Genesis 18.1-15 [21.1-7] or
Matthew 9.35-10.8 [9-23]
GOD RELAYED his promise, through Moses, to the Israelites: "If you keep my
covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples. You shall be a
kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19.5-6). Moses then ascended
Mount Sinai and received the terms of the covenant: the Ten Commandments,
further laws, and the promise of the Israelites' own land (Exodus 20-23).
The people promised obedience to the commandments, and Moses sealed the
covenant in a sacrifice of oxen. He then took the oxen's blood, poured half of
it against the altar, and threw half over the people. "Behold," he said, "the
blood of the covenant [in Greek, diatheke] which the Lord has made
with you" (Exodus 24.8).
The promise is taken up in the New Testament (in Greek, the new
diatheke). "To him", writes John the Seer, "who has freed us from our
sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father - to him
be glory for ever and ever" (Revelation 1.6).
This time, the covenant has been sealed with the blood of Jesus. Jesus says
at the Last Supper: "This is my blood of the covenant, poured out on behalf of
many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26.28).
Who are now offered a part in this covenant as members of God's people? The
animals and elders round the throne in heaven sing a new song to the Lamb: "You
have been sacrificed and in your blood have bought for God people from every
nation and language and have made them a kingdom and priests for our God, and
they will rule as kings over the earth" (from Revelation 5.9-10).
But what shall be the terms of membership of this new covenant? John the
Seer is to warn the angel of the Asian churches against "the synagogue of Satan"
, false prophets and false apostles. These false teachers encourage immorality
and the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. Whose teaching is under attack
here? Almost certainly Paul's.
Paul insists that Gentiles are admitted to the new covenant, just as Abraham
was admitted to the old: on the one condition of a trusting faithfulness to
God. Jesus had lived and died in such faithfulness; and so now must his
followers. At the start of Romans, Paul quoted Habakkuk: "The righteous through
faith shall live" (Romans 1.17, Habakkuk 2.4). In Romans 1-4, he explored the
link between faith and righteousness. Now, in Romans 5, he turns to the
This life will not be lived easily. Here, in Romans 5, Paul speaks of
tribulation, endurance, a tested character and hope (Romans 5.3-4). He will end
this part of his argument with a famous reprise: "Who will separate us
from the love of God? Tribulation or distress or persecution? . . . I am sure
that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God
in Christ Jesus our Lord" (from Romans 8.35-39).
Where, for Paul, does this leave the Mosaic Law? Through one man, Adam, "sin
entered the world; and through sin, death" (Romans 5.12). The Law (in ways we
shall hear more about over the coming weeks) only exacerbated the problem. It
is in Christ that the fault and its consequences are undone. "As one person's
trespass led to condemnation for all people; so one person's act of
righteousness leads, for all people, to a life declared righteous" (Romans
Paul's mission stands in sharp contrast to the command Matthew's Jesus gave
to his apostles: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, but rather go to the lost
sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 10.5). But Matthew himself works,
through the course of his Gospel, to cross the boundaries that Jesus's own
teaching had raised. The first to acknowledge Jesus, at the Gospel's start,
were the Gentile magi; the risen Lord himself, at its end, will command his
disciples to preach to all nations (Matthew 28.20).
Gentile converts are now welcome. But must they, in Matthew's mind, obey the
Mosaic Law? Probably. Matthew, however, never mentions circumcision itself;
and, according to his Jesus, the Christians' righteousness must not copy, but
"exceed", that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5.20). So it has been
possible for the Church to celebrate both Matthew's gospel and Paul's. For the
Law which informs our Christian lives is the renewed Law, issued once more from
a mountain, by our own new Moses: "Blessed are the poor in spirit . . ."