Lectionary Commentaries for July 2, 2017
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 10:40-42

Colin Yuckman

Here is the passage for the anonymous disciple, the one who does hard work but is hardly ever recognized.

This passage continues the trajectory of the mission directives at the start of Matthew 10. Preceding our passage are practical instructions on how to conduct the mission (verses 5-10), how to deal with mixed reception (verses 11-15), the promise of rejection and suffering (verses 16-23), the security of discipleship (verses 24-31), and the nature of the division which obedience to Jesus entails (verses 32-39).

Today’s little passage, verses 40-42, circles back around to the question of reception.

Where there is a parallel with this passage, in verse 40, we notice that Mark (9:37) and Luke (9:48) both refer to welcoming a child in Jesus’ name as equivalent to welcoming Jesus. But Matthew is unique, leaving out a reference to “little one” until verse 42. Here instead, Jesus says “whoever welcomes you welcomes me.” The tight connection between Jesus and his apostles, established at the very beginning of the mission instructions (10:5-8), appears once more. To welcome Jesus, is to welcome the one whom he has sent, and to welcome the one he has sent is to welcome the Messiah himself.

But our passage takes the question of reception further: How does reception of the apostles by others relate to the reception of Jesus whom they preach? To what degree is hospitality itself an indication of discipleship?

Jesus answers these questions with a string of clauses beginning “the one who…” (loves, verse 37; does not take up a cross, verse 38; finds, loses, verse 39). In our passage, the phrasing continues with “the one who receives…” (verses 40-41). Verbs of hospitality — “receive” is used six times, “take” is used twice — dominate these three verses. The hospitable treatment of one of Jesus’ servants earns one the reward typically reserved for the servant himself or herself. Those who supply the apostles’ work also deserve compensation. These are in some sense hypothetical clauses, not talking about anybody in particular. Instead, they highlight potential action and the positive and negative categories associated with this action.

By verse 42, however, we encounter a stronger conditional statement: “whoever would give even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple … none of these will lose their reward.” The emphasis in this final verse falls on the potential concrete action of a disciple, not merely on going out and proclaiming. The passage cannot help but recall the more famous words in Matthew 25:40: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it [fed, quenched, clothed, nursed, visited] to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

The rawness of Jesus’ words here should not be lost on us–simply a cup of water in the name of a disciple–and one’s reward is vouchsafed forever. The reward is not simply for the preachers and prophets among us but also for those whose calling is simply to pour the drinks and play the host(ess).

It is one of the great temptations in mission to think of it only or even primarily in terms of great missionaries of the past. We are drawn to heroic figures and their visible exploits. But as Paul especially was fond of reminding us, the body is comprised of interdependent parts that cannot function alone (1 Corinthians 12), even if some members are given credit out of proportion to their value to the whole. That is to say, the great missionaries tend to be over-recognized rather than overrated, and their support teams who make the mission possible through prayer, planning, and financial support are so often undervalued.

In his book Tipping Point, Malcom Gladwell popularized insights of social network theory in a chapter entitled “The Power of the Few.”1 He refers especially to the work of “social connectors and mavens” who enable the development of complex networks of people and ideas. In a movement like Christianity, such individuals were and are critical of its spread to the ends of the earth. It comes as no surprise, then, that Jesus takes time to emphasize the reception of the apostles in their mission.

The divine mission is as much about the unnamed people who provide a thirsty servant a cold drink of water as the familiar names that dot the pages of church histories. In fact, within the New Testament, we only have one narrative account of the church’s mission — the book of Acts — and in it we encounter many such “minor” characters. They are minor only in the sense that their contributions to God’s mission surely surpass the “air time” they receive: people like Ananias (the good one!), Simon the Tanner, Cornelius, Lydia, Prisca/Aquila, Sergius Paulus, and so on. Their hospitality and social connections were decisive for the spread of the Christian “Way.”

It may be an unconscious prejudice of historically clergy-dependent traditions that we tend to discount the roles of such people as somehow less missional. This would be a mistake and Jesus’ words represent a kind of prophetic rebuke. To understand God’s mission, and how the church reflects that mission, we need to celebrate the cupbearers of cold water. Those who hospitably receive the Lord’s emissaries may be just as influential if not more so in the spreading of God’s Kingdom. “None of these,” Jesus tells us, “will lose their reward” (10:42).

Jesus concludes his mission instructions with an implied invitation to all those “anonymous” saints who occupy our churches: you may not be the ones going, but never forget you too are sent.



1. Malcom Gladwell, Tipping Point (Boston: Back Bay Books, 2002): pp. 30-88.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 28:5-9

Alphonetta Wines

The test of truth and validity of a prophet’s words is whether or not the prophet’s words come to pass.

If the prophet’s words come to pass the seer is a true prophet. A prophet’s credibility increases dramatically if the prophet’s words come true. If the words do not come to pass, the speaker is a false prophet. It would seem to be a simple test.1

Simple, perhaps, but also costly, likely ending in the death of the false prophet(s). For Elijah, the test was on Mt. Carmel where he defeated 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:20-40). For Jeremiah, that test comes in the form of a conflict with just one man, Hananiah (Jeremiah 27-28). 

Understanding the conflict between Jeremiah and Hananiah requires taking a look at several key features of the story: (1) the difference between temple theology and covenant theology, (2) the image of the yoke, and (3) the tragedy of Zedekiah.

First, the clash between Jeremiah and Hananiah can be seen as an ideological/theological conflict between temple theology (a theology in which bad things could not, would not happen to Israel or its temple because of God’s promise of protection) and covenant theology (a theology of rewards for obedience and punishment for disobedience; similar to retribution theology). Temple theology is the communal side of retribution theology in which prosperity and a pleasant life are to be expected if one is obedient to God. Both are attempts at defining a predictable life. For centuries, since the time of David as recorded in 2 Samuel 7, temple theology promised God’s unswerving care to protect Jerusalem from each and every foe. Temple theology gave the false impression that Jerusalem was invincible.

Second, regarding the imagery of the yoke, in 27:2 God commands Jeremiah to make and wear a yoke around his neck to represent the notion that Babylon would be a heavy yoke on the necks of many nations including Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre, and Sidon. Babylon also would be a yoke around Judah’s neck if Judah rebelled against Babylon.

Third, mention of Zedekiah in verse 1 is a reminder that Hananiah’s story takes place during the days of Judah’s decline. Although Zedekiah is not a character in the story, Zedekiah’s story is the backdrop that compounds the tragedy of Hananiah. Zedekiah was Judah’s last king. Placed on the throne by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II, he reigned eleven years. Although Jeremiah advised against fighting the powerful Babylonian empire, Zedekiah rebelled and lost. Not only was the temple destroyed, his sons were killed before his eyes. His eyes were put out. He was taken captive to Babylon where he died in prison. 

Having heard nearly forty years of Jeremiah’s prophetic words of warning, Hananiah must have longed to hear some good news for a change. Hoping to encourage himself and others as well, Hananiah spoke words of peace that he and undoubtedly the nation longed to hear. In the presence of Jeremiah, priests, and the people of the community Hananiah made a public pronouncement diametrically opposed to the warnings that Jeremiah had been preaching for years. Rather than repeat Jeremiah’s dismal picture of crushing defeat and lengthy three-generation exile, Hananiah painted an idyllic picture that was likely to please his audience. Looking through rose-colored glasses he declared that not only would Babylon be defeated, but any exile would be short-lived, two years not seventy. Moreover, Judah’s treasures would be returned to the temple, Jehoiakin (the king who preceded Zedekiah) and other captives would return to the homeland. With one or two of the three waves of Babylon’s takeover complete, these words of a soon-to-be restoration would be good news to his listeners’ ears.

Jeremiah, however, would have nothing of it. He retorted that he hoped Hananiah’s vision would come to pass. However, standing in and on the prophetic office to which God called him, Jeremiah reminded his audience that through the ages, prophets spoke of hard times, difficult times, times of “war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms” (Jeremiah 28:8b). Prophets’ words, unwelcome as they are, are words of truth and reality that people (then and now) would rather not hear.  

Of the confrontation between Jeremiah and Hananiah Mignon Jacobs writes:

Chapters 27-28 report Jeremiah’s … confrontation with Hananiah the prophet. … What is at stake in this confrontation is the validity of two competing ideologies regarding God’s people and God’s involvement on the world stage. On the one side are the prophets and Hananiah, the anti-Babylonian contingent who advocate [temple theology] that God would restore Jerusalem within two years by bringing back the temple vessels, as well as King Jeconiah, and the exiles from Babylon. … Hananiah broke the wooden yoke that Jeremiah was carrying and declared the Babylonian yoke broken. On the other side is Jeremiah, the pro-Babylonian advocate. … He also speaks of restoring the people to Jerusalem but prophesied that God was using Nebuchadnezzar to subdue all the nations, including Judah. … The closing verse of [Jeremiah] 28 … defines the ideological lines and perspective. Hananiah is an enemy of … [God’s] message and he dies as a confirmation of the Jeremiah’s prophecy. … [Hananiah’s death is the dramatic way in which] God validates Jeremiah.2

Jeremiah knew that temple theology was not the whole story. Therefore, he spoke against Hananiah and temple theology. Yes, God is a God of mercy and compassion who can be counted on to come through in a crisis. Yet, choices, individual and collective, have consequences. As for Hananiah, he would be dead in a year, just as Jeremiah prophesied.  

If anyone wonders why the words of the Jeremiah were preserved, the story of Jeremiah and Hananiah yields confirmation.


1. Portions of this article are adapted from Alphonetta Wines, Thinking the Unthinkable: God as Enemy—An Image of God in the Book of Job and Other Books of the Hebrew Bible (Ph.D. dissertation, Texas Christian University, 2011).

2. Mignon Jacobs, “Favor and Disfavor in Jeremiah 29:1-23: Two Dimensions of the Characterization of God and the Politics of Hope,” in Probing the Frontiers of Biblical Studies eds. J. Harold Ellens and John T. Greene (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2009), 136-137.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 22:1-14

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

There is a Yiddish folk tale that goes something like this: Why did God not send an angel to tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?1

Because God knew that no angel would take on such a task. Instead, the angels said, “If you want to command death, do it yourself.”

The story named by Christians “the sacrifice of Isaac” and by Jews “the akedah” (the “binding” of Isaac) has engendered heated debate over the centuries. Is it a story of an abusive God, a misguided Abraham, religious violence at its worst? Or is it a story of faith and obedience?

Trying to get around the difficulties, many argue that it is simply an etiological tale about the shift from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice. This seems likely. It is certainly the case that other biblical texts expressly forbid child sacrifice (e.g. Leviticus 18:21; Jeremiah 7:30-34; Ezekiel 20:31). The practice is known in the cultures surrounding Israel and may have been practiced in Israel as well (hence the prophetic condemnation of it).

There is more here, though, than such a history-of-religions interpretation allows. The akedah is a foundational story for Judaism and Christianity in ways that are too complex to trace in this short essay.2 Even before the canon was closed, the akedah became associated with worship at the Jerusalem Temple. In 2 Chronicles 3:1, the mountain of the Temple is called “Mount Moriah,” the mountain of the akedah. (In fact, “Moriah” appears in the Bible only in these two passages.) Hence, the sacrifice of the ram in place of Isaac becomes the foundational act for all the Temple sacrifices that follow.

For Christianity, the sacrifice of the beloved son has obvious resonance with Jesus’ death. That’s why Genesis 22 is appointed as one of the readings for the Easter Vigil (and sometimes as one of the readings on Good Friday). In addition, the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son became for early Christians one of the greatest examples of his faith: “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac … He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead” (Hebrews 11:17, 19). In the history of Christian interpretation, Genesis 22 has continued to be understood as a story of faith against all odds, and as a foreshadowing of God’s self-giving in Jesus Christ.

Despite this rich history of interpretation, well-meaning people through the centuries, horrified by this story, have attempted to negate it in various ways. And it is true that it can be a dangerous text, especially in an era of religious extremism. Anyone who preaches this story must emphatically say that God does not demand child sacrifice; indeed, that God abhors it (as evidenced by the prophets).

Still, there is a theological depth in this story that should not be passed over. The narrative has gripped the religious imagination of Jew and Christian alike for thousands of years.3 It is worth looking at its details.

The story begins, “After these things God tested Abraham” (22:1). And what do “these things” include? God’s call to Abraham to go to a land he has never seen; God’s promise to Abraham that he will be the father of a great nation; the long years of Sarah’s barrenness; the birth of Ishmael; and at long last, the impossible birth of the boy they call “Laughter.”

Then Abraham, at Sarah’s insistence, casts out his first son, Ishmael, with great sorrow (see last week’s commentary). And now, God demands a most horrible thing: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go4 to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you” (22:2). The rabbis imagine the scene:

God said, “Take your son.” And Abraham said, “I have two sons.” He answered him, “Your only son.” He said to him, “Each is the only son of his mother.” God said, “The one whom you love.” Abraham replied, “Is there any limit to a father’s love?” God answered, “Isaac.”

The Hebrew prose of this story is beautiful and succinct. Abraham does what God demands, and sets out with his son. Abraham doesn’t say much. Isaac says even less, and one is left to imagine what they are thinking and feeling. The narrator uses repetition to heighten the poignancy: “The two of them walked on together,” as the father and son walk together in silence on the third day (22:6). Together in purpose, together in love. The narrator continually emphasizes the relationship between the two, as if we need to be reminded: “Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac.” “Isaac said to Abraham his father, “My father!” and he said, “Here I am, my son” (22:7).

“Here I am” — in Hebrew hineni. It’s the same word Abraham used to answer God’s call in verse 1: “Here I am.” Abraham is attentive to God, and equally attentive to his beloved son. Here I am.

And Isaac says, “See, we have fire, and wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” And Abraham, heart torn in two, says, “God will see to the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And, again, “The two of them walked on together” (22:7-8). Whether Isaac knew what was going to happen is a matter that the rabbis debated. Perhaps he did not, which makes Abraham’s pain all that much more acute. Perhaps he did, which makes Isaac, too, an example of great faith and obedience. The two of them walk on together, father and son, the son carrying the wood for his own sacrifice. The first century rabbis, with no connection to Christianity but with ample experience of Roman executions, said of this detail: “Isaac carries the wood for the sacrifice like one who carries his own cross.”

They reach the place of sacrifice, and Abraham builds an altar. Again, as if we need to be reminded, the narrator emphasizes the relationship between father and son. “He bound his son Isaac … Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son” (22:9-10).

At that moment, the LORD calls to him with great urgency, “Abraham, Abraham!” And Abraham replies for the third and final time in the story, hineni, “Here I am.” One can imagine that his tone now is one of unspeakable relief and hope.

The LORD speaks, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (22:12).

“Now I know.” This story does not subscribe to later notions of God’s perfect omniscience. This is a genuine test, and Abraham is free to decide what he will do. God neither knows nor pre-ordains how Abraham will respond. Reading this story with a hermeneutic of generosity, one could argue that God imposes this one-time test on Abraham because God has risked everything on this one man, and God needs to know if he is faithful.5

Abraham and his descendants are the means by which God has chosen to bless the whole world (Genesis 12:3). And Abraham has not always proven up to the task (the wife-sister charade, Hagar and Ishmael). Now God needs to know whether Abraham is willing to give up the thing most precious to him in all the world for the sake of being faithful to the God who gave him that gift in the first place. And Abraham passes this most excruciating of tests: “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

Then, as Abraham had told Isaac, God provides; God provides a ram to take the place of the beloved son. “So Abraham called that place ‘The LORD will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided’” (22:14).

There is a word-play here and in verse 8 that is worth noting. The Hebrew word (ra’ah) translated “provide” is literally the word for “seeing.” So the last phrase can be translated, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided” or “On the mount of the LORD he shall be seen.” Given the association of Mt. Moriah with the Temple Mount, both translations speak truth about God’s presence and God’s providence.

Well, much more could be said, of course. This is a very difficult story; there’s no getting around it, and I’m sure that my reading of it won’t be satisfactory to everyone who comes to this site. Still, I hope it’s clear that when one is willing to plumb the depths of this story and to read it with care and with generosity, there are theological riches here.

The story of the akedah makes a claim on us: All that we have, even our own lives and those of the ones most dear to us, belong ultimately to God, who gave them to us in the first place. The story of the akedah assures us that God will provide, that God will be present. And, of course, as generations of Christian interpreters have seen, it foreshadows the story that forms the foundation of Christian faith – the story of the death and resurrection of the beloved son,6 son of Abraham, son of David, Son of God. For all these reasons and more, this is a story worth preaching.


1 Commentary first published on this site on June 29, 2014.

2 For an insightful discussion of the akedah and its resonance in Jewish and Christian tradition, see Jon Levenson’s The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son (Yale University Press, 1993).

3 The akedah is a motif in many modern Israeli poems. See, for instance, the poems at http://ktiva.blogspot.com/2006/11/poetry-of-akedah.html (accessed 5/4/14).

4 The Hebrew phrase lek-lekah (get yourself going) occurs only here and in Gen 12:1, linking the two stories and marking this one as being as momentous as the initial call to Abraham.

5 This is the argument of Ellen Davis in her book Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Cowley, 2001) 50-64.

6 To use the title of Jon Levenson’s book (above).


Commentary on Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18

Paul K.-K. Cho

At the heart of Psalm 89 is the shattering of the world, to which the psalm gives articulation and to whose unraveling the entire Psalter is devoted.

And the proper interpretation of Psalm 89, arguably of the entire Psalter, and even of the Christian hope in Christ Jesus rests, in part, on the full appreciation of this trauma: The faithful and mighty God (89:1-2) who made an eternal covenant with David (89:3-4) has renounced that covenant (89:39) and hidden himself (89:46).

God and King

Psalm 89 celebrates God’s love and faithfulness (89:1-2) and equally God’s election of David, the divine promise to establish his kingdom forever (89:3-4), and these two constitute the foundational facts on which the cosmos, according to our psalm, rests. For God “rules the raging of the sea” (89:9, NRSV) and “crushed Rahab like a carcass” (89:10) to ensure that forces of chaos and death do not again return to earth; and David shares in God’s cosmic authority over evil, which God gave him, saying: “I will set his hand on the sea / and his right hand on the rivers” (89:25).

The embedded diarchy of God and David, anchored in the love and faithfulness of the one God, ensures the endurance of David’s throne and, what’s more, the flourishing of the world. Because the God who made a covenant with David loves and is faithful, David’s throne stands secure forever. And because God and David reign together in might, all is right in the world.

The Shattering of the World

The events of 587 BCE shatter the world in which God and king are in control. In 587, as is well known, the Babylonians destroyed the House of God, put a violent end to the House of David, and devastated the people. The final third of Psalm 89 (89:38-51) laments this catastrophe and raises pointed questions concerning the theological and political foundations on which the world supposedly rests.

Psalm 89:38-51, at first brush, appears to focus on the relationship between God and David: “But now you have spurned and rejected him; / you are full of wrath against your anointed” (89:38, see also 89:39-45, 49-51). But we misread the psalm if we focus only on the God-David connection. David is a cipher for the orderliness of historical existence in toto and the earthly representative of God’s cosmic sovereignty.

God’s rejection of David points to the divine betrayal of creation, and the demise of David’s kingship suggests a like end to God’s kingship. In short, the experience of death and chaos — in the case of Psalm 89, of 587 and afterward — places under question the validity of the theological claim that God loves, is faithful, and rules over creation in power, for the final authority. Hence, the ultimate responsibility, for life and order rests with God.

How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever?
How long will your wrath burn like fire? (89:46)

After Trauma

The psalm provides no easy answer to the difficult questions it raises. Rather, the trauma of 587 is allowed to rupture the very structure of the psalm. Consider the chasm that separates verse 37 from verse 38. Furthermore, as the conclusion of Book III of the Psalter, Psalm 89 also represents a rupture in the Book of Psalms around which the entire Psalter turns. That is to say, the shattering of the world at the heart of Psalm 89 is the trauma at the core of the Psalter itself.

Psalm 89 presents the trauma and, in response, offers no resolution. More fittingly, it raises the darkest of theological questions. From within the tragedy of exile, the psalmist cannot see God and complains: “Will you hide yourself forever?” (89:46a). And, in conclusion, he seems to give himself over to despair: “Who can escape the power of Sheol?” (89:51b). Psalm 89 does not provide an answer to its own questions. Rather, it recognizes the reality and power of trauma and remains, as so many victims of traumatic events are, dumb, mute, and utterly confounded.

Now, though no immediate resolution to the experience of trauma can be found in Psalm 89, that is not to say that there is no engagement or effort to respond. No, the entire Psalter, at some level, is an effort to respond to the theological crisis of 587.

As has been noted by many commentators, Books I-III of the Psalter (Psalms 1-89) can be read as recounting the rise and fall of the Davidic monarchy. In brief, Psalm 2 represents the divine adoption of David’s household and the beginning of the Davidic monarchy as God’s chosen representative on earth. Many subsequent psalms, by means of their superscriptions, reference events in David’s life as recounted in Samuel. For example, Psalm 18 refers to David’s escape from Saul’s murderous intent, and Psalm 51 to David’s adultery with Bathsheba. Palm 72, which concludes Book II, marks perhaps David’s dying prayer for Solomon. Even after the death of David, a son of David continues to occupy the throne.

Now, as we discussed, Psalm 89 references the end of the Davidic monarchy and, simultaneously, raises a theological question: Does the end of the Davidic kingship signify the end of the kingship of God, who guaranteed that David will be king forever? God bound divine kingship to human kingship in an eternal covenant. So does God shares in the shameful fate of the human king?

Book IV-V (Psalm 90-150) provides a complex response to the theological crisis raised by Psalm 89. The response, in broad strokes, is twofold. One, Books IV-V emphasize that God was, is, and will be king forever. This response can be seen most clearly in Psalms 93-100, the “Yhwh is king” psalms, so-called because of the repeated claim: “Yhwh is king” (93:1; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1; cf. 95:3; 98:6; 99:4). These psalms claim that, even after the demise of the Davidic monarchy, God remains king.

Two, David is not again referred to as “king” in Books IV-V. The implication is that David’s kingship can and did come to an end in 587 independent of God’s kingship. David, it should be noted, does reappear in Books IV-V, beginning in Psalm 101, right after the “Yhwh is king” psalms (Psalms 101, 103, 108-110, 138-145). He appears, however, not as king, but as cantor. He no longer leads the army into battle but rather the faithful throng in praise of God the King. Thus, David declares, “I will sing of loyalty and justice; / to you, O LORD, I will sing,” (101:1) and, “I will exalt you, my God, the King” (145:1a, my translation).

In sum, the trauma of Psalm 89, which is the trauma of the Psalter, requires the deployment of the resources of all the psalms to resolve. This speaks to the seriousness of trauma, especially of the trauma of 587, which shook the core of Israel’s sense of self, history, and God. And the seriousness with which the psalmic tradition handles trauma advises us from looking for easy answers to life’s deep problems and encourages, rather, patience and humility. It advises hope in God, who is, was, and will be king.

Christ the King

For Christian readers of the Psalm, it should be noted that the New Testament writers found a related but distinct resolution to the problem Psalm 89 raises, the link between divine and human kingship and its subsequent rupture. In conversation with other early Jewish traditions, the New Testament writers proclaim, on various occasions, that Christ Jesus is the Davidic king (see, for example, Acts 2:29-36; Rom 1:3). The Davidic king who was elected and rejected endures in Christ Jesus, who himself was rejected unto death to rise on the third day. Thus, the church too can sing:

I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever;
With my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations. (89:1)

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 6:12-23

Kyle Fever

This reading needs context.

It jumps in the middle of a particular argument Paul is making about the believer’s relation to sin, driven by two questions: one in Romans 6:1 and the other in 6:15. This argument is part of a larger case Paul is making about how the gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ transforms believers from old humanity to new humanity in Christ and thereby brings about death to sin and nullifies the function of the law.

Verses 12 through 14 are better treated as the conclusion to the previous section in Romans 6:1-11. It is because we’ve died to the old humanity through baptism, and been united to Christ, that Paul exhorts the believers to not let sin rule their lives. We have a choice to recognize that we’ve been set in a new reality, and Paul exhorts them in light of the new reality. In this life because they are “in Christ,” a choice exists that once did not: “Don’t let sin reign. Don’t give your bodies to be used as instruments of sin.”

The reason Paul gives for this exhortation is in 6:14: those who have died with Christ in baptism are “not under law, but under grace.” This is the operative contrast that gives birth to the rhetorical question in 6:15: “Should we sin because we are not under law, but under grace?”

The concern is real. If, because in baptism Christians who have died to sin are also no longer under the law, then what are we under? Not being under law is a particularly difficult claim for Paul’s audience (whether Greek, Roman, or Jewish). Everyone in the first century operated with a sense of “law” as that which ordered life and gave identity. The law should not be reduced to works-righteousness or a salvation-by-works scheme. What defines how to live, what provides the ideal? What gives identity and sets Romans apart from Greeks and Jews? Law. If we’re not under law, but under grace, then the conclusion might be to continue in sin because not to be under law is to be open to sin, and from what Paul said earlier, that’s where grace over-abounds.

Paul had just argued in 6:1-14 that Jesus Christ removes us from the realm of law-living and all its effects because all of those things are part of the old humanity (Galatians 4:4-5). But here he presses further. If we’ve died to the old humanity, it includes these human ways of ordering life. This is a problem for the first-century person (not just the Jew). For Paul, death in Christ means no law to govern living and identity formation. And this pulls the rug out from much of the social-moral ordering of the world for Paul’s audience, whether Jew, Greek, or Roman.

To explain what he’s getting at, Paul draws upon the common language and imagery of slavery. The scenario Paul sets up would have been shocking to Paul’s audience. Being “under law” is connected with serving sin and injustice (“unrighteousness”)! It appears Stoic or even like something radical Skeptics might have said. But they would not have gone this far. Law was still needed for the weaker types who need a crutch to rely on. But they would not have associated law with sin and injustice. This reveals the fundamentally radical nature of the “fracture” the cross of Christ effected in the world.

The law is the way sin works out its mastery over old humanity. Adamic humanity exists “under law” because they are slaves to sin, serving sin and producing “unrighteousness” (better: “injustice”). As slaves to impurity they live lives of “lawlessness” in verse 19. Even keeping the law does this because the law fundamentally creates walls that serve the injustice of a fractured humanity. By contrast the baptized live under and serve a different Lord and thus also an entirely different system of living and finding one’s identity. Instead of sin, those baptized have transferred to life under God, serving “justice,” rather than sin, and resulting in sanctification and eternal life. Identity (not just function!) is now part of the body of Christ — in being part of one another who make up this body (whether Jew, Greek, or Roman). This is where Paul is headed in Romans (Romans 14:1-12; 15:7).

Paul says those who are not under law are “sanctified.” It’s important to note that this is not the moral outworking of some system or program of Christian moral piety. Sanctification is the theologically loaded translation of the Greek word hagiasmos. As many of us learned, it generally means to be “set apart.” This “set-apartedness” is the fruit of the transfer that is signified by baptism; it is the outworking of God’s grand work of deliverance from the old humanity. We are “set apart” for God’s use, rather than sin’s. While the reality is that we’ve been transferred, we still need to adjust to the new life. Sanctification is both immediate and ongoing, but it is fundamentally positional and relational, not achievement based.

Verse 17 makes an important point: “You have obeyed from the heart the form of instruction which you have received.  Three central ideas are at work here: the heart, the form, and the reception.

The obedience of those transferred from the old humanity is not an outward show; it is rooted in kardia. This hearkens to the promise of Jeremiah 31:33-34 that God would give new hearts imprinted with God’s Torah (here “instruction” not “law”), and that all would know God. God is at work, transforming the heart, in fulfillment of what God had promised.

The obedience is to the form, not the content. The word is used in Platonic and Middle-Platonic thought. It refers to a type or manner of something. The form or type of “instruction” for Paul is “imaged” in the crucified Christ, it is the form of life in Philippians 2.

The obedience of the baptized is to a form of teaching that is received. It is not learned, nor memorized. It is received, implanted in the lives of those transferred to the rule of grace.

Romans 6:15-23 reflects an insufficient understanding of what being “under grace” really means, and an uneasiness with the idea that “law” is no longer to be relied upon for identity and meaning, for living.

It is worth wondering how much we overlook the ways we construct “law” in our churches to keep our fear of moral anarchy at bay. How often do the “ungodly” meet not grace and welcome, but suspicious looks and marginal embrace at best? Is our treatment of others contingent on age, experience, social circles, political circles, or other hurdles we place before them in the name of being pious, lest we just endorse dwelling in sin as we’ve defined it for ourselves, all the while ignoring that continuing to put up law is itself still living in Sin? Are we playing it too safe? Afraid to live lives not “under law”?