Lectionary Commentaries for October 25, 2020
Reformation Sunday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 8:31-36

Alicia D. Myers

John 8:31-36 is part of Jesus’ teaching in the temple during Tabernacles (7:14–10:21).

After debating the identity of his Father in John 8:12-29, verse 30 reports: “While he was saying these things, many believed in him.” For a moment, it seems Jesus succeeded in convincing his audience. Recalling another episode in Jerusalem from 2:23-25, however, we remember Jesus’ distrust of believing crowds. Jesus knows “all things,” including “what is in humanity,” making him skeptical of crowds, including the one in John 8. While Jesus knows humanity needs a new birth to become God’s children, the people he encounters throughout the Gospel cannot recognize this truth just yet.

John 8:31 reiterates the crowd’s belief. Instead of affirming the crowd, Jesus challenges them: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free (eleutherosei).” Jesus’ language about freedom describes a change of status. It is manumission, the transition from being a slave with no rights or ability to protect oneself, to a freeperson (eleutheros) who was able to claim personhood in the Roman world. This definition helps explain the Jews’ response to him in the next verse: “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been enslaved by anything! How are you saying, ‘You will become freepersons’?!” (my translation). What the crowd misses is Jesus’ double-meaning, a typical feature of his dialogues in John.

While Jesus’ audience thinks he is insulting them by calling them slaves of people, he is describing a different type of enslavement. “Everyone who continues doing the sin is a slave of the sin,” he says, “but a slave does not remain in the household eternally, the son remains for eternity. If, therefore, the son should free you, you really will be freepersons” (John 8:35-36, my translation). Jesus is not calling them slaves of people, but slaves of “the sin,” or “the mistake.” In John, this mistake is the inability to recognize Jesus as God’s Son and Christ. Even though the crowd “believes” in Jesus, as in 2:23-25, they do not fully recognize him yet. It is questionable whether anyone can recognize Jesus fully before his death and resurrection. Jesus’ comment could be levelled against almost any character in the Gospel. The good news, however, is that slaves (unlike sons) can be freed. Jesus, as God’s Son, promises to grant freedom to those who recognize the truth.

The Jews’ reaction in verse 33 and following shows just how hard it is to remain in, and understand, Jesus’ words. As descendants of Abraham, the Jews were enslaved for a time in Egypt, regardless of their current social status in the first century CE (Exodus 14:5, 12). Tabernacles recalls this history by remembering God’s miraculous provision during Israel’s forty years of wilderness wandering. These Jews are in Jerusalem participating in this very festival, while simultaneously denying their connection to its history! This inability to recognize themselves means they cannot recognize Jesus either (see also 5:31-47). They cannot yet obey Jesus’ command from 7:24: “Stop judging by appearances but start judging rightly!” (my translation).

Jesus makes a distinction between being someone’s “descendants” (sperma) versus having him as a “father” (pater) in 8:37-41. This distinction is rooted in the ancient understanding that “like corresponds to like,” meaning children behave like their fathers regardless of to whose “household” they belong. There were no paternity tests in the ancient world; once a “father” accepted a member into the family, they were included, regardless of actual ancestry. Slaves, of course, would often not live with their actual fathers (nor would they be treated as legitimate children of their master). Instead, they were to seek only those things their master desired.

Jesus’ judgment, “the one who continues doing the sin” is a “slave of the sin,” means that regardless of these Jews’ actual Abrahamic ancestry, their slavery has led them to desire Sin’s desires. Thus, they do not accept God’s messenger, even though this is the very thing for which Abraham was famous (Genesis 18). Freedom from Sin’s household would mean these children of Abraham could return to their actual identity and welcome Jesus.

As the dialogue continues, however, things devolve rapidly with accusations of illegitimate birth, diabolical paternity, Samaritan ancestry, and demonic possession (8:41-59). In 8:37 Jesus begins shifting from a message of freedom for slaves, to a condemnation of diabolical paternity. Not trusting this crowd, Jesus identifies them not as “believers,” but as liars and would-be murderers. They are now children of the devil, rather than just slaves, and they “desire” what their father “desires” as seemingly permanent members of that household. It is no wonder the crowd turns on Jesus! In 6:60-66 Jesus lost a multitude of followers, but in 8:41-59 he prompts a once-sympathetic crowd to try to kill him!

Rather than concluding that Jesus has eternally condemned these (or any) Jews, however, we must remember the household metaphors that pervade this Gospel. Jesus already told Nicodemus that everyone who enters the Kingdom of God must be born again (3:5-8). Because we cannot recognize Jesus rightly, we all are part of the Sin’s household: either as slaves or as children. This has nothing to do with actual ancestry. Jesus speaks predominantly with Jews because he himself was Jewish, not because he sought to condemn them. As he says in 4:22, “salvation is from the Jews.”

New birth, though, is painful. It requires Jesus’ death and resurrection, as well as the gift of the Holy Spirit (20:19-22). These events make possible corrected vision, not only of Jesus, but also of ourselves. Although we think we are free and have things figured out, Jesus reminds us we need to be freed and become God’s children (1:12–13).


Alternate Gospel

Commentary on John 8:31-36

Leila Ortiz

The Reformation story is one of commuting and converting from one theological worldview to another.

[This commentary can also be read in Spanish here.]

It began over 500 years ago and continues through us each time we speak the truth of Jesus Christ.

In the text for Reformation Sunday 2020, we are spectators and listeners along with fellow believers. We are inquisitive and in wonderment—trying to understand how Jesus matters in our lives and in our daily living.

Jesus sees us and knows that when we are overwhelmed with the world around us, we often neglect the Word in which our faith is rooted. We forget who we are as baptized children of God and how we are called to follow our teacher par excellence.

And so Jesus reminds us, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.” He reminds us that discipleship does not come as a result of membership in a congregation or denomination but by following and continuing in God’s living and dynamic word—not by memorizing or utilizing it for personal or collective gain, but by dwelling and sitting with the word as a word that reveals what our souls so desperately crave: freedom.

Jesus sees us and speaks to us as ones who are bound, yet ignorant to our enslavement to sin. Jesus notes that to continue in his word and being his disciple leads to a new awareness—a new knowing; it grants the realization of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ for the self and all creation; it grants the promise of liberation and transformation; the promise of freedom.

Freedom matters.

It matters to a person, a people, a system. It matters that every member of the human and created family is not bound by systemic evil; by historical and socio-political constructs that deny dignity to some and grant privilege to others.

It matters that people and communities are not theologically and institutionally enslaved to an oppressed and oppressive way of being, thinking, and behaving. It matters that those who claim to believe in Jesus not fall in the trappings of the enemy and mistaken the God of the universe as one who places conditions upon God’s love, grace, and salvation.

This Reformation Sunday I hear Jesus’ word saying, “Continue in my word, be my disciple, and know the truth … because freedom matters. It matters that you, your people, creation, and systems be set free—my truth will set you free.”

In the spring of 2005, I was in my second semester of seminary at what was then the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. I was raised in the Pentecostal church, was confident in my theology, and stubborn enough not to let myself be affected by Lutheran teaching in this setting. But then God happened in a way I could not deny.

I was sitting in Lutheran Confessions after three weeks of turning in reflection papers that each came back with red marks and sad faces next to every paragraph that resisted and rejected unconditional love and grace or wherever I was the actor behind my salvation. I was deeply offended and frustrated. I questioned why I was there and if I should stay. I was convinced that I knew Jesus, the Bible, and solid theology. I was also convinced the professor knew nothing about “true relationship” with Christ.

I was poorly mistaken on all accounts.

On this particular day the professor was talking about justification by faith through grace- an idea I knew but had never truly understood. As he spoke, I listened and took notes. Then I witnessed him walk away from his manuscript and gesture in my direction. He said, “When you understand that God chose for you to be saved and that you did not choose your own salvation, then you’ll understand God’s amazing grace.”

These may sound like simple words, but those words pierced my heart like a sword. I had never heard such a thing. And yet, I remember thinking, “What he just said is true.” My spirit knew those “simple” words contained the truth.

I had been raised to believe I had to chase and choose Christ on a daily basis. I lived hoping my pursuit would be enough to get God’s attention that I might be saved from eternal damnation. I believed God’s love and grace was for me, but only if I did certain things and behaved in a certain way. I was bound by theological and institutional misinterpretations of Scripture, God, and our relationship to and with God. Once I heard the truth spoken in a sentenced inspired by the Holy Spirit, I was set free.

I knew instantly this word of grace was the word I would preach my whole life long. From then on, my devotion to Christ was not as a result of fear of damnation but instead, as a result of true gratitude for a salvation that was chosen for me and not by me.

I often refer to this moment in the classroom as my conversion moment and Lutheran theology as my personal liberation theology. Mainly, because my spirit experienced the truth of the gospel and it became my freedom and liberation: it became the vehicle for my commute and conversion from one theological worldview to another.

This is what the word of God does. This is what the gospel of Jesus Christ does. This is the outcome of engagement with truth proper, namely Jesus Christ.

Dear preacher, our homes, our people, our church, our country, our world—and our spirits—crave freedom from bondage, from enslavement to sin and systemic evil, from misinterpretation of Scripture, God, and God in relation to creation. We all need the truth to reign and set us free. We all need liberation and transformation. We all need Jesus.

May we continue in God’s word.

May we be disciples of truth proper, Jesus Christ.

And may we know the truth and be set free … with God’s help and in Jesus’ name. Amen.


First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Anathea Portier-Young

Reformation Sunday draws our attention to God’s ongoing work of renewal in the church, to the unmerited gift of divine grace that cannot be bought or sold, and to a history of courageous response to that free gift, embodied in reformers who have been willing to challenge abuses within the body of Christ.1

Jeremiah’s declaration of God’s renewed covenant, enfleshed within the very guts of God’s people and written on their hearts, surprises with visceral and vital imagery of intimate knowing and belonging.

God says: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33). What will it mean for the people of God to carry the law within their bodies? God’s own will and teaching will become their electromagnetic signature, radiating from within, setting the rhythm for all that they do.

What do we know about our hearts? We know that with each heartbeat blood courses through our bodies, delivering to each cell and organ the nutrients and oxygen they need to thrive. With each beat blood returns to the heart, so that it may be pumped through the lungs to be filled with oxygen once more. The heart’s beating is the pulse of life within us.

The ancient Israelites understood the heart as a faculty. They knew the heart as the seat of will (Jeremiah 7:24), invention (Jeremiah 14:14), reasoning, discernment, and judgment. In 1 Kings, when Solomon asks God for “an understanding mind … able to discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:9 NRSV), he has requested, in the first phrase, “a hearing heart” (lev shomea’ 1 Kings 3:9). Later, God’s gift to Solomon is described as “very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding” (1 Kings 4:29 NRSV). In Hebrew, the last phrase is rechov lev: “wideness of heart.”

These metaphors emphasize the capacity to receive, respond, grow, and hold a wisdom that only God can give.

Perhaps the people of Israel and Judah felt the heart quicken with insight or resolve, seize with worry, settle with peace, and deduced from these sensations that this beating organ was bound up in human thought, awareness, memory (e.g., Jeremiah 3:16, 28:50), and decision-making.

They also understood the heart’s powerful link to emotion. Earlier in the book of Jeremiah, his prophetic word exploded from the painful awareness of his heart’s response to the distress of his people: “My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war” (Jeremiah 4:19 NRSV). On another occasion the prophet declared that he ate God’s words and they became the delight of his heart (15:16); later still, Jeremiah confesses that God’s word rages in his heart like a fire (20:9).

Indeed “heart” (Hebrew lev and levav) is a word that Jeremiah uses again and again — 65 times in all, more frequently than does any book of the Hebrew Bible apart from Psalms and Proverbs. This prominence highlights an important theme in Jeremiah, namely the embodied awareness, thoughts, disposition, choices, and actions of God’s people. Their hearts embody their intentions (5:24), guilt (Jeremiah 17:1), and punishment (4:18).

When God will write God’s law upon the hearts of the people, their hearts will embody and empower the true relationship they share with God and one another. This relationship will be characterized by a deep and abiding knowledge of God’s will and by an intimacy that defines each in relation to the other.

This interior and intimate knowledge of God does not shift the focus from community to individual. Rather, it unites and renews the community as God’s people. They are still bound in covenant with God precisely as a people, as a community sharing past, present, and future. Within the biblical canon, God’s promise to be the God of Abraham’s children is first articulated in Genesis (17:8).

Here, too, the context is covenant. God’s promise accompanies the command that, through circumcision, the male members of Abraham’s household will incise this covenant in their flesh. This focus on shared, embodied obedience helps us to recognize, on Reformation Sunday, the corporeal and corporate dimensions of the renewed covenant God promises in Jeremiah 31:31-34.

In her book, The Body, Lisa Blackman summarizes insights of anthropologist AnneMarie Mol on the ways our bodies extend beyond our perceived self:

…the body is not bounded by the skin, where we understand the skin to be a kind of container for the self, but rather our bodies always extend and connect to other bodies, human and non-human, to practices, techniques, technologies and objects which produce different kinds of bodies and different ways, arguably, of enacting what it means to be human.2

This understanding of the body as interconnected, extending beyond perceptible boundaries of skin, helps us to understand how the interior transformation God promises is not bounded by its location. The heart’s law is not a private matter. The new, or perhaps more accurately, renewed, covenant God promises joins God’s people not only to God, but also to one another.

Even as we anticipate and live into this renewal, Reformation Sunday also invites attention to persisting divisions within the body of Christ. Ancient Israel knew division as well. First Kings reports that, after Solomon’s death, his son’s abusive and exploitative rule led the united kingdom of Israel to split, resulting in two nations: ten northern tribes, called Israel, and two southern tribes, called Judah (1 Kings 12).

Now centuries later, long after the northern kingdom had fallen and in anticipation of the southern kingdom’s demise, God promises through Jeremiah to make a new covenant with Israel and Judah together (31:31). Placing the law within God’s people creates condition for unity, as God later declares: “I will give them one heart and one way” (Jeremiah 32:38). This unity is a gift from God’s own heart and life: God promises to plant God’s people in faithfulness, “with all my heart and all my soul” (32:41).


 Notes:

1 Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 26, 2014.

2 Lisa Blackman, The Body (Oxford: Berg, 2008), 1, citing AnneMarie Mol, The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002).


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 46

Rolf Jacobson

“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”—the hymn, which according to Ulrich Leupold, “more than any other epitomizes Luther’s thought and personal experience”—is a rather free paraphrase of Psalm 46.1

For that reason, the psalm is assigned for Reformation Sunday. But as Leupold notes, Luther “did not write [the hymn] to express his own feelings, but to interpret and apply the 46th Psalm to the church of his own time and its struggles.”2 This is a fine summary of the preaching task—to interpret and apply the biblical text to our own time and struggles. So why not preach this Reformation Day on Psalm 46?

The text of the psalm
The psalm is tightly composed, with three, three-verse-long stanzas and two refrains:
Stanza 1 (verses 1-3)
Stanza 2 (verses 4-6)
Refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” (verse 7)
Stanza 3 (verses 8-10)
Refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” (verse 11)

An important note about the text of the psalm is necessary, because some recent modern editions of the Book of Psalm “restored” (a fancy scholarly term meaning “fussed with”) the text of the psalm to include the psalm’s refrain after the first stanza, too. The Lutheran Book of Worship of 1978 and The Book of Common Prayer of 1977 both used a version of this psalm with the refrain so restored.3

More recently, however, postmodern sensibilities have rightfully undermined scholarly confidence in the ability to fuss with the biblical text in these ways. So here is the point: Just be aware of which text your congregation is using. The commentary here does not supply the supposed missing verse. If you are still using a version that “restores” the refrain after the first stanza, adjust your interpretation accordingly.

Stanza one—The roaring of creation and God “Our Refuge”
In the first stanza, the hymn juxtaposes the steady and secure image of God as “refuge” with the image of the earth and seas in uproar. (For more on the key Hebrew term “refuge,” see the commentary on Psalm 91:9-16.) The image of “earth” shaking and “sea” roaring is an image of creation itself in rebellion against God’s creative order. This image is a reminder that the fallen condition of creation goes beyond mere human disobedience. The fallen condition encompasses all of creation, all of nature. Thus, the “law” that the psalm names is the reality that creation itself is broken and in rebellion against the Creator. Earthquakes and tsunamis cause destruction. Disease and disability strike. Death awaits all. And the “gospel” that the psalm names is the one trustworthy source of security that can be relied upon in the midst of this roaring rebellion: God is our refuge, “therefore we will not fear.” Notice that similar to other poems of trust, such as Psalm 23, the strategy of the psalm is to name the very real reasons there are for fear, and then to confess trust in God in the midst of those fears.

Stanza two—The roaring of the nations and the river of God
The second stanza of the poem intensifies both the threat that is named and the promise that is proffered. The first stanza remained at the more universal level, naming the universal threat of creation in rebellion and offering the general promise of God (using the generic term elohim) as refuge. The second stanza focuses in more specifically on the national identity of God’s chosen people. It refers to the nations (Hebrew: goyim) that threaten “the city of God” (also known as Jerusalem) and the refrain employs both the personal name of “the Lord” as well as the epithet “God of Jacob” — a reference to the nation’s ancestral patriarch.

All of which is to say that in the second stanza the poem intensifies the sense of threat by naming the national threat that empires such as Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome and many smaller nations posed to the descendants of Jacob throughout Israel’s existence. This intensification of the naming of the threat also balances the first stanza by naming a second, more particular and more direct way in which the fallen condition of sin affects human—through human sin.

Yes, all of creation is fallen and in rebellion, but human sin and rebellion is more nefarious, or at least more potent—if only because the combination of human intelligence and will make evils such as genocide and war possible. Thus, “the nations are in an uproar” (the Hebrew verb hamah is used both for the nations in verse 6 and the sea in verse 3) summarizes the intensification of the rebellious threat.

The corresponding promise that the second stanza offers is the presence of God with the people. Here, God’s presence is metaphorically described as “a river whose streams make glad the city of God.” There was and is no river in Jerusalem, of course, but that is not the point of the poetic flourish. The point is rather the powerful promise resident in the stark image of the refreshing and life-sustaining river to a city and people in an arid climate under siege by an invading army. The image of the river flowing from the throne or habitation of God was, moreover, a metaphor known throughout the ancient Near East and one that found its way into the promises of the New Testament (Revelation 22:1-2).4

The promise of the presence of God with the people in the city was a key element of the theology of the southern kingdom of Judah. The city, and in particular its Temple, was “the holy habitation of the most high.” According to this theology, God had chosen both the Davidic monarchs and the City of David, Jerusalem. This “dual election” included the promise of protection for both (see Psalm 89; Isaiah 7:1-17; 2 Samuel 7:1-7). In the refrain, which we can imagine the entire congregation singing, the words of trust become almost a creedal confession of confidence: “The Lord of hosts is with us.”

In the New Testament, this theology modulates to a new key, with Jesus coming as both the presence and habitation of God and as the fulfillment of the promise of the Messiah (the royal descendant of David) — who is present wherever two or three gather in his name, to the end of the age.

Stanza three—Be still and know that I am God
The psalm’s final stanza culminates with a statement of trust that is cloaked as an invitation and then with a promise. The invitation is the imperative cry, “Come!” which occurs in Psalms 95 and 66 in calls to come, see what God has done, and therefore to praise God. Here, the call is not so much to praise God, but to come and be silent — to witness God’s powerful ability to crush rebellion and then to be silent.

In the end, God even speaks the promise: “Be still, and know that I am God.” To know, in Hebrew, does not mean just to acknowledge something intellectually, but to internalize or to embody the truth fully. And then God’s voice closes the psalm by asserting God’s exaltation over both spheres of creation that have been in rebellion against God in stanzas 1 and 2 of the poem: “I am exalted among the nations” (stanza 2) and “I am exalted in the earth” (stanza 1).

That is the promise of both the psalm, and in a larger sense, of the entire Bible. That the God of Jacob and the Lord of Israel will, in the end of all things, prove a faithful refuge for those who are caught in the fallen condition of creation and humanity.

The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 30, 2011.
  2. In Luther’s Works 53: 283.
  3. This restoration to the psalm can be found in such important scholars as Hans-Joachim Kraus [Psalms 1-59 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988) 458-9]. The argument is entirely internal, assuming that because the Hebrew word selah follows each of the three stanzas, the refrain should follow also. But there is no external textual support, either in ancient Hebrew manuscripts or among the ancient versions, for such a change to the psalm. If you read this footnote, you can now impress your colleagues in your text study. What does selah mean? Glad you asked. Nobody knows, but the best guess is that it was a musical or liturgical direction calling for some now unknown action to take place.
  4. For what it is worth, certain psalm scholars have argued that this psalm must have originated in some other city, since the mention of the river does not fit Jerusalem, and that the psalm was only “adopted” by Jerusalem. This argument misses the poetic power of the image of river and betrays a way of interpreting the Bible that is, in my view, hopelessly enslaved to a literalistic hermeneutic.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 3:19-28

Jane Lancaster Patterson

It would be reasonable to assume that Reformation Sunday is the time to deliver a Reformation-era interpretation of Romans 3:19-28.1

But that is actually the interpretation that has become standard fare for most Christians, and for many the juice has gone out of it. Here I consider Paul’s purposes in writing to the fractured community in Rome, and try to bring to the surface some of the original shock value of his use of a sacrificial metaphor.2 I continue to be both inspired and fascinated by the daring rhetorical power of Romans 3, and I hope that other preachers may find new ways to connect this seminal passage to the needs of contemporary congregations. I will focus mainly on verses 21-26, a passage I sometimes refer to as the “Mount Everest of biblical interpretation,” for its difficulty.

Social context

Paul’s epistle to the house churches in Rome, written around 60 CE, is intended to prepare for his visit in person and to garner financial support for his mission to Spain. The situation he is addressing is one of division between the Jewish and Gentile believers, possibly exacerbated by the relatively recent return of the Jews from expulsion during the reign of Claudius. It appears that Paul is well-known for his law-free Gospel to the Gentiles, so he must address this fractured community with care, lest he only widen the fault line and weaken the local churches. The question is: Can he respond to their situation in a way that is truly effective for reconciliation?

Literary context

While biblical scholars often refer to Romans 1:16-17 as the thesis statement of Romans, the real force of Paul’s argument occurs in the practical counsel of Romans 15:7, addressed to the Jewish and Gentile factions: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” In this plea for mutual welcome, Paul sets his practical counsels to the Roman house churches within the wide theological framework of God’s purposes in Christ: to create a single humanity devoted to the will of God. The sacrificial metaphor in Romans 3:21-26 is the most important preparatory element in Paul’s movement toward this simple, but radical counsel, “Welcome one another.”

Romans 3:21-26

This passage is the climax of the argument that Paul has been building since Romans 1:16. Having described the failings of both Gentiles and Jews in language that echoes the standard clichés that each probably uttered about the other, he sums up the situation by saying that “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin.” We might imagine that, in the heat of an argument between the Jewish and Gentile believers in Rome, Paul yells, “Stop! You’re both wrong!” Then in Romans 3:21 he says, “But now….Now, since the unjust execution and resurrection of God’s messiah, God is bringing people into right relationship by a new means: by faith, a means that sets Jews and Gentiles, women and men, on equal footing.

When this letter was received, the challenge it presented was relational. But in our own time, we have to deal with difficulties in translation and misunderstanding of the sacrificial metaphor before we can even get to the social challenge of Paul’s Gospel.

Translation

The beauty of the passage is built on the repetition of two Greek word-families and their cognates, as Paul turns them to different uses, carefully winding them into a dense net of meaning. They are:

  • pistis, faith, belief; pisteuo, to believe (Romans 3:22, two times; Romans 3:25, 26). The most enigmatic use of pistis is in the phrase pistis Christou, literally “the faith of Christ,” or “Christ’s faith” (Romans 3:22, 26). While many scholars have spilt ink over the question of whether the phrase is best translated as the “faith of Christ” or “faith in Christ,” several (including me) are beginning to say that the Greek phrase implies a complex interweaving of Christ’s faith and the believer’s faith, a double knot that ties the believer into the patterns of Christ’s obedience to God. The fact that the term is frequently used as a verb (Romans 3:22) underscores its active moral role. The brothers and sisters in Rome believe, that is they entrust themselves to Christ Jesus’ patterns of life, including the call to welcome one another courageously across the Gentile-Jewish divide.
  • dikaiosyne, justice/righteousness; dikaioo, to justify; dikaios, just, righteous (Romans 3:21, 22, 24, 25, 26 two times). This word gives English translators fits, because they have to choose between righteousness (right relationship with God) and justice (right relationship with one’s neighbor). The Greek language expresses the two as a single reality, a fact that grounds Paul’s argument in Romans 3. There is no true relationship with God if there is no true relationship with one’s neighbor.

Sacrificial metaphor

The use of a sacrificial metaphor to refer to Rome’s unjust execution of Jesus is Paul’s most stunning move in Romans 3, in spite of the fact that centuries of Christians post-70 CE (after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple) have come to accept the death of Jesus as necessarily sacrificial. And yet, the power of Paul’s insight in Romans 3:25 relies precisely upon the “is/is not” character of metaphor. To first-century believers, who participated in sacrifices regularly, the death of Jesus was obviously not literally a sacrifice because it did not take place in the Temple, was not offered by a priest, and was not one of the animals authorized for Jewish sacrifice. There is nothing about the death of Jesus, on the face of it, to suggest something other than an unjust execution at Roman hands.

What Paul says in Romans 3:24-25, however, is that there is redemption (purchase of freedom) in Christ Jesus, “whom God put forward: a mercy seat (hilasterion) through faith (pistis) in his blood as a demonstration of his [God’s] justice (dikaiosyne).” The mercy seat is in the Holy of Holies, the very center of the Jewish Temple, where the High Priest entered only once a year (Yom Kippur) to sprinkle blood, making atonement for all Israel. In effect, Paul claims unholy Golgotha as the Holy of Holies, the very center of God’s reconciling grace. God can turn what is unholy into a wellspring of blessing, as is in fact visibly happening among the Gentiles now called to walk in holiness as believers in Christ and servants of God.

The second thing Paul deftly accomplishes in this difficult sentence is the removal of Roman agency in the death of Jesus and the assertion of God’s agency. No matter what destruction Roman functionaries might enact, even the death of God’s anointed, God has the power to bring life and freedom, and not only for Jesus, but for all who join their lives to his by faith. The point of God’s decision to respond to the death of Jesus as though it were a sacrifice was to make a way for the whole earth to be atoned, to be made one, for all people to be reconciled to one another. The proper response to this global offering of atonement is overwhelming joy and welcome.

Living into grace

Opening up the startling freshness of this sacrificial metaphor may invite contemporary Christians into a deeper understanding of the grace of God to reconcile precisely where people are most tragically divided. The invitation to the hearers is to find those particular channels where, by Christ’s faith, they feel called to join themselves to the creative agency of God, already at work, already moving forward in welcome.


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 29, 2017.
  2. Interpretation of Romans 3:21-26 was an important coda to my dissertation and the subsequent book, Keeping the Feast: Sacrificial Metaphors in 1 Corinthians and Philippians (Atlanta, Ga.: Society of Biblical Literature, 2015).