First Sunday of Advent

This short text from Romans is an appropriate reading for the first Sunday of Advent as it orients us to the full scope of our Advent hope.

Astronomical Clock
Astronomical Clock. Image by Michael Curi via Flickr; licensed under CC BY 2.0.

December 1, 2019

Second Reading
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Commentary on Romans 13:11-14

This short text from Romans is an appropriate reading for the first Sunday of Advent as it orients us to the full scope of our Advent hope.

Since Romans 12:1, Paul has been describing what new life in the community is meant to look like. Here Paul works within an explicitly eschatological framework: because of the Christ-event, the old age is coming to an end, the new age has dawned, and believers are called to live in the light of that hope. The text is built on familiar antitheses—sleep/awake, night/day, darkness/light—that give vividness to the exhortation and feel appropriate for Advent. But an important feature of the text that is blunted by many English translations is the baptismal language that permeates it.

“You know what time it is”: Advent hope and readiness (Romans 13:11-12a)

Paul grounds the motivation for a different way of life in the fact that the Romans believers know that a new “time” (kairos) is here: the time begun in the sending of Christ that will culminate in his return. It is time, as the NRSV and many other translations render it, “to wake from sleep.” While this verb does have the sense of “waking up,” two important things are missed by this translation. First, the verb is passive: you are not simply waking yourself up, but are being woken up; there is another actor here. Second, Paul has already used this verb in reference to Christ’s resurrection and the hope believers have for their own resurrection because of their baptism into Christ. As Paul states, “we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4; see also 6:9; 7:4). In this context, “sleep” envisions a kind of spiritual sluggishness from which one needs to be drawn out of (see also 1 Thessalonians 5:6-11) to walk in that newness of life. It is time, Paul says, to return to your baptism to know who you are: not one who walks in the old age, but one who has been claimed by God in Christ.

What is the reason for this exhortation? It is not fear, threats, or judgment: it is the very nearness of salvation, that Christ’s return is now closer than it has ever been. Time, of course, is not so straightforward for the Christian: the “night” (see also Romans 12:2; Galatians 1:4) while far gone, is still present; the day is dawning, but is not fully present. Sin and death have been defeated in Christ, but the old age has not yet been fully set aside. Those who belong to the new age—who share the destiny of Christ—will face temptations to return to the old age. Thus the call to persevere. The “day,” which refers to the new age that has dawned in Christ, is spoken of with the same verb that Jesus uses for the kingdom of God in the gospels: it has “drawn near.” In other words, it is here but not yet in its fullness.

“Let us walk … in the daytime”: The new baptismal life (Romans 13:12b-14)

Paul seems to be giving general encouragement to continue in faith (see also Romans 1:8) rather than addressing some particular moral issue plaguing the community. The works that Paul discourages are listed in three pairs: revelry and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy. These were common vices; four of the six also show up in Galatians 5:19-21. While the first two pairs make sense as activities of “the night” or “darkness” (see also again 1 Thessalonians 5:4-7), the final pair might be pointing to the issue of division within the community that Paul will address in Romans 13:14-15. In being raised from the night, and fighting against the works of the darkness, believers are to “put on the armor of light.” The language of armor can be found both in the Old Testament (see also Isaiah 59:17) and elsewhere in Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:8).

Here again Paul is speaking in language that further grounds this passage in baptism: in Romans 6:13, Paul encourages believers not to “present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.” The word here for “instruments” is the same as “armor” in our text. Paul is calling for these Roman Christians to take up the weapon, armor, instruments of the new life given in Christ. As such, Christians are to “live honorably,” exhibiting a way of life defined by the day. Christians await the day even as in Christ by faith they walk in that new light.

In the final verse, Paul again speaks to the new life in the terms of baptism: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” This verse is a close parallel to Galatians 3:27 (the same verb is used in both places): “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” To put on the “armor of light” is to put on Christ; to put on Christ is to be baptized into his death and resurrection (see also Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10). Paul is calling for these believers to remember their baptismal life—that their sins have been forgiven, their old selves drowned in the death of Christ (see also 1 Corinthians 6:9-11). In the new life of Christ’s resurrection, given now in the Spirit (see also Romans 8:1-17), there is no “provision for the flesh” such that the person can cave back into the old age. In faith one takes hold of Christ such that there is no space for the flesh, for the flesh has been defeated and sin forgiven.

All of Paul’s exhortations in this text flow from the Gospel: You belong to Christ and the day. You are of the light. “Our salvation is nearer,” and you know the time.