Lectionary Commentaries for July 13, 2014
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Warren Carter

Since chapter 4:17, Matthew’s Jesus has manifested the empire of God as the agent of God’s saving presence (1:21-23).

Some have received Jesus’ ministry through his proclamation, teaching, healings, and exorcisms, experiencing the merciful transformation of God’s intervention. But while some join with him in doing “the will of my Father in heaven” (12:50), others, such as the unrepentant cities, societal leaders, scribes, and Pharisees (11:16-24; 12:1-42), reject Jesus’ ministry.

Matthew 13, comprising seven parables, stops the forward movement of the Gospel story to reflect on this emerging division. The parables catalogue diverse responses, offer some explanations for them, affirm the readers’ positive responses, and illustrate how God’s empire is at work in the world. They also challenge the audience afresh to continue to live on the basis of God’s empire in the midst of various difficulties until its full purposes are accomplished.

Beginning in 13:3, the word “parable” occurs twelve times in the chapter. The word derives from a Greek word meaning “to throw alongside.” That is, basic to the parable genre is the notion of comparison; one entity is set alongside something else to be illuminated by the comparison. Thus “the empire of the heavens” is “thrown alongside” or compared to and illuminated by the situations that each parable depicts (13:24, 31, 33, 44-45, 47).

The first parable takes place “beside the sea” of Galilee where Jesus called the first disciples (4:18-22). Jesus addresses the crowds with a parable (13:2), then offers the disciples an interpretation in 13:18-23. This first parable is unusual in that it does not begin, as most of the other parables will, with an explicit comparison introduced in an opening formula: “The empire of heaven may be compared to … ” Rather the parable immediately narrates its situation.

The parable presents a scenario involving a male peasant farmer. This scenario was familiar to the gospel’s largely rural audience who knew well the ways of its agriculturally-based society. The sower sows seeds which fall into four different types of ground with quite different consequences.

In verse 4, seed that falls on a path is eaten by birds. In verses 5-6, seed that falls among rocks sprouts quickly but, lacking depth of soil, dries up in the sun. In verse 7, seed that falls among the thorns is choked by them. But in verse 8, seed that falls into good soil produces an abundant crop.

The parable ends with an appeal — “let anyone with ears, listen” (13:9). To have ears is an image that points beyond literal hearing to discerning the significance of Jesus’ words. Jesus, though, offers no help to his audience to understand the significance of the scene he has presented.

The disciples, though, ask Jesus confidentially about why he speaks in parables (13:10). After offering an explanation that emphasizes the divisive effect of the parables (13:11-17), he sets about explaining “the parable of the sower” (13:18). Interestingly, while he refers to the parable as “the parable of the sower,” the explanation does not focus on the sower. It does not even identify the sower explicitly.

Yet in identifying the seed as “the word of the kingdom” (13:18), Jesus offers a clear hint that the sower is himself. The phrase “word of the kingdom” resembles the description of Jesus’s work as “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” (4:23; 9:35).

Jesus’ explanation, instead, focuses on the fate of the seed in different types of ground. These scenarios represent various responses to Jesus’ ministry. The seed that falls on the path represents those who hear but do not understand Jesus’ proclamation (13:19). That is, they do not discern in Jesus’ words and actions the presence of God’s empire (4:17) or saving presence.

But Jesus goes on to say that this non-understanding does not only reflect their dull hearts (13:15). It is simultaneously the work of the devil, the evil one (6:13), who resists God’s purposes by “snatching away” Jesus’ word from the human heart. The heart is the center of a person’s willing, thinking, knowing, deciding and doing, the center of their commitments and way of life.

The parable does not pause to explain why the devil seems to be more powerful in influencing the human heart than God’s word.

The seed that falls on the rocky ground sprouts quickly but dies in the sun, exemplifies the person who readily receives Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom but does not endure as a disciple (13:21). In this scenario, the presence of “trouble and persecution” causes the person to stumble. This trouble comes “because of the word.” The person does not understand that God’s empire threatens and conflicts with dominant cultural values and structures. Nor can they resist. It is inevitable that the world “strikes back.”

The seed that is choked by thorns represents the person who hears Jesus’ proclamation but “the cares of the world and lure of wealth choke the word” and bring it to naught (13:23). The “cares of the world” signify an anxiety over daily life. This anxiety is expressed in attempts to secure life without reference to God. “The lure of wealth” exercises a similar hold over the human heart when material gain is the goal and definition of human success. With these commitments, the word about God’s rule is not able to break through and nourish new life. It yields nothing.

After these three scenarios addressing negative responses to Jesus’ preaching, the fourth scenario concerns the seed sown on good soil (13:23). This seed and soil represent those who hear and understand the word. Their hearts, the center of their very being, embrace the good news. They fight off the devil. They endure difficulties and persecutions. They are not defined by worldly cares and wealth. They join the community formed by and committed to God’s empire and marked by doing God’s will (12:46). So they live fruitful lives, signified by the abundant crop.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 55:10-13

Samuel Giere

These last few verses of Isaiah 55 offer an image of new creation with the natural world serving as a metaphor for the life-giving movement and effectiveness of the word of the Lord.

This passage is a foundation for understanding God’s relationship to Christian proclamation.

In the interest of the integrity of the text, reconsider the boundaries of this particular pericope. Insofar as the lectionary serves the church and not vice versa, consider including verses 6-9, which sets the stage what follows.

Israel is addressed with the invitation to seek the Lord, forsaking wicked ways and unrighteous thoughts (Isaiah 55:6-7a). Lest this be confused with morality, the text reaches past morality into the heart of the problem. Reminiscent of the First Commandment, the prophet’s hearers are encouraged to turn away from that which draws them away from the living God and toward death. As if floating just in the background, we can almost hear the beginning of Exodus 20: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3). The Lord who delivered from the Israelites from Egypt is also the Lord who now delivers from Babylon.1

Yhwh, the God of return and pardon, invites repentance — a turning back toward the living God: “… let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:7b).It is not that God’s people received something other than what their idolatry deserved; but more centrally it is that God’s mercy and pardon triumph over God’s wrath.

God’s expectation of complete devotion — you shall have no other gods before me! — is not softened. The emphasis, however, is shifted from judgment to mercy — from the human turning away toward other gods toward the Lord’s resilient, merciful refusal to turn away from the Lord’s people.

Verses 8-9 serve to put things into proper perspective: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,… For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Lest the hearer get tangled up in a lack of role clarity, the Lord is the Lord, maker of heaven and earth (cf. Isaiah 40:12ff), and the hearer is not. This is not to downplay the importance of any individual or humanity in general. It is, rather, to put things into proper perspective, because what comes next depends on this role clarity.

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).

Here the nature world illustrates the Lord’s wild claim. The heart of the image here is life. We are talking here about moisture — rain and snow that come down and water. The earth is not the life-giver in this illustration. It is the rain and snow, moisture from above, that causes the earth to burgeon, “giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater.” When the earth does not receive this moisture, life shrivels-up. What is green turns brown. Seeds do not sprout and grow. Ask any farmer, and she will tell you the importance of rain and snow to life.

And so the natural illustration turns towards its ultimate purpose: “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth,” says Yhwh. This is not just a poetic, theological glimpse of the water cycle. This is about God’s word that gives life, that does what it is intended to do, that accomplishes, that succeeds in God’s purpose. This is God’s word that does not return empty.

Earlier in Deutero-Isaiah, it reads: “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever” (Isaiah 40:8). The power of the Word of God is not to be underestimated (Ecclesiastes 3:14). Yet, in a world that clamors for measurable results, how often do we preachers doubt the promise: “so shall my word be that goes out of my mouth”? How often do we want to give our hearers something to do beyond trusting in the promise?2

Consider the comments from Martin Luther (1483-1546) on Isaiah 55.10:

This paragraph is spoken in part for the confutation of the stubborn, in part for the consolation of the weak. For consolation, because the Word seems so weak and foolish that there appears to be no strength in it. How can it be believed that all the power, victory, and triumph of God are in the word of a feeble human mouth? And so He comes to meet this scandal of the weak and the stubborn. For all the enemies say, ‘Do you really thing that everything depends on the Word? We must act, work, and think.’ Here the text confounds their thoughts. He does not say, ‘Our works and our thoughts do this,’ but, ‘My Word.’ It is therefore a consolation for the purpose of listing up the weak, lest they be offended at the lowliness of God, who has every victory in His Word.

At the same time He provides an illustration: As they come down. Rain and snow are not useless, but they water the earth, giving seed to the sower. The rain can achieve everything for the earth. ‘So also My Word accomplishes everything.’ The effect is the same. For neither one is understood. Reason says, ‘The strength belongs not to the rain and snow but to the earth.’ But when we experience the absence of rain, we see what the earth produces. So He takes away the glory of the earth and shows that it is not the earth that does it but that it is accomplished by the rain. So our building and promotion of the church is not the result of our works but of the Word of God which we preach… Here you see that everything is produced by the Word.3

The Word (now deliberately capitalized within the horizon of Christian proclamation) of God accomplishes what God purposes — repentance, faith, and salvation. Christian proclamation participates in this work of God. We don’t add to this work or validate it or accomplish it. This is God’s work done by way of God’s Word proclaimed.

“For you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”4 So wild is the promise and work of God’s Word.


1 Cf. Isaiah 40:1-10.

2 Recall Romans 10:17.

3 Martin Luther, Lectures on Isaiah: Chapters 40-66 (Luthers Works, 17; Saint Louis: Concordia, 1972) 257-258.

4 Isaiah 55, what Claus Westermann called the “epilogue”to Deutero-Isaiah, cf. Isaiah 40-66 (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969) 286.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 25:19-34

Amy Merrill Willis

Genesis 25:19-34 begins a group of narratives that biblical commentators usually call “the Jacob Cycle” and which the Hebrew Bible calls “the toledot (generations or descendants) of Isaac” (25:19).

Both of these labels convey important information about the stories found in Genesis 25-36, but neither gives the full picture. Missing from these titles are the rest of Jacob’s family — the formidable figure of Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, his older brother, Esau, and Jacob’s primary wives, the sisters Rachel and Leah.

The biblical writers understood family to be the foundational unit of society and religious experience, and they understood this particular family (beginning with Abraham and Sarah) to be the foundation of ancient Israelite society and religion. As such, these stories explore not only the complications of domestic ties, they also explore the connection between family dynamics, social customs, and covenantal life.

Like many of our own domestic dramas, the stories of the Israelite ancestors are replete with infertility and problem pregnancies and difficult births. Pregnancy is a condition that is always fraught with meaning and risk. In this case, the situation of Rebekah and Isaac is itself an echo of Abraham and Sarah’s earlier difficulties. Infertility threatens the family line with biological extinction and jeopardizes the promises of the ancestral covenant (see Genesis 17:1-8) until God intervenes after a lengthy period.

Rebekah’s resultant pregnancy means that the covenant promises and the family line will survive, against the odds, but hers turns out to be a problem pregnancy in more ways than one. Rebekah’s condition creates such discomfort for her that she is not sure what the outcome will be. A word from the Divine informs her that she is not just gestating twins who are struggling within her, she is also gestating two different nations fighting for dominance.

As it turns out, these twins are not identical and they don’t share a special bond that involves a secret language and a fierce devotion to each other. Quite the opposite. At birth, Esau and Jacob each possess characteristics that signal physical and personality differences that will lead them into conflict. Esau is born hairy and red, characteristics that link him to the people of Edom, who the writer of this passage understands to be descended from Esau.

These characteristics also link to Esau to the outdoors and he turns out to be brawny and skillful at hunting. Jacob, who is destined to be the progenitor of the 12 Israelite tribes, is born second. He is smooth-skinned and comes out with his hand around Esau’s foot. The detail is not gratuitous; it indicates Jacob’s desire to upset Esau’s status as the firstborn son and to subvert the social customs and expectations that would favor the firstborn.

The social status of these twin brothers is complicated by the Ancient Israelite expectation that the first- born son should be favored. The firstborn son typically takes on his father’s profession (Cain becomes a farmer, like Adam in Genesis 4:2), succeeds his father as the family patriarch, and inherits a larger portion of the family goods than his other brothers (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). These privileges make up the birthright (25:31) and collectively provide a level of social and material security that the younger brother would not enjoy. The younger sibling would have to depend on the mercy of the older brother or make his own way in the world. It may be that these customs developed to create consistency and fairness in families, to prevent parental favoritism from running amok. When the older and younger brothers in question are twins born just minutes apart, however, then the custom seems a bit more arbitrary and unfair.

Jacob is determined, even before birth, to have the birthright and the blessing of the firstborn. But since he is not the outdoorsy type, he uses brains, not brawn, to gain it. Jacob is a trickster, an underdog character who uses his wit and cunning to change the status quo. As a man who prefers the tents to the hunt, Jacob knows how to cook and he uses this skill and his knowledge of Esau’s weakness to trade some red soup for Esau’s birthright. It is a trade that Esau willingly makes.

The story of Jacob and Esau has profoundly influenced western literature’s treatment of sibling rivalry and parental favoritism. Katherine Paterson’s award winning novel, Jacob Have I Loved, about twin sisters,is just one fine example of how the riches of this story can be brought to bear for contemporary readers. Nevertheless, it is often difficult for Christian readers to appreciate these as religious narratives. Seen through the lens of a traditional Protestant or Catholic piety, there seems to be little about Jacob to inspire us.

When I teach these narratives, my students often think that Jacob victimizes Esau. They read Esau’s comment in verse 32 quite literally and think that Jacob is trading on Esau’s dire situation. In fact, Esau has just come in from hunting. He is not starving to death, he just prefers immediate gratification over the long term benefits of his birthright. His family inheritance, which in this story is tied to the covenant promises, means little to him.

American Christians have been taught to correlate piety with traditional personal virtues like selflessness and guilelessness. Moreover, we tend to view our personal successes as rewards for our piety and virtues. But these stories challenge our first-world sensibilities by lifting up an otherwise disadvantaged character who must use guile and ambition to claim his status as a son of the covenant.

Esau may not value his familial and spiritual inheritance, but Jacob does. Moreover, Jacob doesn’t see any immediate reward for his efforts; it will be decades before he actually sees success. Jacob is not deterred by the prospect of delayed gratification.

These stories illuminate a different view of grace. God chose Jacob even before his birth, a choice that was clearly not based on Jacob’s merits or achievements. Indeed, this is one of many stories about siblings (see also Genesis 4; Genesis 21; Genesis 48; 1 Samuel 16; Luke 15:11-32) in which God acts contrary to the social custom of favoring the firstborn.

Firstborns are no more virtuous by the fact of being born first, but being born second in the ancient near eastern world made one an automatic underdog. These stories show that God seems to prefer underdogs and tricksters, something that might rankle conventional American notions of grace.


Commentary on Psalm 65:[1-8] 9-13

Walter C. Bouzard

Although the central section of this psalm is comprised of hymnic praise of God, the psalm as a whole suggests that the prayer exemplifies what Walter Brueggemann categorized as psalms of reorientation.

Psalms of reorientation are prayers uttered after the disarray and disorientation of life slips into the past. Like the ancient psalmist, we recognize and give thanks to God for the rescue for which we had longed and prayed.1 God answered the psalmist’s prayers and the psalmist is prepared to perform the vows he had vowed in his distress (verses 1-2), including, perhaps, the vow of an animal offering (compare verse 3 and Leviticus 4 and 5).

Nevertheless, for a psalm that ends with shouts and songs (verse 13), its opening reference to quiet tarrying is odd. English translations vary, but a rather literal rendition might read: “For you a still silence, [and] praise, O God in Zion; for you a payment of a vow” (author’s translation). The word translated “still silence” (dumiyyah) also appears in Psalm 62, which is a prayer of trust in God in the face of persecution. There the psalmist declares that “For God alone my soul waits in silence,” (verse 1) and with an imperative verbal form: “Only wait silently for God, O my soul” (verse 5, author’s translation).

An insight of both of these psalms is that silent, expectant waiting for God to act often is a part of our life with God. In a culture such as ours, namely one that is characterized by frantic noise and busyness and by the din of machines and the glare of large and small screens, the preacher could do worse than to prepare him- or herself to preach with some intentional still silence, listening for God.

The psalmist’s backwards glance into his past is, nevertheless, a brief one. However long his silence, after verse three the poem turns to praise that culminates with a jubilant declaration that the meadows and valleys shout and sing for joy.

The psalmist first expresses happiness that God chooses to bring people into God’s presence found specifically in the courts of God’s house, the temple (verse 4). The text makes it crystal clear that the approach to God’s presence is a function of God’s choice and of God bringing the worshiper close (“you choose,” “you bring near”).

As always this side of Eden, proximity to God is by the grace and choice of God and not our own efforts. Unfortunately, the NRSV’s indicative “We shall be satisfied with the goodness…” does not reflect that satisfaction is also hoped for and ever dependent upon God’s gracious decision. Indeed, the NRSV disguises the text’s cohortative construction of verse 4b. So with the psalmist we pray, “Let us be sated fully by the goodness of your house, your holy temple” (author’s translation).

Beginning with verse 5, the psalmist focuses his praise of God on the role of God in the creation. Water images abound since God’s salvation and deliverance include divine control of chaos, depicted by otherwise unchecked billows.

A reminder of ancient Israel’s conception of the cosmos aids the interpretation of the balance of this psalm.

Hebrews of antiquity thought the sky was a solid, translucent dome erected by God to hold out the waters of chaos (Genesis 1:6-8; Job 37:18; Psalm 148:4). The dome was held up at the extreme ends of the flat earth by mountains (Psalm 104:1-4; Job 26:10), a conceptualization that explains the present psalmist’s praise of God’s establishing the mountains (verse 6a), “girding [them] with might” (verse 6b, author’s translation).2

The dome had windows or floodgates that God opened in order to make it rain or snow (Genesis 7:11; 8:2; Psalm 78:23). The surface of the dome was populated by luminaries — the moon and stars by night, the sun by day — that moved across the face of the dome to provide the appropriate light for nighttime or daytime (Genesis 1:17-18). Psalm 65 suggests that the dome had entranceways (motsa’ey) through which entered the daytime and night (verse 8).

When, therefore, this psalmist speaks of God as “the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas,” (verse 5b) and of God’s having established the mountains (verse 6), he has in view divine mastery and management of the world. That authority is characterized by God’s control of chaotic waters (see Genesis 1; Psalms 89:10; 93:3-4; 104:5-9; Job 38:11). Whether roaring seas or tumultuous peoples, none are a match for God’s power (verse 7).

More than control the chaos, however, God subordinates chaos water and employs it for God’s own good intentions. God converts the waters of chaos to an instrument of shalom, producing grain to feed God’s people (verses 8, 13). Freshly plowed soil, with its sharply furrowed edges, are softened by gentle rain and readied for growth (verse 10).

It is unclear if the wagon tracks of verse 11 refer to the earth’s furrows in verse 10 or to an image of God’s chariot cutting through the clouds (see Psalms 18:10-12; 68:4; 104:3), releasing rich, fructifying rain. In any case, the image means to convey luxuriant abundance. The wagon tracks overflow with “richness,” (dsn). The word means fatness or fat ashes, but more broadly it signals rich satisfaction and fullness that comes with the presence of God (see Psalms 63:6; 36:9).

The psalm concludes with a summons that the meadows and valleys, covered with abundance in the form of flocks and grain, might shout and sing for joy. As shouting and singing were characteristic of ancient Israel’s worship,the image intends to help us understand that the very creation worships God.

Several themes emerge as possible directions for preaching. The motion of the psalm from quiet, expectant waiting to a summons for the creation itself to join the choir of praise suggests that the journey from expectation to exaltation is just that — a journey. Many of us, perhaps most of us, find ourselves somewhere in the middle of the journey. We recognize that God in Christ has answered our prayers.

In our baptisms we have been claimed by God and brought into the richness of God’s presence. Indeed, we have been incorporated into the body of Christ. And yet, for many of us, perhaps most of us, chaotic powers still affect us. Whether the chaos is a still unstable economy, a newly unstable marriage, grief, illness, loneliness, or a sense that our lives are adrift in a formless chaotic sea, our God remains master of the tumult.

Or, better, we can confidently claim that this God has joined us in our tumult. If we find ourselves awash, we know that God in Christ has likewise suffered as we do. Christ experienced loss and being lost to the depth that we have and more, and yet he comes to us with the firm intention to stay with us until we arrive at that valley where even we, the flock of his pasture, will to shout and sing with joy.


On psalms of reorientations, see Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 123-167. Brueggemann regards Psalm 65 as a thanksgiving song of the community, albeit he notes that “there is something of a mismatch between the subject of verses 1-5a and the doxology that follows” (136).

Reading this unique niphal masculine singular participle with an active voice rather than the usual passive or reflexive. The niphal does allow an active sense for some verbs (e.g,, nchm, “repent”). Moreover, the verb ‘zr does appear as a reflexive (hithpael) in Psalm 93:1 and Isaiah 8:9 and 9:8. Thus, participles of both stitches refer to God’s action upon the mountains:

mkyn    hrym    bkchw  
n’ar  [hrym]  bgbwrh 

See Psalms 71:23; 81:1; Isa 12:6; 24:14; 42:11; 44:23; 54:1; Zephaniah 3:14.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:1-11

L. Ann Jervis

Until this point in Romans, Paul has taken his hearers through the “shadowlands” of the faith.

He has described the context in which the righteousness of God has been revealed (Romans 1:16-32). That context is that all people, whether Jew or Gentile have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Paul claims that in such a context the revelation of God’s righteousness is available from faith for faith (Romans 1:17). Paul has said this has always been the case. Even Abraham was reckoned righteous not by following Law, but by faith (Romans 4:3).

The righteousness of God that is revealed in the Gospel allows for liberation from sin and death, and from sin’s destructive use of the Torah. Unfortunately, this does not mean, as Paul made clear in chapter 6 and 7, that sin is obliterated for those who have faith in Jesus Christ. Paul sees that in the life of the Christian, sin still has an influence. His direction to believers is to not give sin any power, but to consider themselves dead to sin (6:11). [Note that Paul does not claim that sin itself is dead].

By the time Paul gets to chapter 8 of Romans, he has described in graphic and dramatic detail the “shadowlands” of the Gospel; the darkness into which the light of the Gospel has shone and the challenge that that light has to stay bright.

At the beginning of chapter 8, Paul focuses on the Gospel apart from the shadowy edges that it must contend with. With a ringing and positive and strong voice Paul says, with conviction, “so it is, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” He is saying what he has said before, but he is saying it one more time with feeling. And he is saying it without qualification.

Humanity’s problem, which he has described so poignantly and powerfully — the problem that there is condemnation for all humanity because of Adam’s trespass (Romans 5:16); this problem is solved by being “in Christ Jesus.” The solution to humanity’s problem is being “in Christ Jesus.” Paul has said earlier that the solution is faith. Here he describes what faith means. Faith means being “in Christ Jesus.” It is not simply putting faith in Christ, it is being in Christ.

Paul said something similar in earlier passages. In chapter 6, Paul talked about being buried with Christ in baptism; in chapter 7, Paul talked about belonging to Christ (7:4). Here Paul uses the phrase being “in Christ Jesus.”

The faith about which Paul is talking is much more than intellectual assent to propositions about Jesus Christ; it is more than loyalty to Christ; it is more than following Jesus. Just as the Spirit is an eco-system — a location — in which Paul believes we can live (Romans 8:9), so is Christ

Christ is a being in whom believers are. And in that being — in Christ — there is no condemnation.

The problem that began with Adam is resolved for those who “in Christ Jesus.” Paul tries to explain the mechanics of this remarkable solution. The law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has liberated believers from the law of sin and death (8:2).

In the reading we had last week, Paul talked about the war of the laws. There is, Paul says, a battle between the law of God and the law of sin (Romans 7:22-23). Here in chapter 8, Paul says something similar. The law of the Spirit of life is opposed to the law of sin and death. 

Law here is almost certainly not simply Torah, although it may include the Jewish Law in a certain sort of way. Law rather refers to the structures of reality. Paul thinks there are two realities, two worlds to which humanity can belong. There is the reality, the cosmos of sin and death in which the Torah is unable to control sin and to bring life — because sin is stronger than Torah’s commands.

And there is the reality, the cosmos of the Spirit and Christ. The reality of the Spirit/Christ is structured by the law of the Spirit of life — it is all about life. The reality of sin and death is structured by sin and death, and is all about those two entities.

Paul believes that only in the alternative reality created by Christ’s death and resurrection — the reality of “in Christ” — can the Torah be fulfilled (8:4). Paul is giving his hearers eyes to see where they are living. They are those who are “in Christ Jesus.”

Paul is seeking to help his hearers leave behind their old identities which were shaped by the structures of sin and death. He wants them to open their eyes and to see the beautiful reality created by Christ’s death and resurrection. They are living in this alternative cosmos because they have believed and so been brought into Christ.

Being “in Christ” means that believers are not ruled by sin, not ruled by death. Believers have been transported to a new place where life and not death is in charge and where there is no condemnation because sin is not the master.

The challenge for believers is to open their eyes, to see and live the gift of being in this new place.