This week's readings:1st Sunday after Trinity

02 November 2006


Genesis 6.9-22, 7.24; 8.14-19 
or Deuteronomy 11.18-21, 26-28;
Romans 1.16-17, 3.22b-28 [29-31];
Matthew 7.21-end

WHEN PAUL wrote to the churches in Rome he was planning to visit them. He had not preached in the city before. He had no claim to the loyalty or obedience of the Christians there. He may, indeed, have been defending himself against dark rumours. "I am not ashamed", he says, "of the gospel" (Romans 1.16). Why might the Romans think he should be?

He speaks later of God's mercy in the face of our sins. That mercy is a good. But that does not lead to the principle, "as we are libelled and as some claim we say, 'Let's do evil, so that good may come of it'" (Romans 3.8). The charge clearly made Paul's gospel shameful; he spends much of the letter refuting the libel.

Even those who distrusted Paul knew that he invoked the Lord's name; that he worked miracles; and that, in founding churches, he claimed to be laying the foundations of God's dwelling (1 Corinthians 3.9-10). They may have known, too, whatever had been agreed about Gentile converts at any conference in Jerusalem (such as Acts 15 records). But Paul's gospel freed both Jews and Gentiles from obedience to the Jewish law; and seemed, worse still, to free them from all other restraints as well.

Paul was combating, in Rome, a gross misrepresentation of his gospel. But similar distrust of Paul may well have shaped Matthew's gospel, too. Here Paul faces a far deeper scrutiny: he was surely disloyal to God's law and so to its greatest teacher - Jesus himself.

Matthew's Jesus is a new Moses. From a mountain (Matthew 5.1) he discloses, in his own name, the radical requirements underlying the Law. "Do not think", he says, "I have come to undo the Law and the prophets; I have not come to undo, but to fulfil. Truly I tell you: until heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or tittle shall pass away from the Law, until all things come to pass."

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) ends with a warning. There will be miracle-working prophets, invoking Christ's name, whom Christ himself will deny: "Depart from me, you who work lawlessness!" Those who hear Jesus's words but do not obey them are like those who build a house on sand; the last judgement, like Noah's Flood, will sweep their work away (Matthew 7.16, 23, 27). Matthew has a Pauline gospel - and probably Paul himself - in his sights.

Paul had anticipated such charges. We will follow his response, through the course of Romans, over the coming weeks. Paul quotes Habakkuk (2.4) to set out, at the start, his programme for the letter's first half. "They shall live who are just from dependence on trust" (Romans 1.17). In Romans 1-4, Paul will expound the trust we are called to have in the justifying power of God. In Romans 5-8, he describes in detail the life that this brings.

The Law, Paul insists, brings only the knowledge of sin. (Our weekly readings skip his argument for this - highly contentious - claim.) But now "God has set forth a mercy-seat in his blood for the manifestation of his justness on account of the remission of former sins in the forbearance of God" (Romans 3.25). The mercy-seat had been the cover on the throne in the ancient Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies was entered just once a year, by the High Priest: on the Day of Atonement he sprinkled blood on the mercy-seat.

Paul is probably quoting here a formula he learnt in Antioch, from those who had preached a Pauline gospel before he himself. Perhaps the formula admitted that the Temple's sacrifices had been effective; far more effective, then, was the sacrifice of Jesus. Or perhaps God in his forbearance had been holding back from punishment, knowing that Jesus's sacrifice would do what the old sacrifices could not. Either way, God has now presented Jesus as both the place of ritual and the blood of its sacrifice.

We dwell forever on the Law; but have almost forgotten, after 2000 years, the importance of the Temple whose life the Law controlled. The blood sprinkled in the Holy of Holies was not the chief atonement for the sins of the people. (That was effected by the scapegoat, later in the day.) The blood in the Holy of Holies purified the Temple itself from contamination by those sins. Jesus is the purified sanctuary of the last times. So, too, then, is Christ's Body, the Church, purified by his blood. "You are the sanctuary of God," Paul reminds the Corinthians; "and the Spirit of God dwells in you" (1 Corinthians 3.16).

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