Lectionary Commentaries for August 10, 2014
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 14:22-33

Carla Works

There is an old hymn that testifies, “Jesus calls us o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea.”

In the Gospel reading this week, Jesus indeed calls to his disciples in the midst of the wild and restless sea1, but he is not beckoning them away from the storm. Instead, his voice calls them into the tumult.

The text says that Jesus made the disciples get into the boat (14:22). A better translation of this main verb would be “to force” or “to compel.” Jesus did not give the disciples a choice. He compelled them to get into the boat and to leave him alone with the crowds.

Why did he not have the disciples stay and help him with these crowds? After all, the multitude is huge. There are 5,000 men and probably twice as many women and children (14:21). They followed Jesus out to this lonely place (14:13). It was the disciples who wanted Jesus to get rid of the crowds before the great miracle of the feeding (14:15). Only after feeding this multitude does Jesus send everyone away: the crowds and the disciples.

It is not insignificant that Jesus retreats to the mountain while he has sent his disciples out into the raging chaos of the sea. The mountain in Matthew’s Gospel is a place for encountering God and hearing the proclamation of God’s glorious kingdom (e.g., 5:1-7:29; 17:1-8). In Moses-like fashion, Jesus proves that he is both the leader of the crowds and the intercessor to the divine. He climbs alone to a mountain for his rendezvous with the Father.

Jesus stays on the mountain to pray. Twice the writer states that Jesus is by himself (verse 23). While Jesus is alone conversing with the Father, the disciples find themselves in a life-threatening situation.

The disciples are many stadia from the land, and the boat is being beaten — or, more literally, being tormented — by the waves. The situation is reminiscent of Jesus’ calming of the sea in Matthew 8:23-27. In that story, Jesus led the disciples into the boat and stayed with them, even though he was asleep. When the storm arose and the waves covered the boat, the disciples cried out, “Save, Lord; we are perishing” (8:25). Jesus questions, “Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?” Then, he rebukes the wind, and the story ends with the disciples marveling, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and sea obey him?” (8:27).

In our passage this week, though, the disciples do not have the luxury of awaking Jesus. Jesus is not there.

The disciples have been struggling to keep afloat for a while. The text says that it is not until the fourth watch of the night that Jesus decides to come to them in the middle of the sea. Thus, it is the early morning hours (3 a.m. to 6 a.m.), while it is still dark, that Jesus makes his appearance.

The disciples, though, do not initially recognize Jesus in the midst of the chaos. They have been alone with the threatening waves for hours. They are probably tired from being up all night. In the midst of this crisis when their energy reserves are spent, Jesus reveals himself to them.

In this exhausted state with the roar of the waves and the spray of the sea drenching their boat, they mistake the Lord of creation for a phantom. Given the common perception of the sea as the locus of evil and chaos, it is hard to blame them for initially mistaking the figure of Jesus for a specter of death. After all, it is they who have rowed into the middle of evil’s realm, and the waves are indeed attacking them.

Over their cries of fear, Jesus calls to them, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear” (15:27). Jesus reveals himself — not simply as Jesus, their teacher, but as “I AM.” A more literal translation of this sentence would be, “Take heart, I am, do not be afraid.” This self-revelation is a disclosure of Jesus’ source of power. For Matthew’s Jewish Christian audience, Jesus’ words echo the divine name.

Jesus’ self-revelation moves beyond his words. His actions are also revealing. According to Job 9:8, God alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the Sea. In Psalm 89:9, the psalmist exalts the Lord, “You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them.” In the midst of the sea’s churning, Jesus does what only God can do. This is a theophany.

The last time Jesus revealed his power over the chaos of the sea he did so within the confines of the boat. Even then, his power confounded the disciples. Now, he is displaying his power in the death-defying stunt of walking on the sea.

When confronted with the inexplicable reality of a God who controls chaos with his toes, Peter does the inexplicable: he asks to meet Jesus in the tumult. The text does not say that Jesus calmed the seas to make Peter’s steps easier. In fact, it is the wind that frightens Peter and causes him to sink. It was only Jesus’ call that made it possible for Peter to make any strides in the first place.

At this point in our narrative, the story sounds remarkably like the previous miracle on the sea. There is a cry for the Lord’s salvation followed by Jesus’ question of faith, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” (verses 30-31). This week’s text, however, ends by answering the question posed by the first narrative. The first time Jesus calmed the sea, the disciples were left wondering who Jesus is. This calming of the sea ends with a declaration, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (14:33).

In Matthew’s Gospel, this story is meant to reveal who Jesus is. But that revelation is only possible in the midst of the chaos. If Jesus had not forced the disciples to embark on this uncertain journey, they would have missed the opportunity to see God revealed in their midst.


1 Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) included in The Methodist Hymnal: Official Hymnal of the Methodist Church (Nashville: The Methodist Publishing House, 1966).

First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 19:9-18

Michael J. Chan

First Kings 19 is the lowest point in Elijah’s career.

Arrested by fear of Jezebel’s threats, he sinks deeper and deeper into the depths of unbelief, to such a degree that even a powerful theophany — on par with the revelation Moses received on Sinai (see Exodus 34) — does not move him from unbelief into faith. Jezebel’s threats (verse 2) — not Yhwh’s1 word — motivate Elijah’s actions, to the point that Elijah’s career comes to a somewhat anticlimactic and tragic end.

The tragic nature of Elijah’s fall from glory is made all the more apparent when juxtaposed with 1 Kings 18, where Elijah boldly faces down the prophets of Jezebel, insisting upon the primacy of the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 5:7). His career climaxes on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18), only to plummet on Mt. Sinai (1 Kings 19). As gloomy as it may sound, 1 Kings 19 is the story of Elijah’s decommissioning, and of God’s choice to use another more willing servant.

Key to understanding 1 Kings 19:9-18 is recognizing that Elijah walks an ancient path, one taken by Moses himself: After killing Jezebel’s prophets in Chapter 18, Elijah catches wind of the queen’s ire (1 Kings 19:2) and flees into the wilderness (cf. Exodus 2:11-15). While in the wilderness, Elijah is miraculously provisioned by an angel (1 Kings 19:3-8; cf. the wilderness narratives in Exodus 15:22-19:2).

He arrives at Horeb, another name for Sinai, and is then told by Yhwh to ascend the mountain (1 Kings 19:11; cf. Exodus 19:20). While on the mountain, the Mosaic parallels continue. For instance, Yhwh “passes by” (√?br) at a moment of revelation (1 Kings 19:11) just as Yhwh “passed” before (√?br) Moses in Exodus 34:6. As it was for Moses, Horeb becomes for Elijah a mountain of revelation.

Although cast in the image of Moses, Elijah quickly steps off the Mosaic path when Jezebel’s threats rob him of all faith: “Thus and more may the gods do if by this time tomorrow I have not made you like one of them” (1 Kings 19:2). Unlike Moses, who stood up to Pharaoh with all the power of God and creation at his back, Elijah cowers before Jezebel, unable to grasp the might available to him. Elijah makes two identical speeches (underlined below) that demonstrate how deeply paralyzed he has become by the queen’s words. These speeches frame Yhwh’s revelation on Horeb/Sinai:

There he went into a cave, and there he spent the night. Then the word of the LORD came to him. He said to him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” He replied, “I am moved by zeal for the LORD, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life.” “Come out,” He called, “and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And lo, the LORD passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind — an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake — fire; but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire — a soft murmuring sound.

When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his mantle about his face and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then a voice addressed him: “Why are you here, Elijah?” He answered, “I am moved by zeal for the LORD, the God of Hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and have put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life.”(1Kings 19:9-14 TNK)

Comparable to Job 38-41, Yhwh in verses 9-14 attempts to use powerful creational forces (wind, earthquake, and fire) to reorient his servant away from the words of Jezebel and toward the power of Yhwh. Although Yhwh is not found “in” any of these manifestations (a subtle anti-Baal polemic is likely at play here), they are nonetheless part of the dramatic theophanic event, which intends to snap Elijah out of his despondency. Remarkably, Elijah’s responses to Yhwh, both before and after the theophany, are identical.

Moreover, they are simply not true. He is not the only one left who is loyal to Yhwh. In fact, Elijah was largely responsible for leading many Israelites to repentance (see 1 Kings 18:38). And what about Obadiah, about whom the text says, he “revered the Lord greatly” (1 Kings 18:3)? Blinded by fear, Elijah is unable to see Yhwh’s work on Mt. Carmel and elsewhere.

Furthermore, unlike his penitent audience at Mt. Carmel, the fire of God does not move Elijah to repentance or loose him from the bonds of fear. The fact that Elijah’s two speeches are identical indicates that experiencing Yhwh’s demonstration of creational power had no effect on the prophet. He clings to Jezebel’s words rather than to Yhwh’s words.

Elijah’s life descends from fear into disobedience. We see this only too clearly when we examine Yhwh’s final instructions for Elijah in 1 Kings 19:

The LORD said to him [Elijah], “Go back by the way you came, and on to the wilderness of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael as king of Aram. Also anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king of Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah to succeed you as prophet. Whoever escapes the sword of Hazael shall be slain by Jehu, and whoever escapes the sword of Jehu shall be slain by Elisha. I will leave in Israel only seven thousand — every knee that has not knelt to Baal and every mouth that has not kissed him.” (1 Kings 19:15-18 TNK)

Elijah is given three charges: (1) anoint Hazael as king of Aram; (2) anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king of Israel (i.e., the Northern Kingdom); and (3) anoint Elisha son of Shaphat as Elijah’s replacement. This new wave of divine agents will finish the bloody religious crusade Elijah began in 1 Kings 18 (The problematic nature of these images should be acknowledged, especially in the current cultural and political environment).

But does Elijah actually obey God in these matters? Yes and no. To be sure, Elijah throws his mantle on Elisha, who becomes his attendant (1 Kings 19:19-21; cf. the alternate mantle account in 2 Kings 2:1-18, which likely comes from a different source that casts Elijah’s departure from the prophetic office more positively). But it is Elisha who commissions Hazael (2 Kings 8:3-15), not Elijah, and Elisha who anoints Jehu (2 Kings 9:1-10), again, not Elijah.

First Kings 19, then, leaves us with a troubling and tragic picture of the once-great Elijah: fearful, curved in on himself, faithless, and ultimately disobedient to his call. In an act of compassion, Yhwh gives Elijah a way out in the person of Elisha. The tasks to which Elijah was called are eventually accomplished, despite the resistance of Elijah, because Yhwh is able to find another, more willing prophet — namely, Elisha, who wears the mantle Elijah no longer wanted.


Out of respect for our Jewish sisters and brothers, I do not vocalize the divine name.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

Cameron B.R. Howard

Unlike the rest of Genesis, which comprises short, episodic stories that can usually stand alone, Genesis 37-50 reads like a short story or novella.

Sometimes referred to as the “Joseph cycle,” this set of chapters relates the dramatic tale of Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, from his betrayal at the hands of his brothers, through his descent into slavery and then rise to power in Egypt, and to his ultimate reunion and reconciliation with his family.

The arc of the story stretches across all fourteen chapters, with rising action and falling action, or beginning, middle, and end, just like any complete narrative. When reading lectionary-sized excerpts from this portion of Genesis, it is best to think of them as scenes from a larger narrative rather than free-standing, complete units.

The opening scene of the Joseph cycle is set in Canaan, which is, of course, the Promised Land. Ever since the first utterance of the promise of land and descendants to Abraham in Genesis 12, the book has told tales of obstacle after obstacle threatening to thwart the promise: dangerous foreign kings, barren women, and famine, just to name a few.1

The Joseph cycle will present another obstacle to the realization of that promise by taking the people of Israel out of Canaan to live in Egypt, where they will eventually become enslaved. At this early point in the narrative, however, Genesis 37-50 looks like a family drama rather than a political one.

“Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children … ” (37:3a). Parental favoritism is nothing new to stories in Genesis. At Genesis 22:2, God describes Isaac to Abraham as “your son, your only son, the one you love,” despite the fact that Abraham has another son, Ishmael.

The theme of favoritism is even more pronounced in the stories of Jacob and Esau, where Rebekah conspires with her favorite son Jacob to finagle the blessing from Isaac’s favorite son Esau. The narrative again uses the term love (Hebrew ’hb) to describe that favoritism: “Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob” (Genesis 25:28). Especially striking in the Joseph story is the way that Israel’s (i.e., Jacob’s) love for Joseph inspires the opposite emotion, hatred, in Joseph’s brothers (37:4).

Although verses 5-11 are excluded from the appointed readings, they highlight the escalating animosity between Joseph and his brothers, and preachers may want to summarize the missing material or else read the chapter in full. The narrative first reports that the brothers hate (Hebrew sn’) Joseph because Jacob loves him the most (verse 4).

They then hate Joseph “even more” because he has special dreams (verse 5), and yet again they hate Joseph “even more because of his dreams and his words” (verse 8). He predicts his whole family will one day bow to him, and he is obnoxiously delighted to report that information. Even Jacob takes Joseph to task for this hubris (verse 10).

The material missing from the lectionary readings highlights Joseph’s culpability in the growing rift in his relationship with his brothers. The dysfunction in Joseph’s family stems not from any one source, but rather from the brokenness of all parties.

Verses 12-28 relate the course of events that results in Joseph’s being carried down to Egypt. While verses 5-11 allowed some negative characterization of Joseph alongside his brothers, verses 12-28 highlight the perversity of the brothers alone. One detail in particular shows the brothers to be especially callous.

Immediately after tossing Joseph into the pit, which specifically is described as having no water (verse 24), such that Joseph will not drown but will also not be able to drink, the brothers immediately sit down to enjoy their lunch (verse 25). The juxtaposition of these two actions is reminiscent of Esther 3:15, right after edicts have been issued for the destruction of the Jews: “The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.” They show neither compassion nor remorse.

In keeping with the narrative art of the story, verses 19-20 poignantly foreshadow the ending of the Joseph cycle: “They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’”

What will become of his dreams, of course, is that they will come true. Joseph’s power in Egypt will save the lives of his family, who will bow down to him. This disturbing episode of violence and betrayal becomes the means by which Israel’s descendants will survive a terrible famine. A sense of the Providence of God runs powerfully through the Joseph cycle, no more clearly than in Joseph’s words in the closing chapter: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Genesis 50:20).

Discussions of the providence of God go hand-in-hand with questions of theodicy, and preachers should navigate the topic with care.2 Even so, the narrative deliberately links multiple incidents in the memory of the people of Israel; one can think of the story of Joseph and the pit as the smallest arc of a rainbow, or one circle nested among many rings of concentric circles.

Examples of other, wider arcs in the rainbow include the Joseph cycle as whole, the ancestral narratives throughout Genesis, and the broader story of the promise to Abraham, the journeys into and out of Egypt, and the entry into the Promise Land. The sinewy connections between this week’s brief scenes from the Joseph cycle and the larger biblical story of promise and fulfillment inspire readers to contemplate the ways that the stories of suffering and triumph are interlinked and to consider the presence of God in the midst of good and bad alike.


1 For more on the promise and its obstacles in Genesis, see W. Brueggemann and T. Linafelt, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (2nd ed.; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 65-73.

2 The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney’s 2011 Working Preacher commentary on Genesis 45:1-15 is one especially helpful discussion of how not to minimize the suffering in the Joseph narrative or to assume God causes suffering in order to bring about a “greater good.”


Commentary on Psalm 85:8-13

James K. Mead

This psalm lection contains a magnificent constellation of biblical terms, portraying them with a striking intimacy that catches modern readers off guard: “righteousness and peace will kiss each other” (verse 10)?

This psalm lection contains a magnificent constellation of biblical terms, portraying them with a striking intimacy that catches modern readers off guard: “righteousness and peace will kiss each other” (verse 10)? We’re more inclined to think of the Song of Songs with a phrase like that! And the theological content: one could write pages of notes on word studies alone!

The presentation of these qualities and actions also provides ample resources for worship leaders to design services that lead God’s people in praise and reflection. There is, however, a significant challenge when these six verses are isolated from their context, and conscientious interpreters need to integrate the theological insights of verses 8-13 with their larger literary setting, without appearing to preach the whole psalm.1

The interpretive difficulty of the psalm begins with the first verse: what precisely is the historical setting behind the words, “Lord, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob” (verse 1, NRSV)? And, if we can find a sufficiently clear answer to that question, what relationship does that context have to the profound theological declarations of the second half of the psalm?

Occasionally a scholar has suggested a pre-exilic date,2 but most commentators identify exilic or postexilic settings,3 depending on whether the key Hebrew term šûb (verses 1, 3, 4, 6, 8) is a reference to the Babylonian exile (“restored the captivity,” KJV, NASB) or a more general restoration of fortunes, as in the NRSV citation earlier in this paragraph. In my view a preacher can be non-committal about nearness to the exile but at least ought to call attention to the repetition and wordplay of “restore,” “turn,” and “return.”4

The psalmist interprets God’s restoration of Israel’s fortunes (verse 1) as a turning toward his people (verse 3), in particular, to those who turn to him” (verse 8). It is this group of “faithful” who are able to experience the manifestation of divine life within their own lives. God’s character, while consistent in its fundamental goodness to all (see Psalm 145), is most appreciated and enjoyed by persons of faith who grasp the wonder of God’s steadfast love (hesed) and begin to practice it in human relationships.

These literary connections are vital because even a careful engagement with verses 8-13 might be tempted to maneuver around the concrete historical reality of Israelite experience with the God. A fruitful Christian reading of this psalm might be to place the doctrine of salvation from Romans 10:5-15 (epistle reading for today) in conversation with Israel’s understanding of God’s grand purposes for their nation and the cosmos. But when focusing mainly on Psalm 85:8-13, I see at least these three considerations for interpretation.

First, with respect to the terms of verse 10 (steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace), there is great value and necessity in exploring their meaning individually; but there is a greater need to communicate the way they work together as part of a theologically significant semantic field. The composite picture of their “meeting” and “kissing,” “springing up” and “looking down,” illustrates a world in harmony, especially in the arena of human justice.

Just as the attributes of God are not in conflict with each other, the biblical vision of re-creation is that the same qualities would become fully integrated in human relationships.5 When they are not held together, the prophets indicted the people: “Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance … uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking … (Isaiah 59:14-15).

Second, given several references to the “land” or “ground” (verses 1, 9, 11, 12), we cannot miss the connection between the justice enjoined by God’s law and the renewal of the earth envisioned by the prophets. Hosea 2:19-20 contains a cluster of terms similar to those in Psalm 85:10-11, and it is explicit about the creational impact when humankind lives in harmony with itself and its creator.

Reminiscent of the creation story in Genesis 12 and the Noahic covenant in Genesis 9:8-17, Hosea declares: “I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land … ” (2:18).6

Finally, building on the first two points, this psalm offers an eschatological perspective as a word of hope to the people who have prayed in verse 4: “Restore us again, O God of our salvation.” This word from God (verse 8, “let me hear what God the Lord will speak”) does not have to be taken itself as an oracle of God, but it certainly draws on oracles such as those in Isaiah 40-55.7

This prophetically-minded psalmist gives us language of hope before the prayer has been completely answered. That hope also arises at the conclusion of Psalm 23, where the faithful one is pursued by the same tob and hesed celebrated by Psalm 85.8

The desire for “restored fortunes” often had an eschatological sense as well as a temporal returning to the land from captivity.9 Christian worship, too, is an occasion for hearing the word of the gospel break into the midst of loss, famine, war, and all sorts of disasters. Although we are certain of the reality of Christ’s present lordship over heaven and earth, this psalm’s provides language for trusting that heaven and earth will someday meet and kiss, uniting God with creation (Revelation 21:1-4), and finally remedying “the ongoing brokenness of the world and the sinfulness of persons and of our society.”10


1 The entire psalm is read in Year C (Proper 12 – 10th Sunday after Pentecost), but the two other occasions focus on the psalm’s conclusion.

2 Mitchell Dahood, Psalms II: 51-100, Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Inc. 1968), 286.

3 John Goldingay, Psalms: Volume 2: Psalms 42-89 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 605; Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, trans. Herbert Hartwell (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), 571; Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100 (Waco, TX: Word Biblical Commentary, 1990), 368.

4 For a complete study of OT examples of this images, see John M. Bracke, “šûb šebût: A Reappraisal” ZAW 97 (1985): 233-244.

5 Geoffrey W. Grogan, Psalms, Two Horizons (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 151; James Luther Mays. Psalms, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 277.

6 Konrad Schaefer, Psalms, Berit Olam (Collegeville, MD: Liturgical Press, 2001), 210.

7 Mays, 277.

8 I owe this insight to Tara Woodward.

9 Bracke, 234.

10 J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms” in NIB, vol 4 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 1018.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 10:5-15

J.R. Daniel Kirk

This week’s passage is the third in a series of three arguments Paul makes, beginning in 9:30, in an effort to distinguish between the “works of the law” that Israel pursued (and thereby failed to receive the gift of righteousness in Christ) and the “faith” by which the Gentiles are embraced as part of the family of God.

One of the most important developments in Paul scholarship over the past thirty-five years comes into play here. It is the recognition that at the heart of Paul’s faith versus works distinction is not two different ways in which humans might respond to God.

Instead, “works” specifically has to do with doing the works of Torah — actions that demarcate Israel as God’s faithful people. “Faith” has to do first and foremost with the faithfulness of Jesus in his death, and then the response of trusting in Jesus as God’s anointed Lord.

For Paul, faith is known by obedience (Romans 1:5; 16:26) and even work (1 Thessalonians 1:3)! When he contrasts faith and works, his goal is not to get people to stop doing things, but to recognize that God has acted in and through Christ and to act accordingly.

Romans 10:5 begins with the word “for.” Paul is giving the reason for what he said immediately prior. Negatively, he had said that Israelites sought to establish their own righteousness rather than being subject to God’s (10:3). Positively, he had said that the law’s goal was Christ, who is the source of this divine righteousness for all who believe (10:4).

The startling claim that Paul makes repeatedly through this section of the letter is that the purpose of the law is not to tell people what to do. Instead, its purpose to refer people to the Christ who was to come and has now arrived. This is precisely how Paul interprets scripture in Romans 10:5-10.

Parallel to 9:31-32 and 10:3, in 10:5 Paul depicts righteousness that comes from doing what the law says. This is one of two possibilities in play in the Old Testament itself. Moses articulates law-based righteousness — something Paul claims that he himself had while a zealous Pharisee (Philippians 3:6).

Paul’s shocking claim is that this law righteousness, which he had, is not, in fact, the means by which God is marking out people as God’s own either now or at the final judgment.

Instead, God’s people are marked out by their allegiance to the Christ story as God’s great act of salvation.

Paul then moves to “the righteousness of faith,” a voice that speaks from the Law (Deuteronomy 30:12-13), but that is now reread in light of Paul’s own gospel proclamation.

What had originally betokened the arrival of the Torah (no one has to ascend into heaven to bring it down, or go to the far side of the sea to fetch it for us, Deuteronomy 30:12-13) now proclaims the gospel of the risen Christ.

The righteousness of faith says that God has been righteous in sending the Messiah, and God has been faithful to this Messiah in raising him from the dead. If God saves through the resurrection of Jesus, then the scriptures bespeaking God’s faithful provision for God’s people must be read as pointing beyond the Torah itself to the Christ who has now come.

And so “righteousness of faith” is first and foremost about God’s faithfulness in sending the promised Messiah. Inseparable from this, “righteousness of faith” is about Christ’s faithfulness in dying for our justification. Only then is it about our appropriate response in trusting the message we have heard.

Deuteronomy 30:14 provides the framework for people’s response to the gospel, as it says that the word is near — in the people’s hearts, on their mouths.

The heart has to trust that God has raised Jesus from the dead and the lips have to confess the result of this resurrection (verse 9), namely, that Jesus has been enthroned at Lord over all things (see Romans 1:3-4).

Belief and confession are then mapped onto other OT promises (9:11-13).

Belief, which Paul has connected specifically to resurrection, is tied to a promise in Isa 28:16: one who believes will not be put to shame (Romans 9:11). Resurrection itself is an overcoming of shame — the shame of crucifixion in particular, but also overcoming the more general shame that God did not act to save God’s faithful servant from death. It is God’s powerful vindication of Jesus and those who are in Christ.

Paul’s train of thought reaches its climax with a return to the question of Jews, Gentiles, and the Law. Since anyone who believes will not be put to shame, this means that access to eternal honor and salvation is open to all who align themselves with the Jesus story: everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved (Romans 9:12-13).

This time the quote is from Joel 2:32, and Paul interprets it as referring to the Lord Jesus. As Paul wrestles with the fate of Israel, he cannot let go of his conviction that the Christ event changes everything:

  • what God’s fidelity to humanity looks like (the sending of a crucified messiah whom God raises from the dead)
  • the definition of the “righteousness” needed to be justified before God (coming not from Torah observance but through the resurrected Christ)
  • the identity of the “Lord” who must be called upon for final salvation (the Christ enthroned at God’s right hand)
  • and thus the identity of the people of God (not those circumscribed by Torah, but by trust in Jesus the resurrected Messiah)

The “beautiful feet” of those who proclaim the gospel thus bring with them a wide-open invitation to find in Christ everything that God has sworn to be and to do for God’s covenant people.