Peter originally wrote First Peter as a circular letter (which is what “encyclical” means) to a group of churches in Asia Minor in the first century. Their world passed away long ago, but this bright yet sober letter continues to speak to us as the living word of God twenty centuries later. First Peter speaks to us in at least four distinct ways. Continue reading
Category Archives: biblical theology
Recently I learned that two young married couples I know, each of which has a toddler at home, have separated and are headed toward divorce. In one marriage, the husband says he no longer feels anything for his wife; in the other, the wife says she no longer loves her husband. While the circumstances differ in each case, in both a root cause of the breakup is a superficial understanding of love that reflects the confusion of our culture.
Some time ago another couple asked me to speak at their wedding. As I prayed I felt inspired to compose the following dialogue about “True Love.” I believe it supplies an antidote from the New Testament to some of the inadequate understandings of love common even among practicing Christians today.
One day two disciples were walking down a dusty road with their Teacher, and the conversation turned toward marriage, and how the only enduring foundation for marriage is true love.
“Teacher,” one of them asked, “please tell us, What is true love?” Continue reading
Yesterday’s first reading from Genesis 18:16-33 about Abraham’s prayer for Sodom sheds light on, and to some degree qualifies, what I wrote in my last blog about the prospect of severe judgment on America and the Christian West.
The story of Abraham’s intercession illustrates God’s readiness to withhold judgment on the wickedness of many for the sake of a few who are righteous.
In fact, there is still a great deal of Christian faith and faithfulness in the United States that might preserve this country from judgment for awhile. Although many among our political, educational, media, and entertainment elites and ordinary people whose conduct resembles Rom 1:18-32, still there are many whose conduct shows love of God.
A battle is raging for the soul of our country. Although the trends don’t look great, it’s probably a mistake to write off America for destruction just yet, even if severe warning judgments may be expected.
From a biblical perspective, it’s interesting to see how long God is willing to wait before bringing definitive judgment to bear. Abraham is told that his descendants will not receive Canaan until the fourth generation, since “the iniquity of the Amorites is not complete” (Gen 15:16). Amos prophesies doom on Israel 30 years before it descends in 722 BC. Micah and Isaiah prophesy the destruction of Judah 150 years before Babylon destroys Jerusalem and exiles the people in 586 B.C. Along the way Hezekiah and Josiah bring reforms that stay God’s hand (2 Kings 18-20; 22-23); the repentance of even the most wicked kings like Ahab (1 Kings 21:27-29) and Manasseh (2 Chron 33:11-19) delays the outcome.
The truth is, we don’t know how much time is left to America and the Christian West. A major cultural change for the worse, when judged by the standard of obedience to God’s word in Scripture and Tradition, began in the 1960’s with the sexual revolution, legalized abortion, and atmosphere of rebellion against and denial of God, followed by the rampant consumerism of the period that followed. We’ve had about fifty years of heading in the wrong direction. How long will America and the West be allowed to continue? The judgment that comes on Sodom and Gomorrah teaches that God will eventually deal with those who persist in doing evil.
Nevertheless, this story also sets before us the magnanimity of Abraham, who boldly pleads with God to spare Sodom if even ten righteous people can be found there. Let us also intercede for America and on the other nations of the West, that God treat them and us according to his mercy rather than according to what we deserve.
More on the biblical perspective on divine judgment later this week or next!
First, we have the example of the righteousness and magnanimity of Abraham, who boldly pleads with God for mercy on Sodom if even ten righteous people (the NAB’s “innocent” is less precise) can be found there. We also should intercede for America and on the other nations of the West, praying for God’s mercy for the sake of the just men and women who stand to suffer greatly if North America receives what it deserves.
Jesus previously spoke of the resurrection as an event that would take place on “the last day” (6:39-40, 44, 54; cf. 12:48). He now affirms, with his fifth “I am + predicate” pronouncement, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
In John 5, Jesus said that he has the divine power to raise and judge the dead (5:21-24), and in John 6, he repeatedly affirmed that he will resurrect those who believe in him (6:40, 44) and eat his Eucharistic flesh (6:54).
Jesus now elaborates on his identity as the resurrection and the life, speaking in both physical/literal and spiritual/figural senses. Jesus first says “whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live.” Believers in Jesus will die physically, but on account of their faith and relationship with Christ, they will continue to live spiritually. Jesus gives the gift of eternal, eschatological life to those who receive him with faith and discipleship. This gift of Jesus continues to vivify believers beyond bodily death.
He makes a second, similar claim, “everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Those who are physically alive and believe in Jesus will be delivered from spiritual death. Jesus does not deny the general resurrection of the dead, for he is the one who will raise and judge the dead on the last day (cf. 5:27-29). But these final, eschatological realities are spiritually linked to the decisions that people make in the present. By identifying himself as “the resurrection and the life,” Jesus establishes the raising of Lazarus as the sign which demonstrates these truths about himself and his divine power.
Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4, one of the longest dialogues in all Scripture, is full of Johannine symbolism and hidden layers of meaning.
The setting, Jacob’s well, provides an initial clue to the meaning of the story. As ancient Jews steeped in the Old Testament would recognize, a well is the place where, in a seemingly chance encounter, bridegroom meets bride. Isaac, Jacob and Moses all found their brides-to-be at a well (Gen 24; 29; Exod 2:15-21). These parallels suggest that so too, Jesus’ meeting with the woman of Samaria is a divinely appointed encounter, a meeting of love.
Jesus, thirsty from his long journey, asks the woman for a drink—thereby breaking the powerful social barriers that stood between men and women, Jews and Samaritans.
When the woman expresses her surprise, he answers:
“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
This makes clear that the real purpose of Jesus’ request was that he might quench her thirst with “living water.” Living water (or flowing water) is a biblical image for the divine life for which human beings yearn, as in Ps 42:1-2:
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?
The Samaritan woman is intrigued.
“Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?”
She thinks Jesus is referring to flowing spring water in contrast to stagnant water. Like Nicodemus (3:4) and later the disciples (11:11-12), the woman misconstrues Jesus’ words about a spiritual reality in a literalistic way. But this gives Jesus an opportunity to explain further:
“Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Later in the Gospel, John explicitly identifies the “living water” as the Holy Spirit.
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now he said this about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive (John 7:37-39).
The feast mentioned here is Tabernacles, when the Jews commemorated the water that miraculously came forth from the rock that Moses struck (Exod 17:1-6). Jesus, then, is himself the life-giving Rock (cf. 1 Cor 10:3-4), the source of the Holy Spirit, and the way we drink his living water is by believing in him. The passion narrative portrays how this Rock is “struck”: after Jesus had died, “one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (John 19:34). From Jesus’ wounded heart flows divine life, the Holy Spirit, given to us in the sacraments of baptism (signified by the water) and the Eucharist (signified by the blood). As Paul expressed it, “God has poured his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5).
Jesus promises the Samaritan woman that his water will not only quench her thirst but become “a spring welling up” within her. This suggests that to the degree we drink from the inexhaustible fountain of God’s love, we become a fountain of life for others.
At this point the woman is finally ready to ask for the gift Jesus longs to give her:
“Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.”
She still does not understand; she is glad at the prospect of never again having to trek out to the well. Yet her request, like that of the Jews for the bread of life (John 6:34), is sincere. On a symbolic level, without knowing it she is asking for baptism (cf. John 3:5).
But Jesus’ reply is unexpected.
“Go, call your husband, and come here.”
Why this apparent digression? Now that her request has provided an opening, Jesus probes this woman’s heart, uncovering the place where she is wounded. Only the truly thirsty, who are willing to acknowledge what is parched and lifeless within them, are able to drink the living water. This woman’s brokenness, like that of so many others, is in the area of love. In fact, her life is a history of broken relationships.
Her reply, “I have no husband,” is somewhat evasive, but Jesus brings to light her true moral state.
“You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.”
Although this revelation is painful, the woman recognizes Jesus’ total lack of condemnation (cf. 4:39). He exposes sin not for the sake of condemnation but forgiveness and freedom.
At this point it is becoming clear that the dialogue is not merely personal. The woman’s life story, in fact, embodies the history of the people of Israel. According to 2 Kings, when the Assyrians invaded the Kingdom of Israel they planted precisely five foreign nations there, each with its god (2 Kg 17:24-31; cf. Josephus, Antiquities, 9.288). Through the prophets, God had revealed himself as the bridegroom of Israel, the true God whose love for his chosen people was passionate and utterly faithful. Yet instead of being reciprocated, his love had met with continuous betrayal in the form of idolatry, the worship of alien gods. The gentile nations imported into Samaria had only intensified the infidelity.
Surely, as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so have you been faithless to me, O house of Israel, says the Lord (Jer 3:20).
But God had promised that he would use even the national calamity of conquest and exile to eventually bring about the healing of Israel’s adultery.
In that day, says the Lord, you will call me, “My husband,” and no longer will you call me, “My Baal.” For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more. And I will make for you a covenant on that day…. And I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord. (Hos 2:16-20)
Against this biblical background the deeper significance of the story comes to light: Jesus, the Word made flesh, is the divine Bridegroom proposing marriage to Samaritan people! He is inviting this woman, and her whole nation, to return to their first and true husband, the living God.
At the end of the dialogue, after discovering that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah, the woman hurries back into town bursting with the news of what has happened to her. Her encounter with Jesus has overflowed in a desire to share with others what she has experienced. The narrative thus portrays the movement from personal encounter to evangelization, a pattern that remains foundational to the Church’s mission today. By making ourselves present to this story, we too can be drawn into the same movement, experiencing more deeply the “gift of God” and being empowered to proclaim it with a new dynamism.
For those hungry for God’s word, the three readings of the First Sunday of Lent in Year A provide a remarkable repast of biblical theology.
The second reading (Rom 5:12-19) contains one the most explicit NT identifications of a type of Christ: “Adam… is the type of the one to come” (v. 14). A type is a person, event, or institution in the OT that foreshadows Christ or something in the life of the Church. Typology “discerns in God’s works of the Old Covenant prefigurations of what he accomplished in the fullness of time in the person of his incarnate Son” (Catechism 128).
What seems strange is that this lofty affirmation about Adam follows three verses that describe how Adam’s sin brought sin and death to the human race (Rom 5:12-19 is the biblical basis of the doctrine of original sin). How is Adam a type of Christ?
The verses that follow continue to emphasize the differences between Adam and Christ. Adam’s single transgression (to transgress means to violate a command) led to many sins (v. 12, 16) and brought condemnation and the reign of death to all. But Christ’s “gracious gift” and “righteous act” brought “abundance of grace,” “the gift of justification,” “acquittal,” and “life” to all.
The only likeness this text presents between the type, Adam, and Christ is that both determine the destiny of “all” who follow them. Each stands as the representative head of the human race, whose choices affect the rest.
The Old Testament and Gospel readings narrate the respective choices of Adam and Christ that shaped human destiny.
The first reading, Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7, depicts the creation of man, the Garden of Eden, and the transgression of Adam and Eve. God said that they could eat of any tree in the Garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
After giving credence to the serpent’s lies that death would not follow disobedience and that God did not have her best interests at heart (Gen 3:5-6), three motives attract the woman: “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom” (v.7).
First John 2:16 identifies these three as the paradigmatic temptations of “the world”: “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life” (literal translation).
Her husband follows her. From the beginning, the “sin of Adam” is not merely that of an isolated individual, but is intertwined with that of a human community that has first entertained temptation, then accepted the disobedience of others without objection, then chosen to disregard God’s word.
Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness in Matthew 4:1-11 confronts the second Adam with the same three allurements. Jesus is tempted to satisfy physical appetite at the expense of spiritual nourishment (the desire of the flesh), to glorify himself by an act of presumption (the pride of life), and to enrich himself through false worship with “the kingdoms of the world and their magnificence” (the desire of the eyes).
In each case, rather than yield to the deceptive attraction of temptation, the second Adam responds with words from Scripture that express God’s will, a will he has embraced and refuses to transgress. Although the wilderness temptations occur after his baptism and before his ministry begins, they stand for all the particular temptations that occur in Jesus’ life. Jesus’ obedience in the wilderness and above all at the cross (Phil 3:5) is the means by which he saves us.
St. Paul sums up the difference between Adam and Christ in the last verse of the second reading, “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19). The difference is obedience.
Romans 6 and 8 explain how what Jesus has done becomes effective for all. The first few verses of Romans 6 explain how through baptism “our old self”—literally, our “old man,” Adam, “was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom 6:6). Romans 8:1-13 explains the role of the “Spirit of Christ” (v. 9) in our living a life that is liberated from the power of sin.
Christ has recapitulated (repeated and summed up in himself) and redeemed the choices of our first parents; he has empowered us to recapitulate, to imitate, his life of obedience.
Just as Jesus fasted, prayed, and fed on God’s words so that he knew what to say and do when temptation came, so let us fast, and pray and feed on God’s word this Lent.
O Christ our head, second Adam from above, help us to follow you in the path of obedience. Help us by your Spirit to put off the old self, the nature we inherited from our first parents, and to put on the new self (Eph 4:22-24; Col 3:9-10), your nature which is ours through faith and baptism. Let us love God’s words and obey them just as you loved and kept your Father’s word. Amen!