as a result of a vision, and then Peter has a similar vision (vv. 3-17). Peter visits Cornelius and then proceeds with the confession (eventually culminating in the pouring out of the Spirit on Peter and other Gentiles, as well as their baptisms [vv. 44-46]).
In his confession Peter refers to God showing no partiality [literally "God accepts no one's face," ouk prosopolaptos] and finding all with faith acceptable (vv. 34-35). He proceeds to recount the ministry of Jesus who, anointed by the Spirit, preached peace and did good, healing all who were oppressed by the devil (vv. 36-38). Testimony is also given to Christ’s death and resurrection, as well as his appearances to those chosen by God who ate and drank with him (vv. 39-41). Recognizing Jesus at meals or gaining special insights from him on those occasions is typical of all the gospels, including Luke (7:36ff; 9:10ff; 10:8; 11:37ff; 14:7ff; 24:30-31, 42-43). Peter claims to be commanded by these witnesses to preach that those who believe receive forgiveness of sin (vv. 42-43).
Application: At least two possible sermon directions emerge. One can focus on Peter’s comment about how Jesus appeared to the disciples while they were eating (v. 41), noting the importance of the Lord’s Supper for encountering the risen Christ and his love. If we are looking for Christ we can find him in the sacrament (Sanctification). Another direction is to focus on God’s impartiality, saving all with faith (Church and Social Ethics). This point can be made by developing the Greek concept of impartiality as not attending to faces (to ethnicity, gender, and so on).
The book is a circular letter which, much like Philippians, was either written by Paul from prison (4:3, 10, 18) late in his career or by a follower of Paul who had a hand in assembling the collection of his epistles. These conclusions follow from the fact that the epistle includes vocabulary and stylistic characteristics different from the indisputably Pauline writings. The letter addresses Christians in a town in Asia Minor (the most eastern part of modern Turkey) near Ephesus, whose church, though not likely founded by Paul, was basically in line with his teachings, though threatened by ascetic teachings (2:21, 23), ritual practices rooted in Jewish traditions (2:16), and philosophical speculations (2:8, 20), all of which were related to visionary insights, and perhaps even the heresy of Gnosticism. This lesson is part of a discussion of the Christian life.
The lesson begins with a comment by the author that having been raised with Christ we are urged to search the things that are above [ano] (v. 1). Then it is noted that the faithful seek the things above, for we have died and our lives are hidden [keruptai] with Christ (vv. 2-4). Subsequently exhortations to put to death certain earthly behaviors follow (vv. 4ff). It seems possible to interpret these references to dying to the things of the world and rising in terms of baptism where we are buried with Christ (2:12ff). But in that case these references to the Christian life must be understood as transpiring between times, for in a sense we have died to sin but in another sense the lifestyle of his is not yet realized in full, as we remain sinners (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 141; Ibid., Vol. 2, p. 175).
Application: The text invites sermons on how Easter changes the faithful, makes us people who are brand-new, having died to the old, destructive ways of the past. As Christ died and rose, so what is destructive in our lives is dead (albeit in hidden ways, since sin continues to plague us, though it cannot have the final say) and the new way of living with openness to Christ’s future is open (Sanctification).
This last gospel to be written (probably in the last decade of the first century) could not have been composed by John the apostle, though perhaps by one of his disciples. As we have previously noted, hints of that possibility are offered by the first post-biblical church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, who claimed that the book was written on the basis of external facts made plain and then inspired by the Spirit developed into a “spiritual gospel” (presumably one not based on eyewitness accounts of the author) (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1, p. 261). It is especially preoccupied with making clear that Jesus is the Messiah for a Jewish Christian community in conflict with the synagogue and Jewish society. Certainly these verses about the resurrection reflect this concern with Jesus’ messianic character.
The Johannine version of the story combines two traditions of Easter accounts found in the gospels — the resurrection appearance tradition and the empty tomb tradition (stories that say nothing about seeing the risen Lord) (Rudolf Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, pp. 287-288). This Johannine account does not introduce the appearance tradition until later in the narrative. Bultmann also notes that for John “the Resurrection of Jesus, Pentecost, and the parousia of Jesus are one and the same [eschatological] event” (Jesus Christ and Mythology, p. 33).
In accord with the Synoptic Gospels (except Luke 24), Mary Magdalene is given credit for first recognizing the Resurrection (or the empty tomb) (v. 1). John’s version is the only gospel to claim that this happened to her alone. She is reported as running to tell Simon Peter and “the one whom Jesus loved” (John or the Christian community for which the gospel was written). She reports that the body must have been removed (v. 2). The two disciples hurriedly proceed to the tomb, with the one who Jesus loved getting there faster than Peter (vv. 3-4).
At first only seeking the linens that had wrapped the body of Christ, the disciples enter the empty tomb, and not understanding the scripture [Old Testament] promises regarding the resurrection they return home (vv. 5-10). Mary is reported to have remained outside the tomb weeping, and angels sitting where the body of Jesus had laid comfort her. She professes her agony over where the body has gone (vv. 11-13). With these words, Jesus appears. At first she does not recognize him and his efforts to comfort her (vv. 14-15). He then calls her name, and she recognizes him (calling him “rabbi”). Jesus asks Mary not to hold him, because he has not yet ascended to their Father, to their God (vv. 16-17). She goes and reports these things to the disciples, claiming she has seen the Lord (v. 18). John does not make clear if the disciples actually believe her testimony, since a personal appearance later in the day is reported (vv. 19-23).
Application: One option for this text is to note how Mary did not recognize Jesus until he recognized her. The resurrection makes no sense if we try to figure it out. Only when we are wrapped up in God’s word is it possible to believe it (Theological Method and Justification by Grace). Another option is to recognize how the resurrection is related to Christ’s second coming, a sign of a new era. Easter is about a fresh start (just like the second coming will be a new day). All the bad things in our pasts have been destroyed. Thanks to Jesus’ rising, tomorrow is the first day of our new lives (Sanctification and Realized Eschatology)!
THEME OF THE DAY
Christ and the resurrection have their way with us. Historically, this was the first Sunday during which newly baptized members (since baptisms occurred only on Easter in the first centuries) would be admitted into the fellowship as full members of the church, and so this theme of how Christ, his Resurrection, and Baptism have or can change us is most appropriate (Justification and Sanctification by Grace).
This is a song of trust in God’s power to save, attributed to David. We have previously noted the scholarly consensus that David is not likely the author or even the collector of the Psalms attributed to him. The editorial rationale for attributing this and the other Psalms to him is to make clear to the original audience that because he was king, David represents Israel, and so his Psalms were about them (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, pp. 512, 521).
The psalmist begins with a prayer for deliverance from trouble (v. 1). To Yahweh is proclaimed that there is no good apart from him (v. 2). The Lord in turn proclaims delight in the holy ones in the land, but as for those who choose another god, their names are forgotten (vv. 3-4).
The psalmist adds that Yahweh is his chosen portion [manah] (v. 5). He claims to have a godly heritage and will bless the Lord who gives him counsel and instruction (vv. 6-7). It is obvious that the psalmist has received many material blessings from the Lord. This has led some interpreters to conclude that the psalmist was a Levite, who had no land and so lived only from the Lord providing the offerings given to him by other tribes. Other Old Testament texts speak of the Levites like this one, of the Lord being their portion (Numbers 18:20; Deuteronomy 10:9).
A pledge is made to keep the Lord always before him. The psalmist proceeds to express confidence in God. He sings that his heart is glad and he rejoices, for he does not give him up to Sheol (the place of death) (vv. 8-10). This song is quoted by Peter in the First Lesson. Yahweh shows us the path of life, and in his presence there is joy [simchah] (v. 11).
Application: On this Sunday when the church remembers the doubts of Doubting Thomas, a sermon on this text, after acknowledging the gospel story, might focus on the joy that comes with reveling in God’s presence and heritage (what he has done) and in the assurance that we have been given up to death (Sanctification and Eschatology).
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
We continue to consider the second half of the two-part early history of the church attributed to Paul’s Gentile associate Luke (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). Its main emphasis is the universal mission of the church and to vindicate Paul’s ministry. But as Paul did not negate the Jewish inheritances of the faith, so in this lesson we hear part of Peter’s address to the crowds on the Day of Pentecost, a word that seeks to link Jesus’ Resurrection to the earlier Hebraic faith.
Peter is reported as addressing the Israelites concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested by God with deeds of power and wonders that God did through him. Jesus was handed to them in accord with the Lord’s predetermined counsel and foreknowledge. (This is a consistent theme in the book.) But, Peter notes, the Israelites have crucified him by the hands of those outside the law (vv. 22-23). Peter then proceeds to note that God raised Jesus from the dead, which could not hold him in its power (v. 24). David (Psalm 16:8-11) is quoted (though as we have noted above he was not likely the author of this Psalm). This citation speaks of the Lord always before [enopion] the psalmist so he can never be shaken. This it is said makes for gladness and hope, for the Lord will not abandon our souls to Hades or let the holy one be corrupt (vv. 25-28).
Continuing to address Israelites, Peter adds that their ancestor David was a prophet who knew God had promised that one of his descendants would sit on his throne (vv. 29-30). Peter cites Psalm 16:10 and its reference to God not giving us up to Hades, claiming this refers to the Resurrection of the Messiah (v. 31). God has in fact raised up Jesus; Peter and the disciples are witnesses, he proclaims (v. 32).
Application: Several possible directions are suggested by the text. One could focus on Peter’s observation that all that transpired in Jesus was part of God’s eternal plan. We can revel in the confidence that God is in control of our lives (Providence). Another related option is to focus on Peter’s and the cited Psalm’s claim that the risen Lord is always before us — always in our presence, traveling with us. The comfort of this insight can be analyzed and celebrated (Providence and Sanctification).
1 Peter 1:3-9
Probably written between 70 AD and 90 AD, this book is a pastoral exhortation (circular letter) written by an elder in Rome claiming to be Peter to a Gentile church at the lower levels of the socio-economic spectrum in Turkey. The latter date and high-quality Greek make it unlikely to have been a work of the apostle. The text is a discourse on rejoicing in salvation. The long blessing that precedes the lesson takes the place of an opening thanksgiving. Reference is made to the faithful having been chosen and destined [prognosin] by God, sanctified by the Spirit, and sprinkled by Christ’s blood (vv. 1-2).
After blessing God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ it is noted that by his great mercy through Christ’s Resurrection we have been given a new birth into a living hope and into an imperishable inheritance kept in heaven for us (vv. 3-4). We are said to be protected by God’s power through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed at the end (v. 5).
The writer calls for rejoicing, even though for a little while we must suffer trials, so that the genuineness of faith may be found to result in praise and honor when Christ revealed (vv. 6-7). Although his hearers have not seen Christ, the author notes that they love him, and while not seeking him, they believe and rejoice in him (v. 8). For the recipients of the letter receive the outcome of their faith, the salvation of the soul (v. 9).
Application: The text affords an opportunity to reflect on the difference the Resurrection can and has made in our daily lives (Sanctification). Because of what Jesus has done we have been chosen by God (Predestination and Providence) to live lives as people born again, living in hope, and protected by God.
Again we receive a lesson from the last gospel to be written (probably in the last decade of the first century), and so not written by John the son of Zebedee, but perhaps by a disciple of his in order to address a community of Jewish Christians who had been expelled from Jewish society. These verses, accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection and the story of Doubting Thomas, embody the gospel’s primary concern with testifying that Jesus is Messiah, but also its characteristic emphasis on faith. (The word “believe” [pisteuo] appears far more in John than in any of the gospels.)
The text begins by reporting on a gathering of disciples on the first Easter, locked in a house for fear of the Jews. The risen Jesus enters and gives them a peace greeting. The disciples rejoice (vv. 19-20). He came to those with weak faith. Jesus is then said to commission the disciples, giving them the Holy Spirit as well as the power to forgive and retain sins. A reference is made to Jesus “breathing on” [enephusao] his followers, the same phrase used to describe the communication of natural life (Genesis 2:7). The author thereby expresses that what the risen Jesus does is to give new life (vv. 20-23). Thomas was not present and expresses doubts about accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection (vv. 24-25).
In a gathering the following week, Jesus is reported again to appear and has Thomas feel his body. Thomas then confesses his faith (vv. 26-28). Jesus asks him if he only has believed because he saw him. The Lord adds his blessing for those who have not seen him but yet believe (v. 29). The author then reports that Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples that have not been reported in the gospel (v. 30). The ones reported are provided, he writes, so that readers may believe Jesus is the Messiah, Son of God, and through believing have life in his name (v. 31). This last verse is understood as the gospel of John’s statement of purpose.
Application: This is a text that makes clear that if we are to affirm that Jesus is the Son of God we need to believe he has risen from the dead! But that does not come easily. Help parishioners identify with Thomas, coming to appreciate that like him we have our doubts (Sin). When the risen Christ comes to us he “breathes on” us and gives us new life. (See discussion in the second paragraph above.) We are born again, given a new start (Realized Eschatology). With the fresh start Easter gives us, the old destructive doubts begin to wither away (Justification by Grace). And as we get freed from the destructive past and the doubts, it is a little easier to believe he has risen, and we have a fresh start after all.