by Fr Steve Tynan, MGL
A number of years ago, I gave a homily at the Elim Easter Vigil celebration where I gave an exegesis of Romans 3:21-26. I would like to remind us of a few of the salient points as we seek to understand the impact that being Easter People should have upon our lives. St Paul has spent the best part of three chapters outlining the sinful state of both Jew and Gentile, and how neither can do anything lasting about it (Romans 1:18-3:20). He prefaced this description with his affirmation that he is not ashamed of the Gospel because he has experienced it personally as power unto salvation (1:16-17).
In Romans 3:21-26, he states quite firmly that God has provided us with a solution to our sinfulness as a gift unto salvation. What does he say? There are five key words or phrases as I see it. They are:
dikaiosune tou Theou (righteousness of God)
doxa tou theou (glory of God)
hilasterion (mercy seat or expiation) and
paresis (pass over).
The reason that these words are so important is that they indicate to us that Paul is drawing from the liturgical language of the Jewish celebration of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement for the expiation of sin). No Jew would fail to recognize these terms and situate them in their liturgical setting. The basic premise of Paul’s argument is rooted in Jewish history — namely that our sin, an obstacle in our relationship with God that we are powerless to change, has been removed by Jesus through His death and resurrection.
Let us go through the text line by line, remembering that the solution to sin that we are reading about is totally beyond our powers (see Romans 3:20) and is offered to us as a gift by God. I will use the RSV translation (my favorite).
3:21 But now the righteousness of the God has been manifested apart from the Law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it.
Paul tells us that in the life, death and resurrection of Christ His righteousness is being demonstrated to us. Namely, it is God who is doing all the work here!
3:22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction;
We access this righteousness of God (the work He is doing for our salvation) through faith and belief in Christ. This faith is open to all men and women, not just the Jews.
3:23 since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,
Paul reaffirms the starting point that we are helpless without the work of God.
3:24 they are justified by grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
Paul emphasizes that we add nothing to the work accomplished by Christ. It is His (Christ’s) gift to us.
3:25 whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received in faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance has had passed over former sins;
Paul summarizes his argument that it is the mercy of God that causes him to pass over and forget our sins. This affirms that God is always the One who is in the position of doing the right thing.
3:26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.
God is never at fault and He will always redeem the one who places his faith in Jesus.
In summary, what Paul tells us is that it is not possible to fault God for our troubles. God has always been in the right. This understanding comes through much more clearly in the German translation of the English “righteousness.” It is rechtfertigung geschehen that translates literally into English as “right end acting.” That is, always acting for the right end or result. God is blameless when it comes to examining our sinfulness.
God further demonstrates His blamelessness by acting on our behalf to redeem us. Even though we are all sinners (3:23), He chooses to pass over our sins (3:25) (literally, to put them in the past and leave them there; forget about them) and to redeem or restore (3:24) us to relationship with Him. God does this through Jesus who is the manifestation of His mercy as expressed in His expiation of our sins (3:25). The Greek word, hilasterion here translated as expiation, describes that part of the base of the altar in the Temple where the blood from the animal sacrifices accumulates. It was the shedding of blood that represented forgiveness of sins for the Jews. So Jesus has become the new mercy seat in that it is His blood that once and for all brings us forgiveness.
This text is incredibly rich in imagery and meaning if we are willing to spend time reflecting upon it. As we celebrate the great Feast of Easter, let us take time to allow the truth of all that we celebrate to soak through our spirits so that like Paul, we will be able to acclaim that we are not ashamed of the Gospel because we know and have experienced it as the power of God to save!
Fr Steve Tynan, MGL is the spiritual director of Elim Communities.