Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year B)

These three verses contain a doxology, and they bring the Letter to the Romans to a close. Or do they?

"Visitation." Notre Dame, Paris. Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

December 21, 2014

Second Reading
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Commentary on Romans 16:25-27

These three verses contain a doxology, and they bring the Letter to the Romans to a close. Or do they?

They are missing altogether in some Greek witnesses; alternatively, they appear at the end of chapter 14 in some Greek texts; and they appear after chapter 15 in others. (There are even more variations than these!) So many textual variations makes these verses highly suspect, causing one to question whether they were part of the version that came from the hand of Tertius, Paul’s amanuensis (Romans 16:22). Moreover, the verses contain phrases not found elsewhere in the undisputed letters of Paul; they are similar instead to phrases in deutero-Pauline letters, such as Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles. Suspicion increases even more when another matter is considered. Within these three verses there are 53 words in the Greek New Testament (28th edition of the Nestle text), forming one very long sentence. That too is unusual for Paul. The general verdict is that the verses are a post-Pauline interpolation. Nevertheless, they are a part of the canonical text as printed in modern language versions and are worthy of our attention and reflection.

The syntax of this long sentence is complex. The subject does not appear until the end, namely, the noun “glory.” If we rearrange the words, the main clause of the sentence is “Glory to the one who is able to strengthen you … ” The writer gives glory to God, based on theological assertions expressed within phrases and subordinate clauses within the sentence.

As a way to get into this convoluted passage, one can give attention initially to what is said in Romans 16:25-26 (“the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed”). The term rendered as “mystery” in the NRSV (mysterion in Greek) can just as well be translated as “secret,” designating a “divine secret” that God has kept in the past until it is time for it to be revealed. The idea of a divine secret being withheld until the proper time is found in apocryphal writings (2 Esdras 14:5, etc.) and in the Dead Sea Scrolls. But it also shows up in Paul’s own writings (Romans 11:25; 1 Corinthians 2:7, 10).

Just what “the mystery” consists of is unclear. Is it Jesus Christ? Is it the inclusion of the Gentiles? And what does it mean to say that the mystery “is made known to all the Gentiles” “through the prophetic writings?” There are puzzles here to stump anyone.

Essentially, it appears that the reference to the prophetic writings means that what they envision — the coming of the Gentiles to faith in a future messianic age (e.g., Isaiah 2:2-4; 60:3; Micah 4:1-3, etc.) — is being fulfilled. As the gospel is proclaimed to the nations of the world (the Gentiles), the mystery is being made manifest. The time of the messianic hopes has been fulfilled through the coming of Jesus (i.e., his incarnation).

The “revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages” refers then to the present proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ for all people, including the Gentiles. Proclamation is the “unveiling” (which “revelation” means) of what has been a divine secret that has existed from eternity. The secret is “now disclosed.” The secret is out — through the proclamation of the gospel. (Those who use sermon titles might consider using the phrase “the secret is out.”)

The passage contains a number of additional words and phrases that can be pondered. The phrase “the proclamation of Jesus Christ” could mean either the preaching of the earthly Jesus or the proclamation concerning him, i.e., the Christian message. In context, it appears to mean the latter. The “prophetic writings” are of course the prophetic books of the Old Testament, but no specific texts are mentioned, which is not unusual, since Paul speaks of the prophets without specific references elsewhere (e.g., Romans 1:2). The phrase “according to the command of the eternal God” modifies the verb “disclosed” (more obvious in the Greek text than in English versions) as though the time of disclosure was ordered by God’s own decision. Finally, the phrase “obedience of faith” was used by Paul at Romans 1:5. In neither place is it likely to mean “obedience to the faith” (the Christian message), but “faith that consists of obedience.”

The text is assigned for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, just prior to the celebration of the Nativity. The other readings of the day will more than likely overshadow this brief text. The first reading narrates the promise of God to David that a royal dynasty will succeed him, and that his throne will last forever (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16). The Gospel for the Day is the Annunciation to Mary (Luke 1:26-38). In both cases a message, a divine secret, is transmitted to an individual having a role to play in what is to come. In each case the message is conveyed by means of spokespersons: a prophet (Nathan) in the first instance; by an angel (Gabriel) in the second. But the messages are not yet for the public; they are private and personal. The message becomes public only when the angels, shepherds, wise men, apostles, and finally the church announce and celebrate Jesus’ birth.

The passage from Romans relates to the other two passages quite directly, although subtly. The author declares that the mystery, the divine secret, has now been disclosed for all the world to hear. The coming of Christ into the world was in fulfillment of the divine purpose; furthermore, the proclamation of the gospel of his coming to all the nations was consistent with that purpose as well.

At first glance the message of this text can seem quite abstract for a sermon. But it can be proclaimed in more familiar terms. The text is a brief recital of salvation history. One can emphasize that in this passage we have a full sweep of the biblical drama in miniature. It speaks of the purposes of God. After the creation and the fall (both of which are presupposed), the purpose of God was to bring peace and reconciliation among the people of the world, and between God and them. God raised up the royal house of David and promised that David’s throne would last forever. The prophets anticipated a day when the people outside of Israel would also come to believe in God and seek to do God’s will. The ancient promise to David was renewed in the Annunciation to Mary. Furthermore, it was fulfilled when God sent his Son — the Son of David, born of Mary — to be the everlasting king, a king whose reign knows no end and no boundaries.

Closing out the season of Advent, we are at the threshold of our transition to the actual story of the birth of Christ in the Gospel of Luke, acclaimed and praised by the angels and witnessed by the shepherds. We’ll join the heavenly host as we celebrate the good news of Christmas. But the seasons of Advent and Christmas overlap, because the message of the latter cannot be contained. Still in Advent, we contemplate how God used human instruments, such as David, the prophets, and Mary, to disclose secrets concerning what is in store for humanity. But letting the Nativity brighten our horizon already, we know that the secret is out, and it will continue to be out, as the church makes it known to the world.