Genesis 6.9-22, 7.24; 8.14-19
Deuteronomy 11.18-21, 26-28;
Romans 1.16-17, 3.22b-28 [29-31];
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).