Welcome back to the Sunday Mass notes. This week we open with a reading from the first book of the Bible, Genesis, the book of beginnings. Today’s study reveals God’s gracious plan to make Abraham the progenitor of a physical line of chosen people and the spiritual line of God-followers. The second reading is from one of the Apostle Paul’s favored letters—that is, it’s favored by many Bible readers because of the promise of joy and confidence to those who trust God wholeheartedly. The Gospel reading from Luke takes us into a very intimate occasion in the life of Jesus that demonstrated visually and orally His unique character as the very Son of God.
Introduction to the First Reading:
So much is packed into this passage of Scripture that it could take several pages of commentary to explain it all clearly. Note that this choice servant of God is known first as Abram (“exalted father”). His name is later changed to Abraham (“father of many nations”; Gen. 17:5). It begins with the reassuring promise of God that He will protect Abram; He will be “a shield” to him. And he promises him a great reward. In what we refer to as the Abrahamic Covenant, introduced in Genesis 12 and reaffirmed in chapters 13, 15, and 17. God had promised Abram that he would be “a great nation” and his “offspring” would be blessed. And that raises a great question in Abram’s mind. This passage answers the question and gives us a preview of the history of the nation to be born of Abram.
Note: The reading omitted verses 1-4 and 16 that are included below.
Genesis 15:1-18 NAS95 1 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, "Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great." 2 Abram said, "O Lord GOD, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" 3 And Abram said, "Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir." 4 Then behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, "This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir." 5 And He took him outside and said, "Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them." And He said to him, "So shall your descendants be." 6 Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. 7 And He said to him, "I am the LORD who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it." 8 He said, "O Lord GOD, how may I know that I will possess it?" 9 So He said to him, "Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon." 10 Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds. 11 The birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away. 12 Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him. 13 God said to Abram, "Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. 14 "But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve, and afterward they will come out with many possessions. 15 "As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age. 16 "Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete." 17 It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your descendants I have given this land, From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates:
Abram is perplexed. How could he have offspring, he asks, “since I am childless”? Not knowing the miraculous plan that God had in mind, Abram proposes that God use Abram’s servant Eliezer as his heir. But God responds that his heir “will come forth from your own body.” Then God gives this faithful follower an object lesson. He instructs him to look at the stars and count them. That’s impossible, of course; the stars are innumerable. “So shall your descendants be,” God tells him. In response, Abram offers a statement that reveals the depth of his trust in God. It is a statement that is referred to elsewhere in Scripture (Romans 4:3, 9, 22; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23): “Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” This is a critical faith statement. It is not on the basis of any action of Abram that he is declared righteous, but it is on the basis of his faith, his trust in God. That same principle of faith remains true today. It is not by our holy deeds that we are considered righteous before God but because of our faith in the saving work of Jesus who paid the sacrifice for our sin.
In confirmation of God’s promises to Abram, there follows a demonstration of God’s commitment to fulfill His promises to Abram. The ceremony of sacrifice that is pictured is the affirmation of God that He alone will fulfill the covenant He is making with His servant. Not only that, God gives Abram a preview of what is to happen to his progeny, events that we will read about in the later chapters of Genesis and the early portion of Exodus. The 400-year captivity of Israel (the descendant nation from Abram) in Egypt is clearly foretold. And the promise of their ultimate release is predicted, as well.
The ceremony pictured in these verses included symbols of God’s presence (a smoking oven and a flaming torch) which were to give Abram assurance that God Himself is making this covenant with him, and it is certain of fulfillment. It concludes in this passage with the promise that the land from the River of Egypt (the Nile?) to the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia will be the homeland of God’s chosen people.
Introduction to the Second Reading:
In the first two chapters of Philippians, Paul rehearses some of the factors of his relationship with the people of the church at Philippi and what he hoped and prayed for them in terms of their spiritual growth and steadfastness. He wanted them to live in a manner “worthy of the gospel of Christ” (2:27). He also taught some very important spiritual truths that should have encouraged his readers to work together for unity among themselves and to recognize the great personal sacrifice of Jesus for them. They should understand, also, the exalted place that Jesus has been given as a result of His obedience to the Father, even to the point of death.
Philippians 3:17 - 4:1 NAS95 17 Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us. 18 For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, 19 whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things. 20 For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; 21 who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself. 1 Therefore, my beloved brethren whom I long to see, my joy and crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord, my beloved.
In today’s reading, the writer offers a significant contrast. He wants his readers to follow his example and that of others who “walk according” to the pattern of his life. And he warns them of the many who walk as “the enemies of the cross of Christ.” He is distressed by such conduct; it brings him great sorrow. But the followers of Christ must be warned. These evil-doers are characterized by unwholesome appetites, an unseemly pride in their wrong-doing. Perhaps the danger of their behavior is suggested in the last characteristic, “who set their minds on earthly things.” What God has created and given us here on this earth is not inherently bad, but an unhealthy attachment to earthly things is fatal. As John wrote in 1 John 2:16, “For everything in the world—the carvings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.” And his conclusion is the key: “The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.” Paul makes it clear that the “end” of them “is destruction.” Believers must concentrate on the eternal, not the temporal that distracts us from God and will not last. Rather, the Christian has much more to look for.
Paul goes on to note the contrast between the “enemies” of Christ and the true believers. The Christian’s citizenship is not in this temporary, passing world. It is in heaven, and it’s not just something we hope to enter someday; it is the place where we should continually and eagerly be looking “for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,” who will descend from our spiritual homeland to come for us. And then the changes that Paul promised in 1 Corinthians 15 will occur. He says our current “humble state” will be transformed “into conformity with the body of His glory.” We surely don’t fully understand all that that means, but it will occur, not by anything we can do but by His power. After all, He has the power to subject everything to Himself, and He eventually will do so.
Once again, Paul reveals his deep passion for the Philippian believers. He calls them “beloved brethren,” and he again speaks of his longing to see them, who he considers “my joy and crown.” In light of the glorious promise for the alien Christians whose citizenship is in heaven, their future and eternal abiding place, Paul gives a final challenge to those he loves so dearly, “Stand firm in the Lord.”
Introduction to the Gospel Reading:
The four Gospels present Jesus in a variety of settings, each writer including those events and sayings that fit best into his argument. The four together give us a complete picture of what God wants us to know about Jesus’ life and ministry. After all, according to the writer of Hebrews, God “in these last days has spoken to us by His Son” (Hebrews 1:2). Jesus provides the very best picture of who God is because He who was and is God “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). In today’s passage, Luke gives us a unique picture of Jesus, different from every other representation of Him in the Bible.
Luke 9:28-36 NAS95 28 Some eight days after these sayings, He took along Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while He was praying, the appearance of His face became different, and His clothing became white and gleaming. 30 And behold, two men were talking with Him; and they were Moses and Elijah, 31 who, appearing in glory, were speaking of His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions had been overcome with sleep; but when they were fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men standing with Him. 33 And as these were leaving Him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tabernacles: one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah" --not realizing what he was saying. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud formed and began to overshadow them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 Then a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!" 36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent, and reported to no one in those days any of the things which they had seen.
In the paragraph just preceding these verses, Jesus had spoken of the cost of being His disciple. The disciple “must deny himself and take up his cross daily”; “whoever wants to save his life will lost it.” To follow Jesus is to be willing to serve Him unashamedly and faithfully. Knowing that there will be some who will faithfully follow, He concludes this teaching by promising that some of His hearers “will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” That was said many years ago, and yet we still have not yet seen God’s kingdom established on earth in the fullest sense that He has promised it. So, what could He have meant?
Today’s passage may well be the fulfillment of that promise, as we shall see. A little more than a week after that pronouncement Jesus took three of his most intimate disciples—Peter, James, and John—with Him to a mountain to pray, which was a common practice for Him. Apparently, the disciples fell asleep while Jesus prayed. (Interestingly, the same thing occurs on a later occasion in the Garden of Gethsemane on Jesus’ last night before His crucifixion, Luke 22:45.) When they awoke, they saw what must have seemed like a dream to them. They saw Jesus with a different facial expression and clothes that were dazzling white and gleaming. Two men were talking with Him, and somehow the disciples recognized the two as Moses and Elijah, long dead and revered Old Testament prophets. They were “appearing in glory,” and the three disciples “saw His glory.” It was Moses in Exodus 33 who asked to see God’s glory, but God indicated that no one could see His glory and live.
There must have been something about the appearance of these three that was supra-natural. It was an appearance beyond anything earthly normal. It’s also interesting to note the topic of discussion between Jesus and the two prophets; they “were speaking of His departure.” Jesus had told His disciples on more than one occasion that he would be leaving them, and He had indicated the method (His death, burial, resurrection, and return to heaven). Peter, in his usual impetuous way, was eager to keep them from leaving, so he suggested building “tabernacles,” probably the kind of booths that were associated with the Jewish festival. He was interrupted by a cloud that came upon them, frightening them. Then they heard a voice, the very voice of God. “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!” As God had spoken at Jesus’ baptism, so He speaks once again, confirming that Jesus is the Holy One, the anointed one of God, the one above all others who should be heard and obeyed. It seems abundantly clear that these three close disciples of Jesus had the unique privilege of having just a glimpse, a peek of what the Kingdom of God is like. The qualified king, the representatives of the old covenant, and disciples of the new, all are represented. Glory shone around as it will in that glorious future kingdom. Watch for it! Be prepared!
- In the second reading, Saint Paul talked about “stand[ing] firm in the faith” (Philippians 4;1). List at least three specific ways in which you are you living as a citizen of heaven, for eternal values rather than worldly pleasure and standing firm in your faith?
- In what ways to you recognize Jesus as God Himself as seen by Peter, James, and John, in the great transfiguration scene? God said to listen to Him. In what ways are you doing this in your life? In what ways are you acting upon the information you are receiving from God?
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation.