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Bible openThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Romans 16:14-16

14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers[a] who are with them. 15 Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. 16 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.

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Last week’s post discussed the identities of those in Paul’s church family, including one of his relatives, Herodion.

While a good deal of information was available through the centuries, JB Lightfoot, an Anglican priest from the Victorian era and  William Barclay, a 20th century Church of Scotland minister did a lot of research in finding out more about who these early Christians were.

This is the end of the list. Unfortunately, there isn’t much about most of the people in today’s verses. Matthew Henry has nothing, but John MacArthur has a bit of information.

The five men mentioned in verse 14 had a home church, MacArthur says (emphases mine):

… what this says is here were five men who had a church in a home. And he says say hi to those guys out there, those five who are leaders of an assembly within the whole Roman church. He’s probably pointing out some leaders, some elders who are pastoring or shepherding one group of the Christians in Rome. As I said, they met in many places.

The list ends in verse 15. MacArthur tells us those people led smaller groups:

They were little branch fellowships. And he says greet all the rest of these folks, men and women, greet them all.

However, there is information about Nereus, likely to have been a slave:

Who is Nereus? William Barclay … says, “In A.D. 95 there happened an event which shocked Rome. Two of the most distinguished people in Rome were condemned for being Christians. They were husband and wife. The husband was Flavius Clemens, he was the consul of Rome, the wife was Dom[i]tia and she was of royal blood. She was the granddaughter of Vespasian, a former emperor and the niece of Domitian, the reigning emperor in 95 A.D. In fact, the two sons of Flavius Clemens and Dom[i]tia had been designated Domitian’s successors in the imperial power. Flavius was executed and Domitia…Dom[i]tia was banished to the island of Pontia … where she drew out a long martyrdom for the Christian name.”

And now the point. “The name of the treasurer of Flavius and Dom[i]tia was Nereus. Is it possible,” says Barclay, “that Nereus the slave had something to do with the making into Christians of Flavius Clemens, the ex-consul, and Dom[i]tia, the princess of the royal blood? Perhaps, perhaps. “Greet Nereus and his sister and Olympus and all the saints who are with them.”

So we see from not only Nereus but others in Paul’s list that a number of slaves were Christians. Some converted their heads of households and/or their children. What a powerful message, especially today, when so many people wilfully fall away from the church or refuse to hear the Good News.

And, on the other end of the social scale, what about those of noble blood, such as Domitia, a widow martyred in exile?

These are amazing stories of real people who lived and died in the first decades of the early Church. Whether bondservant or nobility, they were all one in Christian faith, as Paul wrote (Galatians 3:28):

28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave[a] nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Paul concludes his list of Christians in Rome by encouraging them to greet each other with a holy kiss (verse 16), signifying agape, a unified brotherly love in faith.

Paul also included the greetings from the churches he planted, a moving final sentence reinforcing Christian unity.

Matthew Henry’s commentary says:

“The churches of Christ salute you; that is, the churches which I am with, and which I am accustomed to visit personally, as knit together in the bonds of the common Christianity, desire me to testify their affection to you and good wishes for you.” This is one way of maintaining the communion of saints.

MacArthur makes this observation:

… may I suggest to you that you’re probably feeling in your heart what I felt that all of a sudden that early church has come to life and it lives and breathes just like our church does. And we’re not so far away, are we? We could as well describe ourselves here. Some of us who are laboring in the Lord, others labored much in the Lord, those who have endured hardship, those who are willing to give their lives, those who are beloved and well beloved, those who have been used by God to reach others for Christ, these are just people and Paul knows them and he loves them and if he could he would kiss them. I mean, we’ve all gotten letters from mom through the years with X’s and O’s on the bottom. We’ve gotten letters that say kiss everybody in your family for me. This is Paul, this is family. This is intimacy. This man knew what it was to stand for the truth but he also knew what it was to love his people. And that’s the mark of the uniqueness of his wonderful character.

Paul then gives the Romans a sombre caution about imposters causing division. That will be the subject of next week’s post.

Next time — Romans 16:17-20

Below are the readings for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity, October 25, 2020.

These are for Year A in the three-year Lectionary used in public worship.

The Church of England calendar calls this the Last Sunday after Trinity. Advent does not start for five weeks, but the C of E begins a countdown with four Sundays before Advent beginning next week. This seems to be a recent development. Perhaps they think people will have too much trouble these days with words like ‘twenty-first’, ‘twenty-second’ and ‘twenty-third’. I do not know. I will continue with the traditional numbering.

There are two options for the first reading and Psalm.

Emphases below are mine.

First reading and Psalm — Option One

Readings from Exodus have finished for the year. We move to the final chapter of Deuteronomy this week for the story of Moses’s death. As Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible — the Pentateuch — he could not have written this chapter. Matthew Henry’s commentary says that either Joshua, Eleazar or Samuel wrote this account.

Deuteronomy 34:1-12

34:1 Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the LORD showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan,

34:2 all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea,

34:3 the Negeb, and the Plain — that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees — as far as Zoar.

34:4 The LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”

34:5 Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.

34:6 He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.

34:7 Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated.

34:8 The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

34:9 Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the LORD had commanded Moses.

34:10 Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face.

34:11 He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land,

34:12 and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

Moses wrote the following Psalm. It is called ‘A Prayer of Moses the man of God’.

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17

90:1 Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.

90:2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

90:3 You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”

90:4 For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.

90:5 You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning;

90:6 in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.

90:13 Turn, O LORD! How long? Have compassion on your servants!

90:14 Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

90:15 Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil.

90:16 Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.

90:17 Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands — O prosper the work of our hands!

First reading and Psalm — Option Two

This reading, which also features Moses, summarises God’s moral law and paraphrases the Ten Commandments.

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

19:1 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

19:2 Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.

19:15 You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.

19:16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.

19:17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.

19:18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

The Psalm is called ‘The Happy Man’. It is appropriately placed first among the Psalms.

Psalm 1

1:1 Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;

1:2 but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night.

1:3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.

1:4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

1:5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

1:6 for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Epistle

Readings from 1 Thessalonians continue. Last week’s described how holy they were. Here Paul recalls how he, Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy planted their church.

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

2:1 You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain,

2:2 but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.

2:3 For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery,

2:4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.

2:5 As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed;

2:6 nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others,

2:7 though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.

2:8 So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

Gospel

Readings from Matthew’s Gospel continue. Jesus gave the following lesson a few days before His death. He quoted Leviticus 19:18 (above) in verse 39. Verses 37 through 40 form part of an introductory prayer in the traditional Anglican liturgies which the priest may recite as an alternative to reading out each of the Ten Commandments.

Matthew 22:34-46

22:34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together,

22:35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.

22:36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

22:37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’

22:38 This is the greatest and first commandment.

22:39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

22:40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

22:41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question:

22:42 “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.”

22:43 He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,

22:44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”‘?

22:45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?”

22:46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

Moses was what theologians call a ‘type of Christ’. He interceded on behalf of his sinful people, asking for God’s mercy on them by reminding Him of the covenant He made with them.

Bible kevinroosecomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Romans 16:11-13

11 Greet my kinsman Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. 12 Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. 13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well.

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Last week’s reading delved into the identities of Andronicus, Junia (Junias), Ampliatus, Urbanus, Stachys, Apelles and those who belonged to the household of Aristobulus.

Paul commended them to the Christians in Rome.

His list continues this week.

One of the interesting things is the way Paul uses certain phrases in his commendations: ‘in the Lord’, ‘worker in Christ’ and, the highest compliment, ‘approved in Christ’.

While a good deal of information was available through the centuries, JB Lightfoot, an Anglican priest from the Victorian era and  William Barclay, a 20th century Church of Scotland minister did a lot of research in finding out more about who these early Christians were.

Andronicus and Junia were kinsmen of Paul’s, most probably his cousins. So was Herodion (verse 11).

John MacArthur says that the unusual name implies some relationship with Herod’s family (emphases mine):

Here is a Jewish relative of Paul who definitely has some relationship to the family of Herod … And so we can perhaps speculate, we can’t be certain, that there was within the very imperial household a growing congregation of those who loved the Savior. What a wonderful thought, what a wonderful thought.

Paul asked that the Romans greet those ‘in the Lord’ from the household of Narcissus (verse 11), implying that not everyone in that household was a believer.

Biblical research indicates that Narcissus was probably dead by then and that he was an unbeliever.

Matthew Henry’s commentary says:

some think this Narcissus was the same with one of that name who is frequently mentioned in the life of Claudius, as a very rich man that had a great family, but was very wicked and mischievous. It seems, then, there were some good servants, or other retainers, even in the family of a wicked man, a common case … The poor servant is called, and chosen, and faithful, while the rich master is passed by, and left to perish in unbelief. Even so, Father, because it seemed good unto thee.

MacArthur tells us more about Narcissus:

Now who is Narcissus? Well William Barclay has done a little bit of looking into this and he suggests and agrees with Lightfoot, who holds the same view, that the household of Narcissus can be defined in this way. Narcissus is a common name but the most famous Narcissus was a free man who was secretary to the Emperor Claudius. And he exercised a tremendous influence over the emperor. In fact he is said to have amassed a private fortune of inestimable wealth, in Barclay’s terminology, four million pounds. But he had a tremendous amount of wealth. His power had lain in the fact that all correspondence addressed to the emperor had to pass through his hands and never reached the emperor until he allowed it to do so. So he made his fortune from the fact that people paid him large bribes to make sure their petitions and requests reached the emperor. Not a bad business.

When Claudius was murdered and Nero came to the throne, Narcissus survived for a little while. In the end he was compelled to commit suicide and all of his fortune and all of his household of slaves passed into the possession of Nero. It may well be his one-time slaves which are here referred to. It may have been those who once belonged to Narcissus who now have been redeemed. And Barclay says, if Aristobulus really is the Aristobulus who is the grandson of Herod, and if Narcissus really is the Narcissus who is Claudius’ secretary, then this means that many of the slaves at the imperial court were already Christians and the leaven of Christianity had reached the highest circles of the empire. Wonderful to think aboutin Paul’s letter to the Philippians at the end he says the believers in Caesar’s household greet you.

That is amazing.

The names in verse 12 are all female. Note how Paul worded his sentence. Tryphaena and Tryphosa were ‘workers in the Lord’, but Persis ‘worked hard in the Lord’. We saw that in verse 6, where Paul mentioned a lady named Mary.

MacArthur explained the Greek verb associated with Mary as well as Persis:

The word is a strong word, it means to labor to the point of weariness, it’s that very familiar verb kopia. It means to work to sweat and exhaustion. And he says greet her who bestowed much labor on you.

He says the same verb is also used to describe Tryphaena and Tryphosa, whose names mean ‘delicate’ and ‘dainty’, respectively. Yet, we get the impression that Persis worked harder:

… what he is using there is a strong word for labor, again it’s that kopia word. And what he is saying is maybe a little play on word, you may be dainty and delicate but you sure work hard for the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. We don’t know anything about them except that they labored in the Lord and that’s enough, I suppose.

And then he mentions Persis, another female name. In fact, it literally means a Persian woman. In the church at Rome there was a Persian woman who loved Christ. We don’t know how he met her but she labored much in the Lord. Now you say, “Was she better than Tryphaena and Tryphosa?” I don’t know. God keeps the records and I’m sure there are some saints who will commended for laboring and some who will be commended for laboring much. Would you agree to that? It may well be that she was older. It is interesting that Tryphaena and Tryphosa, present tense, who are laboring in the Lord, and the beloved Persis who labored in the Lord, again an indication that Tryphaena and Tryphosa may have been young and Persis much older, so that it is the volume of labor on the basis of years rather than the quality of it. She labored much, perhaps because she was older.

Now we come to the big reveal of the day: Rufus, ‘chosen in the Lord’ (verse 13). Those who know their Scripture will already be aware that there were only two degrees of separation between Rufus and our Lord Jesus. His father was Simon of Cyrene, who carried the Cross because Jesus was too weak and wounded by then.

In his Gospel, Mark describes Simon of Cyrene as being the father of Alexander and Rufus.

Matthew Henry did not have that detail, but MacArthur does:

You want to know about Rufus? Look at Mark 15:21 and I…you’ll never believe who Rufus is. Mark 15:21, Jesus is on the way to the cross and his cross is becoming very heavy. And in Mark 15:21 the soldiers compelled a man by the name of what? Simon of Cyrene, North Africa, who was…who happened to be passing by. Here’s a guy who comes out of North Africa, comes to visit the city of Jerusalem for the Passover, he happens to be walking along the street and the next thing he knows he’s immortalized as the one who carried the cross of Christ. And just… It says here in Mark, he is the father of Alexander and who? And Rufus. You know who Rufus was now? He’s the son of the man who carried the cross. It may well have been that his brother wasn’t a Christian and that’s why Rufus is called “chosen in the Lord,” to set him apart from Alexander who was not. We don’t know that.

Alternatively, perhaps, for some reason, Paul never met Alexander or perhaps he was working away from the family home. There could have been other reasons why Paul did not mention Alexander.

MacArthur goes on to explain how Simon’s sons names appear in Mark:

But how fascinating it is that Mark wrote his gospel very likely from Rome. Alright? And Mark wrote his gospel with the Romans in mind. Now if Mark was writing from Rome and had in view a Roman audience to read that gospel, then how wonderful for him to make a connection between the Roman church and the man who carried the cross. And so to make that connection, as he writes about Simon of Cyrene, he simply says, “By the way, he’s the father of Rufus in your own fellowship, in your own fellowship.” And we remember, don’t we, that the book of Mark, the gospel of Mark, was written after the epistle to the Romans, and so Mark, no doubt, identifies this Rufus who is the same Rufus here greeted by Paul who is famous. And can you imagine how he was asked to repeat the story of how it was when his father carried Jesus’ cross? These are real people, real people.

Paul also mentions Simon of Cyrene’s wife, who must have been a holy woman and generous with her time, because Paul says that she acted as a mother towards him:

And his dear mother, who obviously came to faith in Christ through this passing incident and a whole family, perhaps even Alexander, we don’t know, all have come to know Christ through God’s grace in asking their father to carry the cross.

I like what Henry’s says about Rufus’s mother:

This good woman, upon some occasion or other, had been as a mother to Paul, in caring for him, and comforting him; and Paul here gratefully owns it, and calls her mother.

What a lovely sentiment on which to end.

Paul has more names of people to commend to the Roman Christians. I’ll finish the list in next week’s post.

Next time — Romans 16:14-16

Below are readings for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity, October 18, 2020.

These are for Year A in the three-year Lectionary used in public worship.

There are two options for the first reading and Psalm.

Emphases below are mine.

First reading and Psalm — Option One

Readings from Exodus continue. Last week’s was about the golden calf. Here Moses expresses his desire to know God better and asks for a glimpse of His glory.

Exodus 33:12-23

33:12 Moses said to the LORD, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’

33:13 Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.”

33:14 He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

33:15 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.

33:16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”

33:17 The LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”

33:18 Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.”

33:19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.

33:20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”

33:21 And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock;

33:22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by;

33:23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

The Psalm extols God’s might and glory, mentioning Moses and His forgiveness of the Israelites’ sins.

Psalm 99

99:1 The LORD is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!

99:2 The LORD is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples.

99:3 Let them praise your great and awesome name. Holy is he!

99:4 Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.

99:5 Extol the LORD our God; worship at his footstool. Holy is he!

99:6 Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel also was among those who called on his name. They cried to the LORD, and he answered them.

99:7 He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud; they kept his decrees, and the statutes that he gave them.

99:8 O LORD our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings.

99:9 Extol the LORD our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the LORD our God is holy.

First reading and Psalm — Option Two

Readings from Isaiah continue. Here the Lord introduces Himself to Cyrus, a pagan, whom he prepares to conquer Babylon so that His chosen can be liberated. He put Cyrus to work for His glory, promising him earthly rewards.

Isaiah 45:1-7

45:1 Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him– and the gates shall not be closed:

45:2 I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron,

45:3 I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.

45:4 For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.

45:5 I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me,

45:6 so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other.

45:7 I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.

This Psalm calls all nations to worship the Lord, foretelling the kingdom of Christ and the inclusion of Gentiles into the Church.

Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)

96:1 O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth.

96:2 Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.

96:3 Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples.

96:4 For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods.

96:5 For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.

96:6 Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.

96:7 Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.

96:8 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts.

96:9 Worship the LORD in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth.

96:10 Say among the nations, “The LORD is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity.”

96:11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

96:12 let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy

96:13 before the LORD; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.

Epistle

Last week’s reading was from the final chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. We now begin readings from 1 Thessalonians, which is the first letter Paul wrote to various churches, all of which he planted, except for the one in Rome. Paul probably wrote this letter in AD 51. Silas (Silvanus) and Timothy were with him at the time.

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

1:1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.

1:2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly

1:3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

1:4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you,

1:5 because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.

1:6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit,

1:7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.

1:8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.

1:9 For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God,

1:10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead–Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

Gospel

Readings from Matthew continue. This exchange followed the Parable of the Wedding Feast and took place a few days before the Crucifixion.

Matthew 22:15-22

22:15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.

22:16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.

22:17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

22:18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?

22:19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.

22:20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”

22:21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

22:22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

I hope that everyone has a blessed Sunday, despite any lockdown restrictions.

Bible boy_reading_bibleThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Romans 16:7-10

Greet Andronicus and Junia,[a] my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles,[b] and they were in Christ before me. Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. 10 Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus.

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Continuing from last week, we are part way through a list of people that Paul commends to the Christians in Rome.

JB Lightfoot, an Anglican priest from the Victorian era and  William Barclay, a 20th century Church of Scotland minister did a lot of research in finding out who these early Christians were.

I found it interesting that in Matthew Henry’s era (late 17th and early 18th centuries), not much was known. Henry’s commentary has to skip verses here and there for that reason.

Scholars say that Andronicus and Junia (Junius) were truly Paul’s relatives (verse 7). Matthew Henry says they were cousins of Paul’s. John MacArthur opts for a looser relationship but still thinks they were related.

The more puzzling question is whether Junia was a man or a woman. No one knows for certain. As the name appears as Junias in certain translations, the person could have been a man.

Henry says (emphases mine):

Some take them for a man and his wife, and the original will well enough bear it; and, considering the name of the latter, this is more probable than that they should be two men, as others think, and brethren.

MacArthur says:

Andronicus is a male name. Junias could be male or female. We have no way to know. So either this is two men or it is a couple, and there’s no way to know which

And so we know a little bit about these wonderful people as well…be they husband and wife, or perhaps a more likely thought, two men related to Paul, perhaps they are brothers.

Looking at the greater picture, Paul tells us that they were his fellow prisoners, they are well known to the apostles and they converted to Christianity before Paul did.

If they were relations of Paul, then it is safe to assume that they were Jews.

MacArthur elaborates:

That must have been a wonderful thing for him to have, right? Coming out of a Jewish family, being of the tribe of Benjamin, being a Hebrew of the Hebrews, to know that some in his family had embraced the same Christ that he had embraced as well. And so we get a little feel that his family may well have been involved in the extension of his ministry.

Henry points out:

In time they had the start of Paul, though he was converted the next year after Christ’s ascension. How ready was Paul to acknowledge in others any kind of precedency!

As for their being imprisoned together, both Henry and MacArthur point to 2 Corinthians 11:23.

Henry says:

We do not find in the story of the Acts any imprisonment of Paul before the writing of this epistle, but that at Philippi, Acts 16:23. But Paul was in prisons more frequent (2 Corinthians 11:23), in some of which, it seems, he met with his friends Andronicus and Junia, yoke-fellows, as in other things, so in suffering for Christ and bearing his yoke.

MacArthur shares the same opinion:

Somewhere along the line, and we don’t know where, Paul spent a lot of his time in prison. Read 2 Corinthians 11:23, he says “in prisons often.” We don’t know where it was but in one of his imprisonments or another they were there also. They had paid the price of imprisonment too for their faith in Christ, for their love of the Lord Jesus. And so he greets them who had shared prison with him. And I want you to know, my dear friends, that it wouldn’t take much imagination to come to the realization of the fact that if you in that day and age had spent time in prison with someone, you would get to know them very well, very intimately. And no doubt that had happened. And so there was a deep bond with Andronicus and Junias and the apostle Paul. They were relatives and they were fellow prisoners.

Now we come to the ‘apostles’ to whom Paul referred.

MacArthur explains:

Now this could mean that they are apostles with a small “a,” not like the twelve and Paul who saw the resurrected Christ. It could mean that they are messengers. There is the statement, “apostles of the churches” as opposed to “apostles of Christ.” The apostles that we know were the apostles of Christ but the churches also had apostles. The word apostoloi, translated “sent ones,” it could be that they were missionaries or messengers or sent with the gospel from the church, of lesser stature than Paul and the twelve. But the better idea here is that what he is saying about them is they were of note among the apostles of the Lord. In other words, they were highly esteemed for their spiritual life and service among the apostles. What makes you believe that? The last commendation, “who were also in Christ before me.”

Henry’s commentary says much the same. They were Pauline in character and devotion:

They were of note among the apostles, not so much perhaps because they were persons of estate and quality in the world as because they were eminent for knowledge, and gifts, and graces, which made them famous among the apostles, who were competent judges of those things, and were endued with a spirit of discerning not only the sincerity, but the eminency, of Christians.

Then we come to Ampliatus, to whom Paul pays a high and affectionate compliment: ‘my beloved in the Lord’ (verse 8).

Henry has nothing on Ampliatus, therefore, no one had been able to research enough at that time.

MacArthur, who has the advantage of relatively modern research, tells us that he was most probably a slave:

He mentions Ampliatus, “my beloved in the Lord.” And again we see this word beloved for the second time. This is a loving man, as I’ve been saying, and he demonstrates his love and there’s no fear of saying that. You know, some people find it hard to say “I love you,” or to call someone a “beloved friend,” not Paul. He had no problem with that and he greets Ampliatus in this way.

Now let me say a little about Ampliatus. We don’t know who he is. But let me just give you some fascinating things to think about. We do know this, that Ampliatus is a slave name because in history we can find it among the slaves and slaves did not bear the name of free men or noble men. So it is a slave name. In fact it is a very common name in the imperial household of Rome; that is in the household of the Caesar. And there is a cemetery at Domatia, the earliest of the Christian catacombs. One of the most fascinating things I’ve ever done is to wander through the catacombs of Rome. They were the burial place of Christians in the first century. And the oldest of those, the earliest of the catacombs is at Domatia. And in that early catacomb there is a very decorated tomb and on that decorated tomb is this large name Ampliatus, which is quite interesting, because single names were unique. A Roman nobleman or a Roman free man would have three names, but a slave would only have one name. And Ampliatus was a slave. The fact that at his burial, if it be the same Ampliatus, he is given a large and rather decorated tomb and his name is placed there for all to see, indicates in comparison with the other burial places in the catacomb that he was set apart as high ranking in the church, which is a wonderful insight because what it tells us is that while the world may have ranked people according to their economic status, the church didn’t do that. And a slave could rise in the church of Jesus Christ to a place of recognized prominence to be given unique honor in his burial. It may well have been that in the church in many cases and in many places slaves were actually the elders teaching their own owners the Word of God. And so we see in the early church that even a slave could reach the place of prominence and social strata was not a barrier or even an issue in the church. Certainly this brings to heart the word of Paul in the Galatian letter chapter 3 verse 28 that in Christ there’s neither male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, bond nor free, but all are one in Christ. We don’t know if it’s the same Ampliatus, but likely a slave, perhaps this one, perhaps another one. And then he calls him “my beloved in the Lord,” great personal affection.

In verse 9, Paul mentions Urbanus and Stachys. Urbanus worked hard for the Church and Paul refers to Stachys affectionately as ‘my beloved’.

Henry did not know about these men, so we look to MacArthur to tell us more:

Now Urbanus is a very common Roman name. It suggests that he was a native Roman, probably a Gentile. He calls him “our helper,” that is to say he helped me and he helped the Roman church. I don’t know how or where but Paul knew and he had been in assistance to Paul as well as the Roman church and he says greet him. Say hello for me, give him my love, tell him I’m concerned. I mean, this is… This is marvelously intimate. And then he mentions Stachys. That is a very unusual Greek name, it means ear of corn. It would be like naming your son Cob, basically. It’s a very strange name, even in that culture. He says, “Greet Cob, my beloved,” and again he doesn’t have any compunction about expressing his deep love to this believer in the Roman church. I don’t know where he met him or how he knew him, but he did, he did.

In verse 10, we come to Apelles and to the members of Aristobulus’s family. Note that there is no greeting to Aristobulus, so he was probably not a believer or he had already died. We do not know.

Of Apelles, Henry says that Paul pays him the highest compliment of being ‘approved in Christ’:

Concerning Apelles, who is here said to be approved in Christ (Romans 16:10), a high character! He was one of known integrity and sincerity in his religion, one that had been tried; his friends and enemies had tried him, and he was as gold. He was of approved knowledge and judgment, approved courage and constancy; a man that one might trust and repose a confidence in.

MacArthur shares the same assessment:

… he says, “Greet Apelles,” and I love this, “dokimos in Christ.” Tried and proven true, tested and proven trustworthy, a tried and tested and proven brother faithful and dependable, Apelles, “approved in Christ.” Oh what a commendation that is. To have that said about you, wouldn’t that be wonderful? Tried and proven true, trustworthy, worthy of confidence. We don’t know anything about him. That’s all we know but, boy, that’s enough.

It appears that Apelles might have been a Jew with a Gentile-styled name:

Apelles being a Greek name similar to the name Abel. And Lightfoot suggests that a Jew named Abel wanting to identify with Roman culture would simply say his name was Apelles, which would be the equivalent. And so very possibly this would be a Jew taking on that name.

MacArthur shares insights about Aristobulus and those who belong to his family:

Greet, he says, and this is very interesting, “greet them who are of the household of Aristobulus,” or literally in the text, “greet those who are of Aristobulus.” Now he doesn’t greet Aristobulus. We assume that Aristobulus is not a Christian, not a believer, not in the church. But some of his household, and the King James translators and the Authorized Version did right putting in, “the household of” because it’s implied. Greet those who are of Aristobulus, those who belong to his household. If he was a Christian he would have greeted him, too, but he’s not a Christian. And so here we have the fact that the gospel has divided a family, it’s divided a household. It may have been his wife or his children or part of his servants or all of the above. Aristobulus not being a believer but in his household there were believers, and we learn something else about the early church, that it was divisive, that Jesus said, “I come to bring a sword to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother and to divide a family, I came to do that.”

Lightfoot, the classical Greek commentator, suggests something interesting about this man. In studying history around this time we find that it’s likely that this man may have been the brother of Herod Agrippa I and the grandson of Herod the Great. So that Aristobulus was in the family of the Herods. He would therefore have been an intimate ally with Emperor ClaudiusWhen Aristobulus died, Lightfoot says, his household, that is his wife and family and slaves and possessions, would become the property of the emperor and they would all be absorbed within the emperor’s imperial household. So in the imperial household you would have those of Aristobulus. It would be known as the household of Aristobulus.

This is fascinating. I am so grateful to the scholars through the ages who have been able to research the lives of Paul’s friends.

More to come next week.

Next time — Romans 16:11-13

Below are the readings for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity, October 11, 2020.

These are for Year A in the three-year Lectionary used in public worship.

There are two options for the first reading and Psalm.

Emphases below are mine.

First reading and Psalm — Option One

Last week’s reading was about the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. Sometime later, Moses went up Mount Sinai for 40 days to learn from God. Meanwhile, in the camp, the Israelites grew restless, not caring about Moses’s whereabouts. Instead, they coerced Aaron into creating an idol — the golden calf — which they worshipped. Matthew Henry has a fascinating commentary on this terrible episode in the story of the Israelites. Henry says that Jewish tradition teaches that Hur, who was left with Aaron as the other person in authority, was stoned to death because he would not make the idol. Aaron, possibly fearing for his own life, agreed to make it.

Exodus 32:1-14

32:1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

32:2 Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”

32:3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron.

32:4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

32:5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.”

32:6 They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

32:7 The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely;

32:8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'”

32:9 The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.

32:10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

32:11 But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?

32:12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.

32:13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'”

32:14 And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

This Psalm of David’s is a confession of Israel’s greatest sins, most of which are omitted in the verses below, as well as a reminder of God’s mercy.

Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23

106:1 Praise the LORD! O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.

106:2 Who can utter the mighty doings of the LORD, or declare all his praise?

106:3 Happy are those who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times.

106:4 Remember me, O LORD, when you show favor to your people; help me when you deliver them;

106:5 that I may see the prosperity of your chosen ones, that I may rejoice in the gladness of your nation, that I may glory in your heritage.

106:6 Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly.

106:19 They made a calf at Horeb and worshiped a cast image.

106:20 They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass.

106:21 They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt,

106:22 wondrous works in the land of Ham, and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.

106:23 Therefore he said he would destroy them– had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them.

First reading and Psalm — Option Two

Readings from Isaiah continue. This is a prophecy not only of God’s intended deliverance of the Jews from Babylon but also of the Church to come.

Isaiah 25:1-9

25:1 O LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.

25:2 For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt.

25:3 Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you.

25:4 For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat. When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,

25:5 the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place, you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds; the song of the ruthless was stilled.

25:6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

25:7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.

25:8 Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.

25:9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

The Psalm, one of my favourites, will be familiar to everyone.

Psalm 23

23:1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

23:2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;

23:3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

23:4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me.

23:5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

23:6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.

Epistle

Readings from Paul’s letter to the Philippians continue. Verse 4 below is a familiar one. Verse 7 is the standard blessing used at the end of Anglican services. Paul remembered many people who had worked with him for the Church in all locations. In Romans 16, he commends a long list of people to the Christians in Rome. Here he asks the Philippians to help two women Euodia and Syntyche, who perhaps had a disagreement (verse 2), by building them up in their continued work for the church in Philippi (verse 3).

Philippians 4:1-9

4:1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

4:2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.

4:3 Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

4:5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.

4:6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

4:7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

4:8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

4:9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Gospel

Readings from Matthew’s Gospel continue. The Parable of the Wedding Feast is another parable that Jesus delivered a few days before His death on the Cross. It points to His rejection by the Jewish hierarchy and the invitation of the Gentiles into the Church. God is the king giving a wedding banquet for His Son Jesus. The Church is Christ’s bride. The invited guests reject the king’s invitation. The king instructed his servants to find new guests, of a lowlier status, to attend. This refers to the biblical theme of the last being first. The rejection of the man with no wedding garment refers to the hypocrite who professes faith yet has none. Only the king notices his lack of attire. Only God knows what is truly in our hearts.

This parable fits well with last week’s, the Parable of the Vineyard.

Matthew 22:1-14

22:1 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying:

22:2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.

22:3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.

22:4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’

22:5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business,

22:6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.

22:7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.

22:8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.

22:9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’

22:10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

22:11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe,

22:12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.

22:13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

22:14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

For many years, the Parables made little sense to me. It was only when I started studying the Bible in depth that their meaning became clear.

I have rarely heard a good sermon on the Parables. Perhaps you have. If so, what a blessing.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to make sure that young Christians and those new to the faith understand their meaning. In many (not all), Jesus was warning His persecutors of the judgement to come because of their dereliction of duty as shepherds to their flock. They should have been telling the Jews that Jesus is the Messiah. Instead, they worked at thwarting His ministry and plotted to kill Him. There is also a general message about persecution in the Parable of the Wedding Feast in verse 6.

This, together with the passage from Exodus, makes for sobering reading and serious consideration.

That’s Paul-ine (not as in the female name Pauline), reminiscent of the Apostle Paul.

By resisting California’s local and state government, the Revd John MacArthur is walking into St Paul’s territory.

When I last wrote about the travails of Pastor MacArthur’s Grace Community Church, he was still in battle with Los Angeles County. That was in mid-August.

His and his church’s fortunes have not improved since then.

Before going into Grace Community Church’s struggle in detail, an unfortunate situation has resulted from the coronavirus. This is universal and separate, going on throughout Western countries.

It might have happened by accident or by design, through lockdown.

However, the unchurched or the formerly-churched who wished to find comfort and succour in a church community because of a pandemic were unable to do so because of lockdown.

Some Christians often say, ‘Church is everywhere you look or what you make of it personally. If you don’t, it’s your own fault’.

Those from a Calvinist tradition strongly maintain that church is not a building. The Church of Scotland holds to that tenet. Their attitude is: ‘Lockdown? So what?’ Someone from the PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) lambasted John MacArthur here a few weeks ago.

For the rest of us, however, that belief does not hold true. In fact, not being able to worship in person in community, particularly at a difficult time, can be deeply unsettling at a time when people feel the desire for a spiritual — and physical — connection more than ever.

RedState, much improved since the departure of Erick Erickson, posted an article by Kira Davis: ‘The Church Has Spectacularly Failed the COVID Test … and the Faithful’.

Ms Davis met up with a friend of hers in California. Her friend was clearly upset about not being able to go to church during lockdown. She said she thought perhaps she was having a crisis of faith.

Ms Davis diagnosed her friend’s problem differently (emphases mine below):

Listening to her in person made me realize a couple of things. For one, she wasn’t really expressing a loss of faith. She was expressing a loss of connection. Having suddenly been disconnected from all the things that kept her grounded and the community that regularly helped her explore her relationship with God, she was left floating without an anchor.

The second thing I realized is that people are suffering under lockdowns much more than we may think. My friend has a beautiful family and they’ve been able to continue working through COVID shutdowns. She has a lot to be thankful for and on the outside she might strike one as very adjusted. That is the veneer she — like many of us — has had to adopt in order to keep life as normal as possible for her children.

Davis rightly chose to put the blame where it properly lies — with our clergy. I don’t live in the United States, but even those of us in other Western countries have experienced limitations on our fellowship. In England, at least, we need to sign in to attend a religious service, wear face coverings, observe social distancing, bring our own liturgical printouts/Bibles, realise we mustn’t sing and remember to greet from a two-metre distance.

At least we can worship indoors.

In California, the state mandates outside worship, more on which later:

Church leadership has fooled itself into believing that YouTube services and drive-by food donations count as “serving” the community. Even as churches begin to accept limited permission from the state to meet, we have to make reservations and worship outside in order to enjoy the privilege of religious freedom.

Our world is currently burning around us. There are no answers to the current state of our national angst without the Church and yet the Church has voluntarily put on a muzzle. People are desperate for answers, even more desperate for connection. These are the two things we are best at.

Too right!

During normal times — the rest of our lives, bar 2020 — priests and pastors have been telling us that we must attend church for the state of our souls:

Every pastor will tell you at one point or another that we humans are born with a God-shaped hole in our hearts and we spend our entire lives searching to fill it.

Yep. Except when there’s a pandemic.

During this crisis, those same clergy — men and women– have scurried from sight, just when so many of us need them:

There are a lot of holey hearts out there right now. Space abhors a vacuum. Something will fill those empty spaces and the Church has been willingly sidelined. We no longer have community — our most powerful draw — to offer. What is left to fill the vacuum? Rage without resolution, bitterness without forgiveness, punishment without grace. Alcohol, drugs, loneliness, resentmentall of these things are filling those lost empty hearts out there without much challenge from the institutions God has appointed to lead and to serve.

With John MacArthur in mind, Davis then zeroes in on the current conflict between Church and State. She nails it perfectly:

Whatever their personal feelings about John MacArthur may be, California churches should be supporting his move to defy a state authority that has thwarted our human and constitutional right to assemble and worship. Every Sunday, we’ve heard our pastors proudly and loudly share stories of how Jesus was a revolutionary, a direct conduit of the counter culture of the Kingdom. We brag about this aspect of our God, even as we cower before state authorities who have no interest in keeping our tax-exempt sanctuaries thriving because God…the Church…is always and always has been direct competition to the gods of the state. We don’t even pay them taxes. We are worthless to them and it is beyond tragic how our pastoral leadership has, for the most part, confirmed as much.

She concludes:

The specter of losing our church properties to fines or penalties scares us more than our brethren (people like my friend) losing their faith and their communities. It is not lost on me that Peter obviously later redeemed himself by becoming one of the most influential Christians in human history. It is also not lost on me that the ultimate price Peter paid for his eventual obedience to the name of Jesus was to be crucified in an extraordinarily brutal fashion.

California church leaders aren’t even willing to incur a fine in the name of Jesus.

Nope.

Fortunately, at the age of 81, with a full life of ministry dating back to the late 1960s, John MacArthur has decided to don St Paul’s mantle.

No doubt, he and his godly wife Patricia have prayed together over this issue since July.

On September 16, MacArthur told Laura Ingraham of Fox News that he and his church were still under threat of fines or imprisonment. He said, ‘Bring it on’:

That day, RedState‘s Alex Parker compared him to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry in The Enforcer: ‘Pastor John MacArthur Backs Down Not an Inch: If California Wants to Jail Him, “Bring It On”‘. Citations follow below.

It’s hard not to cheer along with the congregation at this announcement of his from August 9, because the only legitimate way to assemble en masse these days is through ‘peaceful protest’:

Returning to his interview with Laura Ingraham, he expressed his deep admiration for Paul the Apostle:

We received a letter with a threat that we could be fined or I could go to jail for a maximum of six months. Of course, my biblical hero apart from the Lord Jesus Christ is the apostle Paul, and when he went into a town, he didn’t ask what the hotel was like, he asked what the jail was like because he knew that’s where he was gonna spend his time. So I don’t mind being a little apostolic if they want to tuck me in a jail.

He also reminded Ingraham and her audience of the COVID-19 figures and the absurdity of prohibiting state-wide public worship:

We believe that the governor, the county, the city, and the health department are going against the Constitution,” MacArthur said in the Tuesday night appearance on Fox News. “And just to remove one obvious question, the rate of COVID in California is 1/100 of 1%. So 1/100 of 1% of 40 million people have COVID and that eliminates freedom to worship from the entire state.

He told Ingraham that President Trump is also on his side. Excellent news, even if MacArthur is self-avowedly apolitical:

I am so thankful that President Trump has told me personally that he supports the church as essential and the churches need to stay open. So, with the Constitution on our side and the president’s backing, we’re open.

A few days earlier, on Sunday, September 13, MacArthur appeared at the pulpit to resounding, if not deafening, applause and cheers. If you had heard only the audio, you would have thought that President Trump were standing there.

MacArthur had a long list of demands from the State of California to read to his congregation:

He thanked them and said, by way of compliment:

You people are out of control. Thank you, thank you.

The requirements follow.

Keep in mind that thousands of worshippers attend Grace Community Church each Sunday:

– No indoor meetings;

– Registration of every person on church property;

– Screening and temperature checks upon entry;

– Six feet of social distancing mandated, including in the car park and in restrooms;

– Every other parking space must be left vacant;

– Everyone must be masked;

– Restrooms must have monitors;

– Floors must have tape markings;

– Restrooms to be used during the service, rather than afterwards to prevent queues;

– Hymnbooks, Holy Communion and Bibles are forbidden;

– No one can shake hands;

– Mandatory seat covers must be in place;

– Services must be shortened (congregation laughs);

– Worship must take place in a tent with a maximum of 350 people;

Anyone who comes in contact with someone outside of their family afterwards for more than 15 minutes must self-quarantine for two weeks.

A lot of those sound like what we have in England.

MacArthur concluded:

Obviously, this is not constitutional but, more importantly, it goes against the will of the Lord of the Church.

On Thursday, September 24, Ryan Helfenbein of the Falkirk Center interiewed John MacArthur at length (26 minutes). This is the second of a two-part series on COVID-19 and the Church:

Ryan Hefelbein asks him about his critics decrying his reopening of Grace Community Church.

MacArthur says that Scripture says that the members of the Church are called out to meet together. There is no such thing as an ungathered church.

The notion that the church is scattered is an un-scriptural belief:

That is a foolish statement to make.

MacArthur and his legal counsel had appeared in court that day — September 24 — and presented the enduring infinitesimally low statistic of contracting, let alone dying from, coronavirus, especially between the ages of 30 and 60:

On the basis of statistics alone, this [lockdown] is completely arbitrary.

He says that, even though he is cautious, he believes that whether we live or die depends upon the:

purposes of God.

MacArthur says that his mission in life is to make sure that as many people as possible hear the word of God.

He said that there was only one person, a physician, who had COVID-19. The doctor recovered.

As such, word got around the congregation. MacArthur said that many wondered if the alarm surrounding the pandemic was justified. Through nothing of his own doing, people began to return to church. That would have been in July. Prior to that, he and his assistants had been doing online worship broadcasts in several different languages.

He said:

The Church should never close its doors.

He spoke about the irony of our clergy lauding the heroes of the Reformation (Martin Luther, John Knox), yet they will never run that risk of being in danger — especially surrounding a virus. He pulled a face, disapprovingly.

He took exception to the vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris comparing COVID-19 to the Second World War:

Last I knew, no one was bombing LA.

Nice one!

MacArthur said that more and more people have been attending his church’s services every week. That’s probably because there is nowhere else for them to worship normally.

He dismissed ‘conspiracy theorists’ but posited an ongoing ‘conspiracy’ in California and elsewhere in the West — pre-COVID — undoing the tenets of the Gospel as expressed in the Book of Romans:

This culture has done a massive work on destroying the law of God in the heart.

He said that the only remaining bulwark is the Church, but, that, too, has been restrained, not only this year but over the past few decades:

What the hell is going to keep this culture from going to Hell at warp speed?

He said that the only solution is to:

keep preaching, living godly lives, confronting these things

Ryan Helfenbein asked if the coronavirus had changed him.

He replied that, no, it hadn’t. The word of God and his ministry had not changed. Yet, the culture has certainly changed.

Incredibly, he ventured into politics, which is somewhat of an unknown frontier for him, because in past sermons he says he was not interested in the subject. Yet, today, he says that the parties have divided along moral lines (19 minutes in):

For a Christian, a real Christian, I do not believe they can vote Democratic …

Not only do Christians have to uphold righteousness, they must take the side of those that uphold religious righteousness … God wants you to take the stand for righteousness’s sake …

He reiterated not to vote for a platform — the Democrats’ — which goes against God’s will as expressed in the Bible:

Certainly not to vote for that, otherwise you have complicityMurder and perversion is not an option for a Christian on any level. I think it’s come down to that.

He says that the Republican platform — not necessarily the personal lives of their candidates — is on the side of biblical morality.

True to form, MacArthur has a can of Fresca by his side on the desk. He loves Fresca. So did my late maternal grandmother.

Fresca has a weird taste, but if you grew up with it, as I did, it brings back fond memories.

Returning to a serious note, MacArthur reminds us that Jesus Christ is King of Kings and the Ruler of the world. MacArthur warns us about the different forms of wrath that can be wrought against a culture.

In Romans 1:24-26 and 28, he says, that God will deliver persistent sinners unto their own devices: serious sin, including sexual immorality. Essentially, God gave them over to a ‘reprobate mind’ i.e, insanity.

He believes that, by and large, we are now ‘in a reprobate mind’ — not all of us, but too many — and that God has unleashed judgement. However, MacArthur says the judgement is temporary, provided that we, as a people, repent.

MacArthur ended by saying:

The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation.

Part 1 of the interview is here.

Bible readingThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Romans 16:3-6

Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert[a] to Christ in Asia. Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you.

—————————————————————————–

Last week’s post was about Phoebe, the first person Paul commended to the Romans in the final part of his letter to them.

John MacArthur explains the significance of naming so many people he had met during his ministry who were now in Rome (emphases mine):

… the first insight into his love and into his relationships with people, his accountability, his dependency is related to this commendation. Now let’s look at the second one and that’s his cordiality. And that takes us from verse 3 all the way to verse 23 with a little break in verses 17 to 20 … But starting in verse 3 we begin a list of names that runs down to verse 16 and then stops where there’s a greeting. And then we pick up more names in verse 21 to 23. Now all of these names really extend to us insight into Paul’s love, because it’s a whole lot of cordiality, a whole lot of loving greeting to everybody. It is a real display of open love. He greets the saints. I love the fact that he knows who they are. I mean, they’re not a lot of nameless folks. This is not a man who is so isolated from reality, who is so into his own thing, who has reached such a level of esteem in the minds of everybody and in himself that he just loses touch with everybody. Not at all.

We see here, Paul knew who was his helper. Paul knew who stood by him. And he loved them and they were an essential part of his life. The breadth of his ministry, the sweep of it can be seen in the fact that though he has never been to Rome he names here 24 individuals, 17 men and seven women, and he names two households along with some unnamed brothers and unnamed sisters in the Savior who are at Rome. Though he had never been there he had been instrumental in winning so many to Christ who had gone to Rome and were now there as a part of that church in that great city. Undoubtedly what we have in these 24 individuals and two households and unnamed sisters and brothers is a catalogue of very choice Christians.

The next people he mentions were Prisca — Priscilla — and her husband Aquila (verse 3), formerly of Rome but exiled when the emperor Claudius decreed that all Jews had to leave the city. They went to live in Corinth, in Greece.

Those who know the Book of Acts or who read my series on it, will remember this couple from Acts 18:1-4. My post has a description not only of Corinth but also of this couple, who, like Paul, were tent makers. They welcomed Paul into their home and the three became close friends. He stayed with them for quite a while, then the three moved on to Ephesus, where Priscilla and Aquila founded the church there (Acts 18:18-19).

While they were in Ephesus, they instructed Apollos more precisely in scriptural doctrine enabling him to prove in his preaching that Jesus is the Messiah (Acts 18:24-28).

Many Bible scholars believe that Priscilla is named before her husband because she had a more dominant personality. Others say that her command of Scripture was better than her husband’s. In any event, she was the first female preacher.

Priscilla and Aquila were still in the city when young Timothy was preaching (2 Timothy 4:19).

They had risked their lives for Paul (verse 4). Corinth was a dangerous place for Christians. Phoebe hosted worship services for Corinthians in her house in Cenchreae, the port outside of Corinth.

Matthew Henry’s commentary explains:

They exposed themselves to secure Paul, hazarded their own lives for the preservation of his, considering how much better they might be spared than he. Paul was in a great deal of danger at Corinth, while he sojourned with them; but they sheltered him, though they thereby made themselves obnoxious to the enraged multitudes, Acts 18:12,17. It was a good while ago that they had done Paul this kindness; and yet he speaks as feelingly of it as if it had been but yesterday.

Paul says that all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.

MacArthur says that is because they protected Paul:

Why are they thankful? Because they’re all a product of Paul’s ministry, right? And a dead Paul means the end of everything.

So it’s not only that I’m thankful for them, everybody else is thankful for them. I mean, we don’t know that story. We say, “Oh the apostle Paul, the apostle Paul, isn’t it marvelous, what a man.” But do we need to be reminded that it may have been that there would have been nothing but a dead body had it not been for these two rather obscure dear people who were willing to lay their head on a chopping block to spare the life of that man they knew God had anointed? That’s great devotion, great devotion.

MacArthur points out that Paul refers to Prisca rather than Priscilla:

Priscilla is a diminutive form which is used by Luke. Luke favors the diminutive forms on many names whereas Paul favors the more classical formal forms. This is true not only of Prisca and Priscilla, but of Silas and Silvanus. That tends to be a difference between Luke and Paul.

Once Claudius died, Prisca and Aquila moved back to Rome:

… they had returned to Rome because of the death of Claudius, so the banishing of the Jews was a past matter.

They held worship in their house in Rome (verse 5). As it was a large city, Christians worshipped in various people’s houses. Prisca and Aquila’s home was but one of those locations.

MacArthur says:

Now here they are in Rome and their house is open to house the church. Oh this is a magnanimous couple. On the one hand they have laid down their life for the great apostle Paul. On the other hand they have opened their home to the church. Now you’ll get a flow as we go through here and you’ll find out that the church in Rome met in several places. The church in Rome was not always meeting in one place, they had no building. So they were meeting in varying homes. They were really a whole lot of Flocks, a whole lot of home Bible studies and since the church could only come together in a public place, perhaps outdoors for maybe the Lord’s Table or a love feast or a communion or a great celebration of some kind, its weekly meetings would have to be held in the homes of those who were gracious enough to open them for the use of the church.

The next person Paul mentions is Epaenetus, the first convert in Asia (verse 5), which in those days meant Asia Minor (modern day Turkey).

The King James Version states ‘Achaia’ rather than ‘Asia’. If that is true, then Epaenetus came from Greece, as that is where Achaia is located.

Henry says:

Of Epenetus it is further said that he was the first-fruit of Achaia unto Christ; not only one of the most eminent believers in that country, but one of the first that was converted to the faith of Christ: one that was offered up to God by Paul, as the first-fruits of his ministry there; an earnest of a great harvest; for in Corinth, the chief city of Achaia, God had much people, Acts 18:10. Special respect is to be paid to those that set out early, and come to work in the vineyard at the first hour, at the first call. The household of Stephanas is likewise said to be the first-fruits of Achaia, 1 Corinthians 16:15. Perhaps Epenetus was one of that household; or, at least, he was one of the first three; not the first alone, but one of the first fleece of Christians, that the region of Achaia afforded.

MacArthur leans towards Asia Minor and says that Epaenetus had reason to move to Rome:

Now who is Epaenetus? He is the first fruits of Asia unto Christ, the first convert in Asia Minor, which is now modern Turkey. Asia Minor had the city Ephesus and all the other cities mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3, the cities of Laodicea, Philadelphia, Smyrna, Sardis, and Thyatira, Pergamos and Ephesus, they were all there in Asia Minor. The first convert in Asia was Epaenetus and now he is in Rome, a part of the church at Rome, moved there for whatever reason. He calls him, and here you get to see the love of Paul, “My well beloved.” There’s little doubt in my mind that there was something significant about the first convert in Asia, don’t you think? The first one that came to Christ, Epaenetus, had a special place of affection in the heart of Paul. And he is the first fruits. Now the fact that he was the first fruits means that many others followed, right? He doesn’t say he’s the only fruit, he says he’s the what? The first fruit, the first fruit not unto me, but “the first fruit unto Christ.”

And you know, don’t you, that he is the one to whom all the first fruits are offered. Go back to chapter 15 verse 16, how Paul says that he offers up the Gentiles to God as a sacrifice, an offering, and the first…the first fruits of his ministry in Asia that he offered to Christ is none other than Epaenetus, who has a special place in his heart. We know nothing more about this man at all. But Paul loved him greatly and Paul knew where he was, I like that, he knew he was in Rome. He followed these people. He understood where they were because they were so deeply ingrained in his life.

The next person Paul mentions is a lady named Mary, who has ‘worked hard’ for the church in Rome (verse 6).

MacArthur says that the Greek word used means that she worked tirelessly, to the point of exhaustion:

The word is a strong word, it means to labor to the point of weariness, it’s that very familiar verb kopia. It means to work to sweat and exhaustion. And he says greet her who bestowed much labor on you.

He surmises that Prisca and Aquila must have told Paul about Mary:

the best idea is that Aquila and Priscilla who had come from Rome would have informed Paul about her and this dear lady that had given so much labor to the church was known to him through the testimony of Aquila and Priscilla. And the idea of much labor expresses the fact that she probably had been an early part of the church at Rome. The fact that it’s in the past tense indicates that by now she may have been very old and her labor was much behind her. And he commends with a loving greeting this woman who in the past rendered much labor to the establishing and the developing of the church of the believers in Rome.

Henry’s commentary says that Paul might have met Mary elsewhere during his ministry:

Some think this Mary had been at some of those places where Paul was, though now removed to Rome, and had personally ministered to him; others think Paul speaks of her labour as bestowed upon him because it was bestowed upon his friends and fellow-labourers, and he took what was done to them as done to himself.

It is fascinating that the names of these people have been recorded and will be forever remembered in the New Testament.

We can be grateful to Bible scholars who made the effort to research their lives through the ages. MacArthur mentions JB Lightfoot, an Anglican priest from the Victorian era and  William Barclay, a 20th century Church of Scotland minister:

we could just read names and say, well, we don’t know who they are, and go on. But there are some in history who couldn’t do that and we’re grateful to them. A great exegetical commentator by the name of J.B. Lightfoot seemed to be preoccupied with finding out who all these people were. And he has some fascinating data. William Barclay, also personally preoccupied with trying to find out who all these people were, adds some very important and interesting data and I want to intersect with a little bit of that, anyway, as we go through because I want you to see that these are flesh and blood real people. And some of them, even the New Testament gives us a little information about.

There are plenty more names and insights to follow in the weeks ahead.

Next time — Romans 16:7-10

Below are the readings for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity, October 4, 2020.

These are for Year A in the three-year Lectionary used in public worship.

There are two options for the first reading and Psalm.

Emphases below are mine.

First reading and Psalm — Option One

Readings from Exodus continue. The Lord gives the Ten Commandments to the Israelites via Moses.

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

20:1 Then God spoke all these words:

20:2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;

20:3 you shall have no other gods before me.

20:4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

20:7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

20:8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.

20:9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work.

20:12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

20:13 You shall not murder.

20:14 You shall not commit adultery.

20:15 You shall not steal.

20:16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

20:17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

20:18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance,

20:19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”

20:20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”

The Psalm ties in beautifully with the Ten Commandments. Traditionally-minded Episcopal ministers recite verse 14 before giving a sermon.

Psalm 19

19:1 The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

19:2 Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.

19:3 There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;

19:4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,

19:5 which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy.

19:6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.

19:7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple;

19:8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes;

19:9 the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.

19:10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.

19:11 Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.

19:12 But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.

19:13 Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.

19:14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

First reading and Psalm — Option Two

The Lord spoke through Isaiah, comparing the house of Israel to a wild, unproductive vineyard.

Isaiah 5:1-7

5:1 Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.

5:2 He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

5:3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.

5:4 What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?

5:5 And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.

5:6 I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.

5:7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

The Psalm also uses the vineyard allegory in a plea for mercy rather than continuing judgement.

Psalm 80:7-15

80:7 Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

80:8 You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.

80:9 You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.

80:10 The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches;

80:11 it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River.

80:12 Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?

80:13 The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it.

80:14 Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine,

80:15 the stock that your right hand planted.

Epistle

Readings from Philippians continue. Paul eloquently expresses his love for Christ. The privileges he had in life before his conversion were nothing compared to his subsequent salvation and ministry.

Philippians 3:4b-14

3:4b If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more:

3:5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;

3:6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

3:7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.

3:8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ

3:9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

3:10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,

3:11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

3:12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

3:13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,

3:14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Gospel

Readings from Matthew continue, focussing on the parables of Jesus. Today’s is the Parable of the Vineyard, tying in well with the reading from Isaiah and Psalm 19 above. Verse 42 will be familiar to many.

Matthew 21:33-46

21:33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.

21:34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.

21:35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.

21:36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.

21:37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’

21:38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’

21:39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

21:40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

21:41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

21:42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?

21:43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

21:44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

21:45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.

21:46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

What a powerful set of readings and allegorical use of the vineyard.

God gave His people every blessing, yet the house of Israel preferred serious sin instead, violating His commandments.

Generations later, the chief priests and the Pharisees were supposed to be the experts in Scripture and were to tend to their flock accordingly. Instead, they were like wild vines, wilfully denouncing Jesus, the Messiah. In His parable, Jesus foretold His death. The Jewish hierarchy were the evil tenants of the vineyard. God left them in unbelief and spiritual blindness: a judgement.

As such, He allowed Gentiles to share in His Kingdom (Matthew 21:43).

Bible kevinroosecomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Romans 16:1-2

Personal Greetings

16 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant[a] of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.

————————————————————————————————————————-

At the end of Romans 15, Paul concluded his theological teachings with a benediction — a blessing — to the Christians in Rome.

In Romans 16, he writes about the network of Christian leaders in the churches he planted. Several would go to Rome. Others sent their greetings from a distance. Paul names all of them.

He begins with Phoebe, who is serving the church at Cenchreae (verse 1), the port outside of Corinth.

It is possible that Cenchreae’s church was an offshoot of the one in Corinth.

However, Matthew Henry posits that, as it was dangerous to worship in Corinth, Cenchreae might have been where the Corinthians met for worship at that time (emphases mine below):

Cenchrea was a small sea-port town adjoining to Corinth, about twelve furlongs distant. Some think there was a church there, distinct from that at Corinth, though, being so near, it is very probable that the church of Corinth is called the church of Cenchrea, because their place of meeting might be there, on account of the great opposition to them in the city (Acts 18:12), as at Philippi they met out of the city by the water-side, Acts 16:13. So the reformed church of Paris might be called the church at Charenton, where they formerly met, out of the city.

John MacArthur thinks it was a separate church:

Now Paul is writing from Corinth and about nine miles away, eight or nine miles, on the Saronic Gulf was a port city, really the seaport for Corinth, known as Cenchreae. Any shipping that needed to be done from Corinth would be done at Cenchreae. It’s very likely that the church in Cenchreae was founded as a result of the ministry of the church at Corinth, that church spawning, if you will, a daughter church in that seaport town.

Paul ‘commends’ Phoebe to the congregation in Rome. He recommends her to them, in the way we have letters of recommendation from former employers when we interview for new jobs.

Therefore, he thinks very highly of her.

Paul asks that the Romans welcome Phoebe as they would a fellow believer — ‘worthy of the saints’ (verse 2) — because she is one of them, called by God to follow Christ.

He also asks that they give her all the help she needs while she is in Rome, because she has been a generous patron of her church and a patron to him as well (verse 2).

This is the only time Phoebe is mentioned, but Bible scholars have deduced several things about her.

She was a ‘servant’ to her church, the Greek word being diakonon, a deacon. At that time, around AD 56-58, there was no formal role of deacon, as we have today. At that time it was a more loosely-defined function, implying a leadership role in looking after those in need, as in Acts 6 with Stephen, the first martyr.

The early male deacons would have taken care of those in need and also preached.

Henry doubts if Phoebe would have been allowed to preach:

As a servant to the church at Cenchrea: diakonon, a servant by office, a stated servant, not to preach the word (that was forbidden to women), but in acts of charity and hospitality. Some think she was one of the widows that ministered to the sick and were taken into the church’s number, 1 Timothy 5:9.

Female deacons later became known as deaconesses.

However, deaconesses are very different from female deacons in today’s churches. Don’t ever call a woman deacon a deaconess today or you’ll live to regret it! I made that mistake once. I won’t do it again.

Historically, a deaconess performed acts of charity to the sick and others in need. She had no remit to preach to men, but she could teach women and, no doubt, children.

MacArthur explains:

They are to have been one-man women, that is women who were not unfaithful to their husbands. They were well reported of women for their good works, women who had brought up children, who had lodged strangers, and again we’re back to the fact that hospitality was very important in that world, women who washed the saints’ feet, who relieved the afflicted, who diligently followed every good work. Now that would be sort of the characteristic of deaconess, and surely those widows put on the list would function in that capacity as a deaconess.

As we look in the history of the early church we find that the role of those women in the first few centuries was to care for the sick, to care for the poor, to minister to strangers, to show hospitality, to serve martyrs in prison, taking them supplies and needs and providing for whatever might be desperately needed because of the exigencies of imprisonment. Those deaconesses were used to instruct new women converts in the discipling process, to assist in the immersion of women and to exercise a general supervision over ministries to the needs of women in the churches. Now that was the role of a deaconess and this was such a woman, a sister in Christ and a servant of the church who was no doubt recognized as one worthy of commendation.

By contrast, depending on the denomination, today’s female deacons — not deaconesses — can preach and baptise, but they cannot consecrate the bread and wine for Communion. They can continue with seminary and become priests or ministers.

Henry thinks that Phoebe might have hosted the church at Cenchreae for worship and for lodging:

Probably they used to meet at her house, and she undertook the care of entertaining the ministers, especially strangers.

Phoebe was probably financially independent:

Phebe seems to have been a person of some account; and yet it was no disparagement to her to be a servant to the church.

Note that Paul describes her as a ‘patron of many and of myself as well’. That implies she gave the church a lot of money as well as time:

verse 2 … thirdly it says, “That you are to receive her in the Lord as becomes saints and assist her in whatever business she has need of you for she has been (a succorer, or) a helper of many and of myself also.” We can use the word “succorer,” which is to say she has been a helper of many. The word actually means a benefactor. Now when I say the word “patron” do you know what that means? Do you know what a patron is? If you ever read any of ancient European history you understand the word “patron.” A patron was someone who financially supported someone else. Many artists had a patron. They would paint and they would do their sculpture and they would do whatever they needed to do. There were people who were researchers and students and scholars, and people like that would find a patron who would support them. Apparently this woman had enough means to provide a patronage for not only the apostle Paul but for others in the church. The term is prostatis and it basically in the Jewish community came to refer to a wealthy supporter. So this dear woman was a wealthy supporter, no doubt, of the church at Cenchreae. It may well have met in her home. She may have been to that church what Lydia was to the church at Philippi. And she also offered some support in some way to the apostle himself.

She must have had financial means, otherwise, she would not have made a journey to Rome. There was no tourism at that time. Most women did not travel far from where they lived unless it was for something important. If they did, they needed to be sure of safe accommodation. There were no hotel chains at the time.

Interestingly, Phoebe, living in Greece, had reason to travel hundreds of miles away to the heart of the Roman Empire.

MacArthur tells us more, including the dubious accommodation that inns offered in that era:

I like this, you assist her in whatever business she has need of you. She was on her way to Rome for some business, if indeed she was a wealthy patron it’s obvious she was probably going with some special business in mind. The word, by the way, there is not specifically the word “business,” it is a Greek word pragmateia, from which we get pragmatic. She was there for some pragmatic reason, for some transaction, would be the technical translation. She had come to Rome for a transaction of some sort, perhaps a legal matter related to her business and he tells the church, assist her. Now isn’t that an important thought. When someone comes to us, a stranger, we are in the church to provide not only love and spiritual affection but assistance in the matters of finance or business or whatever other matters that person might have in view that are not necessarily related directly to the kingdom of God. In other words, we’re to provide all of the resources necessary for bidding Godspeed and allowing that person to accomplish whatever objectives are in mind.

And it’s a wonderful thing for the church to do that, to assist each other in these kinds of things. Whatever she did, Paul said, whatever her business might be, whatever transaction she enters in, you know the people in Rome, you know how things are, you know who to see, you know who to talk to, you expedite that situation on her behalf

Letters of commendation were written — that was a well-worn custom in Paul’s day — when a believer, for example, would be traveling to another city and would want to go and fellowship with that church, that believer could carry a commending letter from the church in their own home town which would ensure to that new congregation that this was indeed one of the children of God, a brother or sister to be loved and received with hospitality. The reason for that was the need for a place to stay. In those days inns were nothing short of brothels. They were places where there would be perhaps looting and stealing. They were not safe places. And as Christian people traveled around in the Roman world, the letters of commendation allowed them to be received with love into varying Christian communities and shown hospitality and care for whatever matters of business they needed to carry on.

MacArthur says of the name Phoebe:

her name means “bright and radiant,” and perhaps that was true of her testimony.

Phoebe took Paul’s letter to the Romans with her and personally delivered it to them.

MacArthur says:

may I encourage all of you ladies that are here tonight that God has always used women and still does and uses them mightily in the advance of His kingdom. And though He did not use a woman to write a book of the Bible, He used a woman to transport that book, that most important perhaps of all books in terms of its presentation of the gospel, and therefore demonstrated that within the bounds of biblical definition and function designed by God for women, He uses them in marvelous and glorious tasks that do not violate His holy design for them. And so this woman is emblematic of all those women, who within the framework of God’s design, have borne a place of honor. And we see in the love of Paul the commendation of one woman that no doubt would extend to many other people who served him so well.

That is the story of Phoebe.

The Church remembers her in feast days at various times during the year, as Wikipedia explains:

The Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America commemorates Phoebe with Lydia of Thyatira and Dorcas on January 27, the day after the commemoration of the early male missionaries Silas, Timothy and Titus and two days after the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. The Episcopal Church does likewise. However, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod remembers her on October 25, while the Eastern Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church place her feast day as September 3.

What a wonderful, holy lady she was.

Paul had more to say about his friends in the Church, men and women alike. More on that next week.

Next time — Romans 16:3-6

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