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Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapters 15-16–Thus Ends the Argument (Plus Some “Pro-Woman Stuff” at the End) (Part 21)

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapters 15-16–Thus Ends the Argument (Plus Some “Pro-Woman Stuff” at the End) (Part 21)

Here we come to the end of Romans, where Paul sums up his argument for unity in the Church.

Romans 15:1-6
Romans 15-1After his comments on “food and drink,” and how Jews shouldn’t pass judgment on Gentiles, and how Gentiles should not flaunt their freedom in the faces of their Jewish brothers, Paul makes his final appeal to Gentile believers: “We who are strong should bear the weakness of those who aren’t strong,” but at the same time…we should not live to please ourselves. Instead of judging and mocking each other, Paul wants the Jewish and Gentile believers resolve to please their neighbors (i.e. each other) for the good of building them up (v. 1-2).

Again, Paul appeals to Christ as the ultimate example (v. 3-4). And then, finally, Paul makes his final encouragement and appeal: “Through endurance and encouragement, may God give you the same mind among one another in keeping with Christ Jesus, so that you may glorify together the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ with one voice” (v. 5-6).  In case it’s not emphasized enough, let’s be clear: Paul is emphasizing the unity of the Church, so that the Church in Rome can truly be the People of God in Rome.

Romans 15:7-13
This section is the ultimate conclusion of the whole argument of Romans. It is straightforward and simple: Welcome one another, just as Christ welcomed you for the glory of God (v. 7). After all, they are God’s people, not your people! Look to Christ, who became a servant for the circumcised (i.e. Jews) on behalf of the truth of God—in order to make good on the promises He made to the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob)—and who became a servant for the uncircumcised (i.e. Gentiles) on behalf of mercy—in order to glorify God.

We need to remember that the whole purpose of God’s covenant with Abraham was so that He could eventually bring salvation and blessing to all nations. That promise, Paul is emphasizing, is being fulfilled in Christ and the Church, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

With that, Paul unleashes a litany of Old Testament passages that serve as a final “Yeah God!” for fulfilling His promises:

  • 17:50 (I will confess you among the Gentiles….)
  • Deuteronomy 32:43 (Rejoice, Gentiles, with His people!)
  • Psalm 117:1 (Praise YHWH, all you Gentiles….)
  • Isaiah 11:10 (The one who rises to rule the Gentiles will be the root of Jesse, and the Gentiles will place their hope upon him).

Romans 15-13And so, with his argument made, Paul finishes with 15:13: “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in having faith, in order for you to overflow in that hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. The actual argument of the letter ends here. From here on out, Paul then turns his attention to more practical/personal matters.

Wrapping Things Up (Romans 15:14-16:27)
The end of Paul’s letter contains a number of practical concerns Paul has that he wants to share with the church in Rome. In regards to the rest of chapter 15, in 15:14-22 he talks a bit about his ministry; in 15:23-29 he talks about his future plans (he hopes to make it to Rome; he plans to go to Spain; he talks about his journey to Jerusalem); then in 15:30-33 he asks them to pray for him.

In 15:14-22, Paul portrays himself as a “priestly servant,” and describes his ministry in Jewish-priestly terms. The Gentiles are the offering that he is presenting to God, as if he were a priest in the Jerusalem Temple. And using that “temple language,” Paul is trying to explain what exactly is happening with the Gentiles—they are being “brought into the Temple of God” and being made holy by the Holy Spirit. Of course, for Paul and the rest of the New Testament writers, the true Temple of God is the Church itself! But in any case, it should tell you how the early Church understood salvation—it wasn’t just some abstract “Get people saved” idea; it was seen against the backdrop of the Jewish Temple—salvation was “building up” the temple of the Holy Spirit.

In 15:23-29, Paul discusses his future plans. He wants to come to Rome, not really to stay there, but so that it can be the “sending church” so he can go on to Spain. Simply put, it’s “missionary strategy” stuff. Making contact and establishing a friendship with the church in Rome will help Paul in his plans to spread the Gospel to Spain.

In 15:30-33, Paul briefly mentions what he expects to happen when he visits Jerusalem to offer the Gentile gift. Simply put, he expects trouble in Jerusalem when he offers the Gentile gift. He realizes that he’s been rejected by unbelieving Jews, but at the same time, accepted by the “saints” in Jerusalem (i.e. Jewish-Christians).

Chapter 16 simply is a laundry list of greetings and the like. There really are only a few interesting things to note…especially for women.

  • First, in 16:1-2 we have the mention of Phoebe. She is described as a deacon of the church in Cenchreae—she is a leader…and a woman. The church there meets in her house, and she is a benefactor of many Christians. Since she was going to Rome on business, Paul gave her the letter to carry to Rome.
  • In 16:3-5 we have the mention of Prisca and Aquila. The wife (Prisca) is mentioned first—nowhere in ancient literature is this found. Hence, it is extremely rare to find this. In their house-church in Rome they were “co-workers” and the church there was understood to be equally theirs. Paul’s letter was to be read in their house-church first.
  • JuniaIn 16:7 we have the mention of Andronicus and Junia. In some earlier English translations, “Junia” was translated “Junias.” Why? Because Paul says that these two people were “great among the apostles.” The name “Junia” is clearly a woman’s name, and some translators with an anti-woman bias did not like the idea of a woman being called an apostle. (Now, “apostle” was not designated to only the Twelve until Revelation; throughout the first century, an “apostle” was anyone who had first-hand contact with Jesus). And so, they changed it to “Junias.” There is only one problem—there is no known “Junias” anywhere in ancient literature! In other words, there’s no such name as “Junias”! It’s a completely made up name. In any case, the more recent translations are being faithful to the actual Greek, and are translating it as “Junia.”

But that really is it to Romans. I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through Paul’s letter to the Romans. Much more can be said as to how apply this letter to our day and age, but I’ll leave that as a challenge to anyone who reads this.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapter 14–Living with the Strong and the Weak in the Church (Part 20)

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapter 14–Living with the Strong and the Weak in the Church (Part 20)

The final section of Paul’s argument in Romans is found in 14:1-15:13. It deals with relationships within the community of faith. Or to put it another way, it talks about how Christians need to treat each other. By addressing this, Paul is getting to the heart of how he wants the Gentile-Christians and Jewish-Christians in Rome to relate to each other.

When I took a class on Romans at Regent College, my professor Gordon Fee said, “Whatever else Paul is, he’s not an American!” Paul doesn’t think along “individualistic” lines. For Paul, if you are a Christian, it’s not a “Just me and Jesus” type of thing. You need to realize that you are part of the body of Christ, and therefore you must live your life in relation to other deeply flawed Christians just like you. Let’s face it, that is a very hard thing to do. Some people tend to be jerks, or too whiny, or too over-bearing, or too this or too that. Dealing with other people can be a big pain sometimes. Nevertheless, living together as a community of faith is what Paul is going to stress.

In order to make sense of the passage, you have to know who is who. “The weak” is a reference to Jewish-Christians, and “the strong” is a reference to Gentile-Christians. What Paul’s argument boils down to is this: Gentile-Christians have to accept their weaker brothers, the Jewish-Christians, who get easily hung up on issues like clean/unclean food, and Jewish-Christians are not to pass judgment on Gentile-Christians for not adhering to Jewish practices. The passage, therefore, is laid out like this:

  • 14:1-12: Paul sets forth the whole argument: Jews and Gentiles are not to relate to each other on the basis of Torah observance.
  • 14:13-23: Paul addresses primarily Gentile Christians, and explains the practical working out of the Gospel for the Gentiles.
  • 15:1-6: Paul makes his final appeal to the Gentiles
  • 15:7-13: The conclusion to the whole argument

With that, let’s begin…

The Strong: Don’t  Be Shmucks! (Romans 14:1)
Romans 14-1Paul starts off with a straightforward appeal. He challenges the Gentile-Christians to “receive those who are weak in the faith.” And who are those who are “weak in the faith”? That’s right: Paul says it is Jewish-Christians who place too much importance on Torah observance. At the same time, though, Paul makes it clear that the reason why Gentile-Christians should do this is “…not for the purpose of arguing over disputed matters.” In other words, Paul is saying to the Gentile Christians, “You might be theologically right, but you shouldn’t always ‘try to win’ by argument” when it comes to Torah observance.

I find it ironic that Paul lines up his fellow Jews with being “weak in the faith.” On the outside, they probably seemed “more religious” precisely because they were so concerned with the Torah. Let’s face it, even today, it is the more outwardly religious people—the people who give you weird looks if you have a beer—who we simply assume are “more spiritual.” It’s true today as it was back then: the “church ladies” are assumed to be the ones with a “strong faith.” Not so, according to Paul! As far as he is concerned, it is those types of people who are the truly “weak ones” because they really thought that Torah observance gave them special status in God’s eyes, and thus they were having a hard time truly grasping what faith really was.

In addition, it needs to be emphasized that Paul is also telling the Gentile-Christians to not only accept those who are hung up on certain Torah regulations, but to also not argue over those trivial things. If a Jew has a problem with eating meat, or if a person in your church has a problem with rock music, alcohol, or whatever, Paul’s message is simple: accept that person, even with their hang-ups. And for goodness sake, don’t eat meat, listen to rock music, or have a beer in their presence! It’s not because they are “really spiritual” and you have to be ashamed, but rather because they are actually the ones who are hung up on irrelevant things, and therefore you need to do the loving thing and just not make a big deal about it. In time, hopefully, they will come around to a more mature understanding of those things. But you can’t force the issue. Let the Holy Spirit change their heart in due time.

The Weak: Don’t be Judgmental! (Romans 14:2-6)
This leads into 14:2-3: Paul says that not only must the Gentile not despise the Jew for not eating everything (i.e. don’t make fun of the guy!), but also, the Jew must not judge Gentiles for eating everything (i.e. don’t accuse the guy for being a sinner!). Why? Simple: “for God has received him.”

Now, you might be wondering what the big deal with meat is all about. We must remember that pagan priests were the “holy butchers” in the Roman world. Jews therefore thought that because a pagan priest had butchered the meat that was sold in the marketplace, that the meat was essentially contaminated with “idol cooties.” That is why most Jews in the Roman empire became vegetarians. Well, Gentiles thought the Jews were just flat-out weird! I mean really, what kind of weirdos circumcise their sons, obey crazy food laws, and worship only one god (and they don’t even have an idol of that god!). And so, basically, Paul is telling Gentiles, “Don’t call the Jews weirdos!” and he’s telling Jews, “Don’t condemn Gentile-Christians as sinners!”

This leads into what Paul says 14:5-6 about Sabbath observance and food laws. Basically, Paul is saying two things:

  1. “If Gentiles have to work on the Sabbath, then they have to work! It doesn’t really matter!”
  2. “You can eat everything and give thanks to God! You can abstain from certain food and give thanks to God!” Either way is fine with God.

In both cases, Paul emphasizes that the important thing is giving thanks to God!”  Simply put, it is wrong to put undue emphasis on issues that are not important. Neither side should force the other side to change their ways on issues that simply are irrelevant. Anyone who does that is putting irrelevant issues ahead of Christ and the Gospel.

Don’t Judge Me! (Romans 14:7-10)
With that, Paul then “theologizes” in Romans 14:7-10 what he’s been saying in Romans 14:1-6. He says, that since “we are all the Lord’s,” you (yes, you!) are not to judge anyone in regards to irrelevant and disputed matters. Why? Because in the end, “all will stand before the judgment seat of God” (v. 10). Now, we need to clarify something here: Paul is not issuing a warning or threat here. He’s not saying, “You’d better watch what you do, because you’re going to get judged by God for it!” Quite the opposite. He’s actually saying that God is the one who has the right to judge a person, not us. It’s actually assurance: since you’re going to give account to God, I cannot judge you.

The Kingdom of God Isn’t About Beer! (Romans 14:13-18)
Romans 14-13Paul then appeals to both the Jewish and Gentile Christians in 14:13-23. He first appeals to them to stop “judging” one another over irrelevant issues. Then he plays upon the idea of “judging” by saying, “Let’s ‘judge’ not to set up a ‘stumbling block’ or ‘scandal’ before each other” (v. 13). Paul then appeals in 14:14 to what Jesus himself said in Mark 7: all foods are clean! (This is also emphasized in Acts 10, with Peter’s vision of the sheet out of Heaven). Nevertheless, though, (and now Paul specifically addresses Gentiles), if you eat supposedly “unclean food” in front of your Jewish brother, then, even though the food is clean in God’s eyes, you’re not walking in love (v. 15)—and that is the really important issue!

Romans 14-17Therefore, Paul says, “Don’t let your ‘good’ be blasphemed, for the Kingdom of God ISN’T ABOUT FOOD and DRINK but it is about righteousness, peace, and Joy in the Holy Spirit” (v. 16-17). Paul’s point should be simple: don’t let an irrelevant things like a steak (or wine, or rock music, or whatever) give the Gospel of Christ a bad name. Don’t let it be used as something to turn people away from the saving grace found in Christ. In fact, 14:16-17 is the point of Paul’s entire argument: Paul is telling the Gentiles not to scandalize or deliberately offend their Jewish brothers and sisters by forcing issues of “liberation of food and drink,” because the Kingdom of God isn’t about of that stuff.

Well, If We Don’t Judge One Another, What’s a Christian To Do? (Romans 14:19-23)
With that, Paul turns in 14:19-23 to what Christians should pursue: things that bring peace with each other within the community, and things that build one another up. Therefore, don’t tear down the work of God for the sake of food (v. 20)! Paul then caps it off with a harsh challenge to both Jews and Gentiles: food is evil if you eat it in such a way that causes a stumbling block (v. 21) . BUT…food is good if you don’t do it in order to purposely make someone trouble. It’s just that simple.

Let’s Reflect Before We Go On
Before we wrap things up with Romans 15-16, let’s reflect on what Paul has said here in Romans 14. Back then the early Church was wrestling with various social issues that swirled about the whole question on how Jewish believers and Gentile believers were to relate to each other. It was an inevitable clash of cultures within the Church, precisely because in Christ all nations and peoples were to be united together in love.

Ah, but that’s so hard! The Jews really viewed not keeping Jewish purity laws as sin; the Gentiles really thought Jews who didn’t eat meat or didn’t work on the Sabbath were just nutty. And here is Paul, trying to get both groups to be one in Christ, and saying Torah observance really wasn’t important, and eating meat that had passed through pagan temples wasn’t sinful.

What we see here in Romans is the attempts of the early Church to work through the Gospel within their real-life cultural contexts. And like I said, that is hard. Think of social issues we wrestle with today. When I was a kid it was rock music, alcohol, dancing, and smoking. Today there are other issues, and often they have become strictly aligned with a particular political party platform. Living out and applying the Gospel to the ever-changing culture will always be a challenge. That is why we need to realize the heart of what Paul is saying here in Romans 14: the important thing is to try to relate to each other in love and to build each other up.

When you find yourself in a debate with another Christian over any particular controversial social issue, “winning the argument” might not exactly be what is loving or good. Even if you really are right on the issue, tearing the other person down might not be the best way to go about things. I have no “cure all” or easy answer to any of this. All I can say is this: keep in mind what Paul is saying. If you know of a fellow Christian who really has a problem with something you have no problem with, be gentle with that person. And if you are a Christian who has a big problem with what another believer is doing, ask yourself, “Is this issue a primary or secondary issue to the faith?” If it is secondary, don’t pass judgment. Sure, discuss the issue, share your thoughts, learn from one another.

But don’t pass judgment on secondary, irrelevant issues. And don’t belittle someone who is struggling with an issue. That’s something we can all remember to practice.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapter 13–Authority (Respect it!) and Taxes (Pay it!) (Part 19)

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapter 13–Authority (Respect it!) and Taxes (Pay it!) (Part 19)

CartmanNews flash: Christians are not called to live only within their Christian community. They also have live in the real world, with pagans and secular (and sometimes hostile) authorities. So how should Christians live in relation to “the world”? This is the very issue that Paul addresses in Romans 13. What is specifically in question is obeying those in authority.

Respect My Authority!
One thing to keep in mind is that when Paul wrote Romans, Nero was the emperor. Yes, that Nero—the one who eventually launched the first persecution of Christians; the one who used Christians as human torches to light his gardens. Yes, that one.

Human TorchesStrange as it sounds, though, when Paul wrote Romans, Nero was not yet the madman he eventually became. The first five years of Nero’s reign were actually among the best of the Roman Empire. He was under the influence of Seneca, and therefore it was “good times” for Christians when Paul wrote this. The major question for Christians regarding Romans 13, though, is how does all this “submission to authorities” talk jive with Acts 1-7, where the apostles said to the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than man!”? They clearly were not “submitting to the authorities.” In addition, in Revelation, it is assumed that Christians should “resist the Beast,” and that the Beast and the Whore of Babylon were enemies of Christ. Clearly, John didn’t want Christians to “submit” to Rome then, and actually worship the beast-like emperor.

So what gives? How can one passage in the Bible tell us to submit to authorities, whereas other passages teach us clearly to resist them?

The answer actually is pretty simple: it depends on the circumstances.

  • When should you obey authority? When that authority is promoting what is good and just (as in Nero’s early reign).
  • When should you not obey authority? When that authority is promoting evil and injustice (as during the reign of Domitian).

“Tribulation” and “Wrath” (Why Dispensationalists Get Everything Wrong)
Now here is where something else must be emphasized: the difference between tribulation and wrath. Biblically-speaking, God’s people suffer tribulation, but not wrath. Tribulation is what God’s people suffer at the hands of “anti-Christ” rulers and governments, whereas wrath is God’s judgment on those who are rebellious, and essentially, “anti-Christ.”

Incidentally, this is where dispensationalist theology reads Revelation wrong. They talk about the “Great Tribulation” from Revelation 7:14-17 and claim that Christians will be spared from it. In reality, the angel tells John that the crowd he sees has come through the great tribulation (presumably a reference to Domitian’s empire-wide persecution of Christians)—they have suffered martyrdom, but are now with Christ. They have conquered the beast Domitian through their suffering of tribulation.

The New Testament is clear: Christians suffer tribulation. By contrast, what Christians will be spared from is God’s wrath. Later on, in Revelation 17-18, we see that Babylon the Great (i.e. Rome) will be forced to drink the cup of God’s wrath, precisely because she inflicted tribulation on His people (i.e. she got drunk of their blood).

Submit to Authorities (Romans 13:1-5)
With that in mind we can now look specifically at Romans 13. Remember, at this time, things were good for Christians in the Roman Empire. In Romans 13:1-5 Paul’s imperative was to “submit to authorities because God ordains authority.” Paul’s point is that authority is God’s gift to a fallen world. The law exists because people by their very nature aren’t good. Therefore, God has ordained that those in authority make sure that people, who by their very nature aren’t good, live good lives in harmony with each other.

By extension, Paul says that if you do what is good, then you won’t have to worry about suffering judgment and wrath by the hands of authority. The only people who have to be afraid of the authorities are those who do what is bad. As Paul says, the one in authority is God’s servant who punishes with wrath the one who does wickedness (13:3-4). Of course, Paul also makes it clear in 13:5 that you shouldn’t do good just so you won’t get punished, but rather because of conscience—because you’re a Christian.

Taxes…Yes, Stop Complaining Already, and Pay Them (Romans 13:6-10)
uncle-sam-taxesAnother issue that would be pressing for Christians is “Should we pay taxes to Caesar?” The Jews certainly didn’t like paying taxes because they saw Roman as the Great Evil. And, just like Jesus said when he was questioned in the Temple about paying taxes, Paul’s answer in 13:6-7 is, “Yes, you should pay your taxes.” This is a logical outgrowth of 3:1-5—if the governing authority is God’s instrument to promote the good, then you should pay taxes to help the govern authority promote the good.

Paul then plays off the idea of “owing” things, and says that ultimately the only thing you “owe” to others is to love them (13:8-10). In fact, the one who loves the other fulfills the Torah. This echoes what Paul said back in 8:4: the just requirement of Torah is fulfilled by those who walk in the Spirit. Therefore, since love does not do evil to his neighbor, love is a fulfillment of Torah.

Soldier On and Use Your Weapons of Light (Romans 13:11-14)
Paul then gives one last word regarding “the flesh” in 13:11-14 by using both “soldier” language and “day/night” imagery, by saying that “the night” (i.e. the old age of the flesh) is almost over, and “the day” (i.e. the consummation of the new Messianic age of the Spirit) is near.

Therefore, Paul calls for the believers to “walk in the day,” use “weapons of light,” and put off the “works of darkness.” And what are those “night time activities”? Paul articulates things that are normally associated with the pagan idolatrous world: immoral feasting, drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, perverted behavior, rivalry and jealousy. These things (especially those first four!) are things normally done at night. So they are not only literally night-time activities, but they are also things that represent spiritual darkness. And so, Paul says, “Don’t do them! Put on Christ and don’t give an inch to the lusts of ‘the flesh.’”

Pretty straightforward stuff.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapter 12–Priests, Sacrifices, and What is Good–and a Few Burning Coals (Part 18)

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapter 12–Priests, Sacrifices, and What is Good–and a Few Burning Coals (Part 18)

Romans-1-bible_article_imageWith all that “Gospel theology” in Romans 1-8, and then the questions regarding ethnic Israel now explained in Romans 9-11, Paul turns his attention to explaining the practical application of all that to the everyday lives of the Christians living in Rome. This is the focus of Romans 12-16.

By extension, what we find in Romans 12-15 very much applies to us as Christians living in America today. For here in Romans 12-15, Paul essentially gets to where the rubber meets the road. Talking theology is all well and good (and obviously quite necessary!), but living that theology out in the everyday world is what matters. If your theology isn’t actually lived out, then what you have isn’t faith…it’s just facts and arguments.

The way the next few chapters in Romans are laid out looks like this:

  • Romans 12:1-21: Paul addresses what it looks like to live the life of the Holy Spirit within the Community of Faith
  • Romans 13:1-14: Paul addresses what it looks like to live the life of the Holy Spirit within the Pagan World
  • Romans 14:1-15:13: Paul makes an appeal for the Jewish-Christians and Gentile-Christians in Roman to accept one another

With that introduction, let’s get to Romans 12…

Priests, Living Sacrifices, the New Age, and What is Good (Romans 12:1-2)
Romans 12:1-2 set up everything else that comes after it in the chapter. One thing should be clear: Paul is not talking about individualistic Christianity. He is talking about the corporate people of Godthe Church. This is something that highly-individualistic American Christians have to get their heads around. God’s goal of salvation is not simply to “save” individuals, so that those individuals can “go to heaven.” God’s goal of salvation is to re-create a people for His Name—the People of God. Therefore, by virtue of being the People of God, we must take care that we live as the People of God—we must take care that we are living out Christ-like relationships with other Christians within the Body of Christ. This is what Paul is getting at here in Romans 12.

Now, we need to spend a little time with these first two verses in chapter 12. First, Paul begins with what will be for some people to be a very famous verse: “Present your bodies as living sacrifices. This is your sensible act of worship.” In case you don’t get it, “living sacrifices” is an oxymoron. Paul is using the language of the animal sacrificial system and applying it to the daily life of the believer. In addition, since the one who offers the sacrifices is a priest, Paul is basically saying that believers are to offer their own bodies, just as Christ our high priest offered his, as a sacrifice that will help bring about the reconciliation of the world. Just as Christ was both priest and sacrifice, so are believers to be. Believers have a job to do: be priests, and that starts with offering themselves. Believers are called to be imitators of Christ: and that entails sacrificing ourselves for the reconciliation of others.

Romans 12-1In addition, Paul then calls presenting your bodies as “living sacrifices” as the believers sensible act of worship. This is important to note, because some translations like the NIV, NRSV, and ESV have spiritual act of worship. The Greek word here is λογικὴν (logican) (from where we get the word “logic”), not πνευματικὸν, which actually does mean “spiritual.” Now, although in a sense offering your body as a living sacrifice is spiritual, that’s not what Paul is talking about—he is saying that offering your body as a living sacrifice is the logical and sensible thing to do for a believer. This is completely opposite of how Paul described the senseless thoughts of the Gentiles in Romans 1:22-23, when they worship created things, and not the Creator.

Verse two also contains another horrible translation job by many translators. It should read “Don’t be conformed to this age,” not “Don’t be conformed to this world.” The reason why this is important is because Paul is specifically referring to the present old age (in contrast to the new Messianic age that was ushered in at Pentecost). This “already/not yet” worldview runs throughout Paul’s letter, and needs to be seen here as well. The reason why the believer can choose to not be conformed to this age is precisely because he has died to “the old age way of things,” and has been empowered by the Holy Spirit of the new Messianic age. And so, not only are believers not to be conformed to this age, but they are also to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

Simply put, they must continue to walk in faith and by doing so, develop a new way of looking at things. It is this new Spirit-empowered worldview will make it possible for you to “discern the will of God”—not on the sense of “Does God want me to get this job or marry that person?” But rather to discern what is good. And note, Paul doesn’t say “discern what is right.” There is a huge difference sometimes between what is good and what is right. We need to realize that sometimes, even if you are right about something, it is not good to insist on your way, because you might hurt someone else. And if you knowingly hurt someone else simply because you have to prove that you are right, then what you’ve done is actually evil. And the aim of Pauline ethics is to determine and do what is good. We’ll see this play out in the next few chapters.

So Tell Me, How Do You Think About Yourself? (Romans 12:3-8)
So what is the outgrowth of “offering your bodies as living sacrifices,” “not being conformed to this age,” and “transforming your minds in order to discern what is good”? Paul articulates this in 12:3-8. It comes down to this:

  • Have a sober estimation of yourself
  • And do everything in the context of one another

Now, let’s get this straight. Paul is not saying that you should think of yourself as a worthless nobody. He’s saying be honest with yourself about yourself: know your weakness, your strengths, etc. Don’t think of yourself too highly or too lowly. And when he talks about “the measure of faith” given to you, he’s not talking about “saving faith” here. He’s simply saying that you should live out and practice the things you have been gifted with, with the purpose of using your gifts to serve others. That is why he talks about “one body/many parts” in 12:4-5. You are part of the one body of Christ, but you have been uniquely gifted in a special way, so use your unique gifts to serve others and strength the body of Christ.

This doesn’t mean you have to use your gifts in a literal church service or something like that. It means that you should use your gifts to build up other Christians. Paul essentially says this very thing in 12:6-8: wherever you are gifted, do that, whatever that may be: prophecy, service, teaching, encouraging, giving, caring, showing mercy…the list can go on. But we should realize that “being spiritual” does not mean you have to do one specific thing. My gift, for example, is teaching—therefore, Paul would tell me, do that. But I do not really have the gift of either being a pastor, or caring for people in need—therefore, Paul would probably tell me, “Joel, don’t be a pastor! And when someone is going through a tough time, let someone who is naturally more sympathetic and caring go to that person…you tend to be a little cold!” And that’s okay—there are certain things I don’t do too well, there are other things I really do well. Paul’s advice is really just common sense: do the things that God has wired you up for, and don’t try to be someone you aren’t.

Life in the Spirit within the Church (Romans 12:9-21)
The rest of Romans 12 (verses 9-21) now consists of a series of imperatives/participles that act as a description of life in the Spirit. Simply put, Paul is saying that a “Holy Spirit community” should look like what he describes. First, in 12:9-10, Paul says that love within such a community will look like people putting others ahead of themselves. Now, it’s worth noting, that Paul doesn’t mean that you should try to think the other person is actually better than you. He is simply saying that you should put other people’s needs ahead of your own. Simply put, practice love that is self-sacrificial for the sake of other people’s needs. Second, in 12:11-13, Paul spells out a description of love within the community: doing what is good. And, directly applied to the Roman community’s situation, “what is good” means living together as one people of God. Paul wants Jewish-Christians and Gentile-Christians to be one people of God, not two. (I wonder that says about the over 20,000 Protestant denominations out there?)

The rest of 12:14-21 simply elaborates on what is good: bless those who persecute you, don’t curse; rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep…the list goes on. But ultimately, it can be summarized by these two commands: “Live in harmony with one another” (v. 16), and “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (v. 18).

Let’s face it, such things are easy to read, but hard to put into practice. We love to talk about living in peace, but oftentimes we don’t want to actually have to work at it. We tend to want to have the Gospel, but then not to have its effects in our lives. We tend to want to hold on to our pain when someone hurts us, and then make that person pay! Believe me, I know exactly how that feels. But Paul won’t let us do that. A Holy Spirit community forgives wrongs and works toward peace and harmony with each other. That is a huge challenge for any Christian, but it is something that is essential to do.

One More Thing: What’s Up With the Burning Coals? (Romans 12:20)
Romans 12-20There is one last thing to note in chapter 12. What does “heaping burning coals on his head” mean (v. 20)? Well, Paul is not saying, “Hey, if someone sins against you, be really nice to that person so he’ll feel bad!” as if “making him feel bad” is the ultimate form of revenge! (In reality, such a mindset is just completely petty and passive-aggressive—and yes, I’m sure we all know people like that). Rather, what Paul is saying is this: when you do the Christ-like thing and repay evil with good, your “enemy,” when he sees your goodness in response to his evil, will find that his conscience is affected. “Burning coals” will be on his conscience—and hopefully he’ll respond to his conscience and repent. That is why Paul ends with, “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good” (v. 21). When you respond to evil with goodness, that person might be saved from his evil—you will have worked toward peace, and will have overcome evil with good.

Paul’s Letters to the Romans: Chapter 11–Remnants, Idolaters, and True Israel (Part 17)

Paul’s Letters to the Romans: Chapter 11–Remnants, Idolaters, and True Israel (Part 17)

In Romans 11, Paul wraps up his argument of Romans 9-11. Remember, Romans 9-11 is all focused on the issue regarding why Paul’s fellow Jews missed out and rejected their own Messiah.

Final Question (Romans 11:1-6)
And so, the final question in Romans 9-11 Paul addresses concerning Israel is, “Has God rejected His people, because they rejected Him?” Given all that Paul has said, his response might shock you: “No way!” After all, Paul himself was an Israelite! No, God hasn’t rejected Israel…ah but there’s the rub! Paul needs to illuminate his readers on who exactly Israel is.

ElijahPaul proceeds to explain what the real situation is with Israel by referring to the story in I Kings 19 about Elijah fleeing to Mount Sinai after his initial victory over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. In 11:3-4, therefore, Paul points out that when Elijah complained to God about how unfaithful Israel was (I Kings 19:10), God told Elijah that there were 7,000 in Israel who had not bowed down to Baal (I Kings 19:17).

So what does that story have to do with Paul talking about Israel? It’s simple: the nation of ethnic Israel was never the real people of God; it was always a remnant. Just as in Elijah’s day, so it was for Paul: there was always a remnant of ethnic Israel that was part of true Israel, and that remnant was according to election by grace (11:5). And so, as Paul says, since it is based on grace, then it isn’t based on Torah. After all, if grace comes by the works of Torah, then grace really isn’t grace! (11:6).

Remnants and Non-Remnants/People and Idolatry ( Romans 11:7-10)
Okay, so if remnant Israel was elected by grace (and therefore part of true Israel), what about non-remnant Israel (i.e. the rest of Israel)? Paul now makes a shocking accusation in 11:7-10 against non-remnant Israel: he equates them with pagan idolaters! That’s what he means when he says that non-remnant Israel became “hardened.” That’s what he’s referring to when he cites Deuteronomy 29:3 and Isaiah 29:10. Those verses are about the judgment for idolaters: people become like what they worship, and therefore they become like their lifeless, deaf, dumb, and blind idols. By contrast, the same principle ends up being a blessing for worshippers of God: people become like what they worship, so therefore, they become like God, and are made into the full image of God.

Paul then cites Psalm 69:22-23: “Their table has become a snare…” Why? Because the Jews’ “table” consisted of all that God had given them (covenants, promises, etc.), and they began to essentially worship the gifts, and not the Giver. Ironically then, the ultimate “idol” of the Jews is the Torah! And so, instead of worshipping Christ, who fulfills the Torah, the Jews ended up bowing their knee to the Torah, thus making it their idol.

Paul Still is Holding Out Hope (Romans 11:11-16)
In 11:11-16, though, Paul shows that he’s remaining optimistic about his fellow Jews: Israel has only stumbled. So if 11:1-10 focuses on the fact that Israel’s fall isn’t total (i.e. there still is a remnant), 11:11-12 declares (at least hopes!) that Israel’s fall isn’t final—it only happened so that the Gospel could go out to the Gentiles and bring the Gentiles into the people of God.

Paul’s hope thus becomes that, since Israel’s transgression meant salvation for the Gentiles, that Israel would become so jealous of the Gentiles, they would end up choosing to accept Christ. Paul thinks, “How great would that be!” That is precisely why Paul says he’s “glorifying” his ministry by going out to as many Gentiles as he can—he’s trying to make his fellow Jews so jealous, that perhaps some of them will end up making a decision for Christ (11:13-14)! For, as Paul sees it, if their rejection of Christ means the reconciliation of the world, then if they end up accepting Christ, that would mean “life from the dead” for the nation of Israel, a clear allusion to Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones (11:15-16).

As it turned out, though, the Israel as a nation never did accept Christ. We have to conclude, therefore, that Paul’s hope as expressed in 11:11-16 was never realized. We need to be clear: Paul is expressing his personal hope that his fellow Jews would one day accept Christ as their Messiah; he’s not making a prophetic declaration that they would.

Conclusion: Roots and Branches (Romans 11:17-36)
Olive TreeIn 11:17-24 Paul concludes Romans 9-11 with a stern warning to Gentile believers, by means of the elaborate metaphor of roots and branches introduced in 11:16. The metaphor is pretty obvious: (a) the tree and its roots are the people of God, (b) the “natural” branches that are broken off are unfaithful Jews, and (c) the “wild” olive branches are Gentile believers. So what’s Paul’s point? “If some of the ‘natural’ branches were broken off so that ‘you wild olive branches’  (i.e. Gentiles) could be grafted in among the other ‘natural’ branches (i.e. the remnant of Jews), then don’t get cocky, you Gentiles!” After all, if God didn’t spare some of the natural branches because they got arrogant and unfaithful, then He certainly won’t spare some of the wild olive branches if they get arrogant and unfaithful either (11:21)! In fact, if some of those unfaithful Jews repent, they’ll certainly be “grafted back in” (11:22-24)!

Paul ends Romans 9-11 with a something that often gets misunderstood: “A hardening has come upon Israel until the full number of the Gentiles comes in; and so all Israel will be saved” (11:25-26). Paul is not saying that eventually ethnic Israel (i.e. “all Israel”) will turn to Christ. What Paul is saying can best be explained with somewhat of a mathematical formula:

Remnant Israel + Full Number of Gentiles = ALL ISRAEL

“All Israel,” “True Israel” are the Jews and Gentiles together in Christ. This idea can be seen in Revelation 7 in the passage about the 144,000. In that chapter, John hears the number 144,000 from the tribes of Israel, but then sees a “great multitude from all nations.” What is the point? True Israel consists of believers from all nations. The number 144,000 is derived from another “mathematical formula”: 12 (representing the 12 tribes of Israel) x 12 (representing the 12 apostles to the Gentiles) x 1,000 (God’s number of completion) = 144,000. Therefore, the concept of the remnant of Israel + Gentile believers equaling True Israel is a concept that is fundamental to a New Testament/New Messianic Age/Kingdom of God worldview.

In Romans 11:27-32, Paul essentially “sums up” his point: just as Gentiles were disobedient and were shown grace, so too does the present situation with the Jews show that the Jews are disobedient, and can now be shown—and possibly accept—that same grace. And that leads to…

Romans 11:33-36. I think this is pretty straightforward. After you read this passage, you can easily sum it up as follows: “Wow! What a plan! Who could have ever guessed it? Only God could have pulled this off! YEAH GOD!” Does that sum it up pretty well?

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapter 10–Okay, How Did the Jews Screw Up? (Part 16)

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapter 10–Okay, How Did the Jews Screw Up? (Part 16)

Before we move on to Romans 10, I want to point out that we must realize that the issues Paul is addressing in 9-11 are issues he had been dealing with for years. He was once like his fellow Jews, but his encounter with the risen Christ changed everything. He came to Christ, not because someone preached, but because he had a personal, historical encounter. Paul spent his life in the Old Testament texts, looking for the eschatological solution to the plight of the world. The bringing in of the Gentiles was to happen in the Eschaton, on the other side of the end of the age. This is important to realize because Paul didn’t find Christ and then start going back through the Old Testament, looking for texts to prove his new life. Instead, Paul found Christ, then saw all those texts that he had grown up with, studied, and lived with all his life, in a new light. He came to see that they had been fulfilled and had come to their completion through Christ and in the work of the Holy Spirit.

And given what we know from the first century about why the Jews as a whole ended up rejecting Christ, we realize that it wasn’t because of Christ himself, but rather because they saw the Gentile God-fearers “get in” to the righteousness of God and receive the Spirit without having to go through circumcision. Simply put, the Jews got jealous, and because of that, they rejected Christ. None of the early apostles ever thought that would happen. They fully expected all their fellow Jews would accept their Messiah. And so, when this didn’t happen, this was what Paul and the early Church ended up having to wrestle with: What are you going to do with the historical reality that most Jews did not accept Jesus as their Messiah?

With that in mind, Paul now asks the next question…

Why Did the Jews Miss Out? (9:30-33)
“What are we going to say?” Paul says. The unthinkable has happened: Gentiles who haven’t pursued righteousness have attained righteousness: a righteousness from faith; but the Jews who have pursued the Torah of righteousness didn’t attain the righteousness to which the Torah bore witness!

TorahSimply put, the problem was that the Jews ended up focusing so much on the Mosaic Law (i.e. Torah), that they ended up forgetting the very Abrahamic covenant on which Torah was based. Basically, they missed what Torah was all about. They pursued Torah, thinking it would result in righteousness…but as Paul pointed out earlier, that was never Torah’s purpose. This is what Paul is saying in Romans 9:30-33—Israel’s “righteousness” was not based on faith; it was based on works of Torah. Because of that, they ended up “stumbling over the stumbling stone,” Christ himself. He was the intended cornerstone, but Israel rejected the way God was going about building his “new temple”! In other words, Paul is saying that unbelieving Israel is the unfaithful one, and is therefore responsible for missing out on the righteousness of God, not God.

τέλος (10:1-4)
This is not to say that there is nothing good about the Jews. In Romans 10:1-8, Paul goes out of his way to acknowledge how zealous the Jews were for God. The problem, though, was that their zealousness wasn’t according to knowledge. And so, Paul says, since they don’t know the righteousness of God, and since they are trying to establish their own righteousness, they didn’t submit to the righteousness of God. Simply put, they wanted to be like Frank Sinatra: they wanted to do it their own way!

But Paul states emphatically that Christ is the “end” of the Torah in regards to righteousness for those who have faith (10:4). Now, it is unfortunate that the word “end” is used to translate the Greek word τέλος. For Paul is not saying, “Now that Christ is here, the Torah gets thrown out!” Rather, the word τέλος has more of a meaning of full realization and full growth. Therefore, when Paul calls Christ the τέλος of the Torah, he is saying that Christ is everything that the Torah was point towards, and that Christ is the fulfillment of everything God was trying to convey through the Torah.

Think of it this way: if the Torah is the pointer, and faith in Christ is what it is pointing to, if you then reject Christ because you think focusing on the pointer is what God wants…you’re missing the point!

Two Kinds of Existence: Torah or Faith (10:5-8)
And so, as Paul spells out in 10:5-8, there are ultimately only two kinds of existence: a life based on Torah or a life based on faith. And here’s the thing: they are mutually exclusive—you can’t do both. Paul spells out the righteousness based on the Torah by alluding to Leviticus 18: the person who does these things must live by them. This is similar to what Paul says in Galatians 3:10, where he says, “Those who are of works of the Torah are under a curse, for it has been written: ‘Everyone who doesn’t remain in everything that has been written in the Book of the Torah is cursed to do these things’” (my translation). Simply put, the ones who live by “works of Torah” are cursed because they have to do Torah! They can’t live by faith! The curse is that you have to live by Torah!

Paul is saying that those who rely on their own ability to try to do the “works of Torah” are cursed, because they are on a treadmill that they can never get off of. It’s like a baseball player thinking if he gets enough hits in a row that he will be able to achieve a batting average of 1.000—it’s impossible because he hit .320 last season, and therefore has failed at the plate 68% of the time. There is no hit streak long enough to erase the previous failures, and to give that player a perfect batting average. He’s cursed if he thinks he can achieve it. Therefore, those who think that righteousness and perfection can be obtained through our own efforts of obeying the Torah are already cursed, because it’s simply an impossibility. They’re doomed to fail. Therefore, Paul says that that kind of “Torah existence” is a curse in and of itself.

By contrast, Paul then discusses the righteousness based on Faith. When reading 10:6-7, it might seem confusing, but here’s Paul’s point: the righteousness based on faith doesn’t need anyone else to either “ascend to heaven” or “descend into the abyss,” because Christ already has done it. Therefore, because of what Christ has done, “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart” (Deut. 30:12-14). What Paul is saying is that people who are made righteous from faith realizes that the Word of God can be found within them, in their daily faith in Christ in the present. Therefore that person is not worried about having to ascend to heaven or descending into death in order to “get righteousness.” To try to do that would  be essentially to nullify the work of Christ.

The Last Days Have Arrived! (10:9-13)
This talk of having the word in your mouth and heart leads Paul to elaborate on a few things in 10:9-13: “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:9). Now, Paul is not saying that if you simply say the words, “Jesus is Lord,” that that is somehow a “magic formula” that gets you saved. His reference to both Jews and Gentiles should make it obvious what Paul is saying: anyone can do this—Jew or Gentile—anywhere! Faith in Christ is available to everyone! This isn’t so much “how to get saved” formula, but rather a statement saying, “If you are doing this, then this is the sign that you are saved.”

Joel 2-32Paul then quotes Joel 2:32, which says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Peter quotes this very section in his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2:17-21, so clearly this passage in Joel was pretty important in the early Church. We can find out why it was when we look at Peter’s sermon. After quoting Joel, who talked about the “last days,” Peter says that that passage was being fulfilled at Pentecost. Both Peter and Paul were expressing a fundamental worldview of the early Church: the “last days” have come—the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was the sign that the “last days” had come. And, as Joel states, when the “last days” come, and when God’s Spirit is poured out on all flesh, then, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Simply put, the Gentile mission was evidence that the “last days” had arrived.

Can Jews Be Excused for Their Unfaithfulness? (10:14-21)
In 10:14-21, Paul then gets to the heart of the Jewish objection to what God had done: (1) “Can the Jews be excused for their unfaithfulness?” Paul’s answer is a clear, “No!” Or to put it another way, (2) “Have the Jews really gotten a fair shake? Have they really clearly been shown?” Paul’s answer to that is a clear, “Yes!”

Now, when one usually reads 10:14-15, it is assumed that this is some kind of admonition to go out and spread the Gospel. These verses have been quoted and preached upon in many missions conferences and mission-emphasis weeks in churches. And although it is true—we are to go out and spread the Gospel—that’s not what Paul is talking about here. In context, these verses are actually part of Paul’s point to show that his fellow Jews have no excuse. His point is this: the Jews have long been looking for the Messiah; they’ve heard and read about him in their Bibles; they’ve actually gone out and proclaimed it! And so, Paul asks, “Can we blame the Jews for not turning to Christ? Have they really been clearly told about him?” Paul gives the obvious answer, “Of course! Not only were they told, but they preached about it from their own Bibles!”

The problem wasn’t that the Jews hadn’t heard about God’s salvation plan and its culmination in  Christ; the problem was a lack of obedience. Paul then quotes Isaiah 53:1: “Lord, who has believed our message?” Clearly not all Jews truly believed the message of God’s salvation. Real faith, as Paul says, stems from truly hearing (i.e. obeying) through the Word (i.e. message) of Christ. Therefore, the Jews who failed to put their faith in Christ were never truly faithful or obedient to God in the first place. And so, as Paul asks in 10:18-21, haven’t the Jews heard? Of course! Paul then quotes Psalm 19:5 to prove his point: They had it in their Bibles! They actually spread the Word! They can’t say they hadn’t heard! And then Paul asks, “Did Israel just not really understand?” Of course they understood! Paul then quotes Deuteronomy 32:12 and Isaiah 65:1: It was clear from the Torah and Prophets that God was going to do it this way, and that they were going to get jealous!

And so, in 10:21, Paul drives his point home regarding Israel by quoting Isaiah 65:2. The reason why Israel didn’t accept the Messiah is simple: Israel was disobedient, plain and simple, no excuses. Pretty harsh…but true.

Introduction to Romans 9-11: Get Ready for Some Fireworks…Even Some Dispensationalism and Predestination! (Part 15)

Introduction to Romans 9-11: Get Ready for Some Fireworks…Even Some Dispensationalism and Predestination! (Part 15)

Romans 1-8 is perhaps the most clearly delineated presentation of the Gospel in the entire New Testament. Hopefully, my mini-commentary on Romans 1-8 has been helpful. News flash, though—we’re only half way through Romans!

We now come to the major next section of the letter: Romans 9-11. In my view, it is one of the most misunderstood sections in the entire New Testament. Now, the thing to realize is that your interpretation of Romans 9-11 is going to be directly dependent on how you understand Romans 1-8:

  1. If you think that Romans 1-8 was Paul giving the answer to the question, “How do people get saved?” then you’re going to find Romans 9-11 to be a bit jarring and troubling: “What then is God going to do with ethnic Israel? If Christians are saved through faith in Christ, how do the Jews get saved? When’s that going to happen?”
  2. But if you think that Romans 1-8 was Paul answering the question, “What constitutes the people of God?” then Romans 9-11 seems a logical next question: “If the people of God are those share the faith of Abraham in Christ, then what is God doing with Israel? After all, most Jews have rejected Jesus! What’s going on?”

Do you see the difference? You should, because it’s huge. If you don’t yet, don’t worry…I’ll try to explain it in due time.

The Main Issues of Romans
Before we go on, though, it is probably best to highlight the FOUR ISSUES addressed in Romans.

  1. First, there is the issue regarding the gift of righteousness itself: “What does the righteousness of God really mean?” Paul’s answer is that it is from God, based on faith in Christ, for the Jew first, and the Gentile alike, without distinction. Paul emphasizes this has always been the case. Abraham as the prime example (Ch. 1-4).
  2. The second issue revolves around the question, “What happens to righteousness (in terms of behavior) if you say Torah observance is brought to an end?” Remember, Jews saw Torah observance as the thing that marked them out as special, as God’s righteous people; and then Paul came around and said, “You know that Torah observance stuff? It doesn’t make you righteous. You’re just as unrighteous as Gentiles! Righteousness comes through faith in Christ, therefore Torah observance is irrelevant.” The Jews’ response was, “Well, if you say Torah observance is irrelevant, then how can you tell who is righteous and who is not?” Paul’s answer is simple: take away that “fence” of the Torah and replace it with the Holy Spirit in the hearts of God’s children, and then you’ll get real righteousness. The fact is, as long as you have that “fence” set up, even though you may seem righteous, you really aren’t (Ch. 5-8). Someone might never commit murder or commit adultery—but not doing those things (i.e. obeying those rules) doesn’t make that person righteous.
  3. The third issue of Romans is found here in Romans 9-11, where Paul is about to address something he hinted at earlier in the letter: “What’s going on with God? In light of Israel’s obvious unfaithfulness, where is God’s faithfulness in all of this?”
  4. The fourth issue of Romans will be picked up in Romans 12-15. In those chapters, we will see that Paul paints a picture of what the “righteousness of the Holy Spirit” looks like, and how it is different from mere Torah observance. If you want to know what this “new Holy Spirit righteousness” looks like, look at Romans 12-15. For now, though, our concern is Romans 9-11.

The Problem with Dispensationalism (I’m Looking at You, C.I. Scofield, Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye!)
Scofield BibleUnfortunately, for the past two centuries, the prevailing theological view in American Protestantism has been something called “dispensationalism.” It assumes that there are essentially two peoples of God (Jews and Christians) and two plans of salvation (faith/grace for Christians, and Torah for the Jews). Therefore, when dispensationalists come to Romans 9-11, they read it as if Paul was putting a little “side note” in his letter to talk about how God was going to save ethnic Israel too. One of the main features of dispensationalism is the idea that the modern state of Israel is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and that one day a third temple will be built in Jerusalem, so that the Jews could once again perform the Levitical sacrifices, just like they did in the Old Testament—and that will be how they get saved: by obeying the Old Testament sacrificial laws. After all, that’s how God saves the Jews.

Hal LindseyTo the point, that view is completely antithetical to everything in the New Testament and the proclamation of the Gospel itself. The prophecies dispensationalists often claim refer to the re-establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 are really prophecies about God bringing the Jews in exile back out of exile—that happened way back in the 6th century BC. And, as should be clear in Romans 1-8, but Paul was not a dispensationalist. He does not view Christian salvation as “plan two” of God’s salvation. He sees Christian salvation as the fruition of what God had been doing all along. There is one plan of salvation, and that applies to both Jews and Gentiles.

In any case, Romans 9-11 is mapped out in the following manner:

  1. (9:1-5): Paul laments over the fact that his fellow Jews have rejected the Messiah
  2. (9:6-29): There’s the question of if God is faithful to His word
  3. (9:30-10:21): There is insistence that Israel is responsible for missing out on God’s salvation
  4. (11:1-32): There’s the question, “Has God really rejected ethnic Israel?”
  5. (11:33-36): Paul then praises God for his salvation

Paul’s Lament (9:1-5)
Paul begins with a lament in 9:1-5 over his “kindred according to the flesh”—ethnic Israel, his fellow Jews who have rejected Jesus as the Messiah. Paul’s sorrow is compounded by the fact that he knows how much ethnic Israel has been given by God Himself. In fact, he rattles off eight things:

  1. They were “adopted” by God Himself to be His people
  2. They beheld His Glory
  3. They had the covenants
  4. They were given the Torah
  5. They had the Temple worship
  6. They were the beneficiaries of God’s promises
  7. Their ancestors were the Patriarchs
  8. God worked through them to bring the Messiah

Given all that, the obvious question is this: “How could Israel then miss it when their Messiah came? What happened? If God gave Israel all that stuff, and if they were His people, then if they have rejected Christ, doesn’t that mean that God’s Word has failed? How could He let any of his people fall away?”

Is God Faithful?
Paul begins to answer that very question in 9:6-29. And, O how he starts off his explanation! One thing is for sure, Paul doesn’t mince his words: God’s Word hasn’t failed because ethnic Israel isn’t the same as True Israel! THAT’S RIGHT! Paul has just said that being Jewish doesn’t make you part of the people of God! How can Paul say this? The Jews are God’s people, right?


In order to prove his point, Paul goes back to Abraham once again, and says in 9:7-9 that just being Abraham’s offspring doesn’t make one a child of the promise. And you know what? Paul is right! In Genesis 18:10, 14, and 21:12, we find that Abraham had two sons: Isaac and Ishmael. Both came from Abraham, but only Isaac, the child miraculously conceived, was the child of promise. It was no miracle that Ishmael was born to Hagar—she was able to conceive (unlike Sarah). In that sense, Ishmael was literally a “child of the flesh,” but he wasn’t the child of promise. This means, as Paul says, that “children of the flesh aren’t the same as children of God.” The same holds true with the birth of Jacob and Esau. Paul points out in 9:10-13 that not only were both sons of the same father and mother, they were , in fact, twins! Nevertheless, God chose Jacob and not Esau. As Paul says, “I loved Jacob, but I hated Esau,” and “The greater will serve the younger.”

Time Out! Time to Talk About Predestination!
consistentcalvinismAt this point, it becomes necessary to briefly talk about the issue of predestination. The predestination argument usually goes something like this: “God chooses who gets saved and goes to heaven, and God chooses who gets condemned and goes to hell.” The full-fledged argument is probably a bit more complicated than that, but that’s what it is in a nutshell. Here in 9:10-13, therefore, it is argued, “You see? God chose Jacob before he was even born, and God didn’t choose Esau! Boom! Predestination! How can you disagree?”

Well…let me have a shot at it.

To a point, that argument is true: God did choose Jacob and not Esau. Such election was by God and was entirely God’s choice; it was not based on any kind of works anyone could do. But the question those who argue for predestination based on these verses fail to ask is, “What did God choose Jacob for?” Is Paul saying that God chose Jacob to “be saved and go to heaven”? Is Paul saying that God just decided beforehand that Esau was destined for hell? The answer is an emphatic “No!” There is nothing in the text that suggests that.

Paul’s point was that Jacob was chosen to be the child of promise. In other words, God chose to work through Jacob to bring about His promises that He made to Abraham. It was through Jacob and his family line that God would eventually bring about the Messiah and His promise of salvation and blessing to all nations. Simply put, Paul is not talking about “eternal destinies” here. He isn’t commenting on the final destination of these people. He is commenting on the way God has chosen to use them in this world. He’s talking about how God chooses the people through whom He works: God chose to fulfill His promises through Jacob, not Esau. Maybe Ishmael and Esau are in hell; maybe they aren’t—but Paul isn’t commenting on that. And so, Paul’s point is simply that bloodlines were never the determining factor in who the children of promise were. It always rested on the will of God.

Back to the Point at Hand: God Seems Unfair!
Given what Paul has just said, Paul assumes in 9:14-18 what the next objection by his fellow Jews would be: “This seems unfair! This would make God unjust!” Paul answers this objection by first quoting Exodus 33:19, where God essentially says to Moses, “I’ll show mercy to whomever I choose!” and then quoting Exodus 9:16, where God says that He rose Pharaoh up just so He could display his power through Pharaoh, and so that His Name could be announced throughout the world.

Basically, Paul is saying, “Hey, Pharaoh was one bad dude! Yet God was able to use Pharaoh’s badness to still bring about His purposes!” Hypothetically speaking, if Pharaoh repented later in his life, and asked God for forgiveness, is Paul stating that God would say, “Sorry, I’ve predestined you for hell!”? And if the Hebrews turned away from God later on (which they did!), is Paul stating that God would say, “Oh well, you’re all going to heaven, even though you never obey me!”? Of course not. And so, when Paul states, “God can have compassion on whomever he wants, and he can harden whomever he wants,” he simply means this: God can chose to use anybody—whether they’re good or bad—to bring about the fulfillment of His covenant promises.

Paul is basically saying this: God certainly does choose/elect certain people through whom He will bring about his offer of salvation to the world, but that doesn’t mean that God elects who gets saved or not.  God elected, had mercy on, and put up with the sinful Hebrews so that in time His plan and offer of salvation could be made to the entire world. On the other hand, God also chooses to harden certain people to help bring about his plan as well. Pharaoh was an evil guy, so God chose to harden him in order for the Hebrews to go free. Everyone is sinful, yet God chooses to use everyone in different ways in order to bring about His salvation. Therefore, God’s “election” involves how he uses each person in this world, not who gets saved or not. If God uses an evil person to somehow further his offer of salvation, that doesn’t excuse the evil that person does. In Paul’s case, Paul is saying that God can use even ethnic Israel’s disobedience and rejection of Christ to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles.

In the next post, we’ll go on to Romans 10.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapter 8:18-39–Suffering, Childbirth, the Holy Spirit…and Mike Ditka (Part 14)

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapter 8:18-39–Suffering, Childbirth, the Holy Spirit…and Mike Ditka (Part 14)

Yes, suffering. Nobody likes it. We’d much rather avoid it, and instead focus on the uplifting ideas of salvation and triumph in the Spirit.

Romans-1-bible_article_imageWell, I’ve got bad news for you—part of the Good News of the Gospel is that suffering plays an essential role in our salvation. So yes, what Paul proceeds to tell us in the second half of Romans 8 is that the Good News of the Gospel uses the bad news of suffering within the overall plan of God’s salvation. Simply put, in Christ, even bad news can turn out to be a good thing. Let’s find out how.

Romans 8:18-21: A Transformed View of Suffering
Given everything that Paul has said about the Torah, Faith, and the Gospel itself, he now turns his attention to address the concept of suffering. No one likes to suffer, but the fact is, everyone will go through suffering in this life. But for Paul, the certain hope of us sharing in the future glory of Christ inevitably and radically transforms our view of suffering itself. Or in other words, given the reality of Jesus Christ’s resurrection as the beginning of the New Creation and the resulting “Already/Not Yet” worldview of the Gospel, the Christian’s understanding of present suffering is seen in a whole new light.

Paul states in 8:19-21 that creation itself is looking forward to us being revealed as the children of God. Why? It all goes back to Genesis: mankind was made in God’s image, with the purpose of ruling over and caring for God’s creation. But because of sin, not only was mankind subjected to futility and death, but so was the entirety of creation. Therefore, with the redemption and glorification of mankind to be re-created into God’s image and made able to fulfill God’s original purposes, so too will creation itself be redeemed and re-created—and it will finally be ruled over and taken care of the way God intended all along. For just as the corruption of humanity meant the corruption of creation, so too will the glorification of a re-created humanity mean the glorification of a re-created creation.

Romans 8:22-25: Suffering, Labor Pains, and a New Creation
Paul thus equates the suffering within the present creation and within ourselves to a mother giving birth (8:22-23)—the labor pains are excruciating, but they have a purpose: they bring about a better and fuller kind of life. Just as a new-born baby experiences a different and fuller kind of life than it had within the womb, so too will we, and all creation, experience the fuller “resurrection life” when Christ returns and the New Heaven and New Earth are established.

This present existence is still “life in the womb,” and we await the re-birth of all creation. But what we’re experiencing now are the birth-pangs, not the fullness of the New Creation—and so, Paul says, we wait patiently for the labor to be over and for the New Life to begin. But that New Life is certain, and therefore our hope is sure (8:24-25). This is the certain hope of the New Creation: when we will be revealed to be sons of God, when we will be completely free from slavery to death and decay, and when we will experience the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

Romans 8:26-28: The Role of the Holy Spirit in Our Present Lives
Given that imagery of childbirth, Paul then addresses the role of the Holy Spirit in our present lives to bring about the ultimate glorification of those faithful to Christ who walk in the Spirit (8:26-27). In our weakness and in our pain, when we don’t know what to pray for, or even how to pray, Paul reassures us that the Spirit is at work in the midst of our sighs and groanings. In effect, Paul equals our desperate groanings during the times we are in despair to the groanings of a woman giving birth.

Just as creation “groans” in its expectation of the New Creation, the Spirit, if you will, articulates and translates our desperate “groanings” to God, so that even those deep prayers within our spirit that we cannot really articulate ourselves bring us closer and closer to our future redemption and glorification. And with that, Paul reassures us that all things work together for the good of those who love God (8:28)—yes, the Holy Spirit is able to take even our present sufferings and make them the means by which we are transformed and glorified in Christ.

Romans 8:29-30: It’s Not About Predestination! It’s All About Mike Ditka!
Finally in 8:29-30 Paul says something that often gets misconstrued as an endorsement of predestination: For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Pretty simple, right? Wrong…

To make this simple, let me allude to the Will Ferrell movie Kicking and Screaming. In the movie Will Ferrell plays a little league boys soccer coach who enlists the help of Super Bowl winning coach Mike Ditka to help him coach the team. When he introduces Mike Ditka to the team, Ditka launches into a terrifying yet inspiring speech:

I’m a coach who knows about winning! I’m gonna push you guys like you’ve never been pushed before! Some of you are gonna wish I was dead! I eat quitters for breakfast and I spit out their bones! Now, this is gonna be the hardest and most difficult thing you ever attempted in your entire life! But you know what? When it’s over, you guys are gonna be champions! By God, you’re gonna be champions! Alright! Everybody up! Let’s kick some butt!

DitkaSo what does this silly scene in this silly movie have to do with what Paul is saying here? What Mike Ditka was saying to those boys was not that he predestined them to be on the team. Rather, he’s saying that since they signed up and joined the team, with him as their coach, despite the pain they were going to suffer through practice, they were destined to be champions. Therefore, Paul is not saying that God chooses beforehand who gets saved and who doesn’t. Paul is saying that those who “join God’s team”—who hear God’s call and put their faith in Christ—those are the ones who God justifies (i.e. makes righteous), and ultimately glorifies. Paul is giving an inspirational speech to those undergoing suffering in order to encourage them that God will make good on His promises. By God, you’re gonna be champions!

So let’s go out there and kick some butt…

Romans 8:31-39: All Praise to God! You’re Gonna Be Champions!
And so, with that kind of Gospel, with that kind of hope, certainty and assurance of God making good on His promise of salvation, glorification, and a New Creation, Paul just can’t contain himself. He thus breaks out in a full-fledge doxology of praise in 8:31-39. The whole passage is straightforward and understandable, given everything that Paul has said in these first eight chapters. The conclusion, therefore, might be the most inspirational speech in the New Testament:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? (As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”) No! In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!

Translation? By God, you’re gonna be champions! God has “predestined” those who put their faith in Christ, and who suffer for his sake, to ultimately be glorified with him. God wins, and you’re on the winning team. It’s time to celebrate, even in the midst of our suffering.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapter 8:1-17–Life in the Flesh vs. Life in the Spirit (Part 13)

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapter 8:1-17–Life in the Flesh vs. Life in the Spirit (Part 13)

We now come to Romans 8—the point Paul has been building up to throughout his entire argument.  So pay attention…

Romans-1-bible_article_imageNow, Romans 7:7-25 is, to say the least, quite the bummer, full of pain and frustration, and that whole “I don’t do what I want to do, and I do what I don’t want to do” mindset of a Jew living under the Torah. And Paul ought to know—after all, he’s describing himself before he came to Christ. Ironically, Romans 7:7-25 also strikes a chord with many people who have grown up in church. The inner guilt and frustration many Christians feel is clearly there. We’ve grown up in church, know right from wrong, but still find ourselves “doing the wrong” when nobody is looking, and then feeling guilty for it.

I think it’s time we own up to the fact that the situation for many people in the church today is exactly the same as it was for the typical 1st century Jew: the outward form of religiosity is there, and the well-meaning desire to please God is there, but the inner heart has not yet been changed. Now, before you go off into some guilt-trip and say, “What? Are you saying I might not be saved? Can’t I do anything right? What do I have to do? Damn it, I’m always screwing up!” …just take a breath. Paul knows this frustration from firsthand experience. He’s been there. And he’s saying that such guilt-induced paranoia (let’s face it, we’ve all felt it at some point) is the indication that we’re still trying to prove ourselves to God…and that’s his point—you can’t. As long as you’re trying to prove yourself to God, you’ll be living a frustrated, guilt-ridden life, and Romans 7:7-25 will be the description of your life…and that’s not the Christian life. It’s a life dominated by the Flesh. This does not mean your “physical lusts and desires.” This is Paul’s way of talking about still being a slave to the “Old Age” way of thinking, the one dominated by fear, guilt, sin, and death.

So, now that I’ve completely depressed you, there’s good news…and I mean Good News: Romans 8 is all about the Gospel, and living in the power of the Holy Spirit, and no longer living in a fleshly “Old Age” existence. Just as an added treat, I’m including the audio of a portion of Gordon Fee’s teaching on Romans 8:1-4.

Romans 8:1-4: Whew! Life in the Spirit is So Much Better!
In contrast to the despairing existence of life in the flesh expressed in Romans 7:7-25, Paul describes in Romans 8:1-17 what life in the Spirit is like. Those who have put their faith in Christ no longer are slaves to sin and no longer live their lives “according to the flesh.” The difference can be said this way: Those in Christ are no longer “Fleshly Torah-doers,” they are “Spirit-walkers.” Simply put, what we seen in Romans 7-8 is a description of two worldviews:  do you walk according to the worldview of the flesh or to the worldview of the Spirit? That is what Romans 8:1-17 is all about.

Romans 8 starts off by answering the question of 7:24 (“Who will rescue me from this body of death?”). Paul states, “There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.” This statement is hugely significant because traditional Jews expected this “no condemnation thing” would happen at the end of the Old Age, and it would signal the beginning of the New Messianic Age and the Kingdom of God. For Paul, though, this “no condemnation” has happened—or more precisely is happening—and serves as a sign of the eschatological end. What does that mean? Simple: The Christian proclamation of the Gospel is that in the death and resurrection of Christ, the “end times” have begun. The Holy Spirit has been poured out, and the Old Age Kingdom is being destroyed. The completion of everything hasn’t happened yet, but the ball is now rolling.

Romans 8-3-4Paul explains it this way: in “Pre-Torah” times, the “law” that held sway was the Law of Sin and Death. With the giving of the Torah through Moses, there had been essentially a war between the Law of Sin and Death and the Old Testament Torah—with the results being what Paul just described in 7:7-25: sin overpowering a powerless Torah. But the Good News Paul is declaring is that the long-awaited New Messianic Age has dawned, and the Holy Spirit has been poured out into the hearts of those who put their faith in Christ, thus empowering them to live out the faith-filled righteous life that the Old Testament Torah had been pointing to all along. That is why Paul can say in 8:2 that the “torah of the Spirit of Life” has freed you from the “torah of Sin and Death!” And thus, Paul connects the dots between the work of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit (8:3-4). Basically, Christ destroyed both sin and death so that the righteousness of the Torah could be fulfilled in those who walk in the Spirit. For Paul, the way in which we fulfill Torah is by walking in the Spirit.

Romans 8:5-17: “Kata Sarka” vs. “Kata Pneuma”—Two Contrasting Worldviews
From this point on, in 8:5-17, Paul sets up a fundamental contrast between the two different mindsets/worldviews: you are either one who walks kata sarka (i.e. according to “the flesh”), or one who walks kata pneuma (i.e. according to the Spirit). It’s important to realize that Paul is describing here two different kinds of people, not two different ways within one person.

In 8:7-8, Paul gives a description of the kind of person who lives according to the flesh. He says that such a person’s mindset is death; and that person is antagonistic to God, disobeys Torah, and isn’t even able to please God. Why is that?

Romans 8-7-8Well, I can think back to when I was in high school—I was a “good kid” who kept all the rules, and was pretty proud of the fact that I was a “good kid” who kept all the rules! But inside, I was terrified of God. Why? Because every year, when the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition came out, I secretly bought it and then proceeded to lust after all those swimsuit models! I was sure God was going to send a “word of prophecy” to someone at my church and announce to the entire congregation what a lust-filled pervert I was! Furthermore,

I was angry at God. Why? Because I was a pretty good kid, and I couldn’t get a girlfriend to save my life! I was lonely and insecure, and despite the fact that I was doing God a favor by being such a good kid (except, of course, when I had that swimsuit edition!), God hadn’t rewarded me with a girlfriend! Simply put, I was still walking “according to the flesh.” I was enslaved to my sins and passions, feeling guilt-ridden for those sins, trying to “be good enough” so that God would overlook my secret sins and reward me with what I wanted, and all the while, angry at God for not doing what I wanted! That is a real life example of living “according to the flesh.” It’s a miserable existence.

Romans 8-9-11By contrast, in 8:9-11, Paul gives a description of the kind of person who walks according to the Spirit. He says that such a person’s mindset is life; such a person is at peace with God because the Spirit of God, indeed Christ himself, dwells within him; such a person can rest in the hope that, despite the fact he clearly isn’t perfect, that God, “the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies.” In other words, the one who walks according to the Spirit can take comfort in the fact that there is sort of a “Spiritual evolution” at work within him, where God is transforming him from a sinner enslaved to sin and death, to a Son and co-heir with Christ, the ruler of Life.

Here’s the Key
The key, though, is to walk in the Spirit, and not try to do the Torah on your own strength. Christians are Spirit-walkers, not Torah-observers. Simply put, to live “according to the flesh” is to be a slave to fear and sin, and to be on the brink of death. We’ve all been there—it sucks. To live, though “according to the Spirit,” is to truly live. It is to be adopted as children of God, and to call God “Abba.” It is to be co-heirs with Christ, the one who will inherit and rule over God’s New Creation…and as co-heirs, that is the destiny also of those who walk in the Spirit. Good News, indeed.

And Here’s the Catch
Oh, but there’s a catch! Paul ends this section in 8:17 with something that will launch into his final section in his argument: we will be children of God and co-heirs with Christ, provided that we suffer with him!

Dang it.

Gordon FeeBut there it is: we must suffer with Christ, so that we can also be glorified with him! Or as I tell my students, you can’t enjoy the Resurrection-Life unless you first go through a crucifixion. Or as my professor Gordon Fee said, We must live cruciform lives so that we can be glorified with him.” And it is this very topic of suffering in relation to the Christian life, indeed to all of creation, that Paul now turns.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Romans 7:7-25–Oh that Sin, it gets you every time! (Part 12)

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Romans 7:7-25–Oh that Sin, it gets you every time! (Part 12)

The late Christian music pioneer Keith Green had a song entitled “Romans VII.” It was on his album, So You Want To Go Back to Egypt? If you were a Christian kid in the late 70s or early 80s, you know who Keith Green is, and you know how powerful and amazing he was. The feelings he expressed in “Romans VII” are feelings that virtually every Christian at one time or another have shared—feelings of frustration for not being the kind of Christ-like follower we want to be. Indeed, Romans 7:7-25 is a very well-known passage among Christians. When it comes to looking for scriptural confirmation of the inner struggle within the heart of the believer, this is the passage. Just listen to Keith Green’s song, consider the lyrics, and admit it—you have felt that way before.

There’s Only One Problem…That Augustine!
As much as I love Keith Green and his music, though, the problem with “Romans VII,” and indeed the problem with the way most Christians interpret Romans 7:7-25, is that that’s not what Paul is talking about! It may come as a shock to you, but Paul is not talking about the inner struggle in the heart of the believer in Romans 7:7-25.

Whether you know it or not, our understanding of Romans 7:7-25 has been heavily influenced by St. Augustine. And if you know anything about Augustine, you know that before he became a Christian that he was quite a sex-obsessed playboy. And so, when he read Romans 7:7-25 talking about things like “What I want to do, I don’t do; and what I don’t want to do, that I do!”  he ended up interpreting the passage as being about the inner struggle of Christian men with lust.

The thing is, though, the Apostle Paul was a gifted celibate. He was perfectly happy and content being single, with no overwhelming problems with lusting for sex. Therefore, when he wrote Romans 7:7-25, he simply wasn’t thinking in the same terms Augustine was thinking about. On top of that, given the argument he is making in Romans, it would be very weird for Paul to suddenly talk about some inner struggle with sin within the heart of the believer. It just doesn’t fit into the argument Paul is making.

So what is Paul talking about in Romans 7:7-25, if he’s not describing the inner life of the believer? Simple: Paul is describing his former life as a Jew who had the Torah, but who did not have Christ. Because he was a Jew who knew his Torah, he knew full well what was right and wrong, yet he nevertheless did those very things he knew were wrong—and boy did he feel guilty about it. We need to keep this in mind if we are to understand what Paul is saying in Romans 7:7-25.

Romans 7:7-12—The Torah isn’t Sin, is it? (And What’s “The Flesh”?)
TorahTherefore, in 7:7-12, Paul begins by asking an absurd question: “Is the Torah sin?” Let’s face it, after all that Paul has said about the Torah up to this point, he hasn’t exactly made the Torah look too good! He’s actually associated it with sin six times (3:20; 4:15; 5:13, 20; 6:14; 7:5). Therefore, Paul needs to take a moment to actually defend the Torah a little bit and make a crucial point. He wants his readers to see that the problem of sin doesn’t lie with the Torah; it lies with us. He says in 7:12 that the Torah is “holy…just and good.” It is from God, and is therefore spiritual. So what happened?

Speaking as a representative Jew, Paul explains that although he had the Torah, he was still a sinner who was still ruled by “the flesh.” This is Paul’s “catch phrase” to describe being in bondage to the Old Age way of things. It’s important to realize that when Paul speaks of “the flesh,” he’s not talking about our physical bodies and our inner lusts. For him, “the flesh” is a reference to the “Old Age” world that is subject to death and decay because of sin. It is a term that denotes strife and discord between people (just look at Galatians 5:19-21). In any case, what Paul is saying is that even though the Torah is spiritual, he, being a “fleshly” sinner, was able to manipulate God’s good Torah so he could sin even more. Simply put, the Torah is a good thing, but it is powerless to stop sin, and therefore sin overpowers a powerless rule-book.

Let’s face it, we all know this from our own experience. As soon as you are told not to do something, you want to do it and start conniving ways to do it and not get caught. Why do you think so many church kids in high school youth groups around the nation desperately don’t want Jesus to come back until they get married? The answer is because “no sex before marriage” is hammered into them all high school long. Now, obviously it’s a good thing to wait until marriage, but we need realize if we pound that into children’s head over and over again, they’re going to want to have sex even more. And that predictable reaction to any good commandment  is what Paul is getting at: for the one without Christ, that good commandment actually sparks all kinds of lusts and desires that wouldn’t have been as strong without the commandment. That is the dilemma that Paul had as a religiously observant Jew without Christ.

Romans 7:13-17—Does the Torah Bring Death?
Then Paul asks a second question in Romans 7:13-17: “Did this good thing become death for me?” Paul’s answer is an emphatic “No!” The problem wasn’t the Torah. It was sin working death in me through that good Torah. The Torah certainly points out sin, and calls it for what it is; but the Torah is still nevertheless powerless to prevent sin and death. The Torah, after all, is still a part of the “Old Age world of the flesh”—it can only point out sin; it can’t do anything about it. And therefore, it is easily manipulated by the sin within us.

ChainsJust look at what Paul says in 7:14: “I am sold under sin.” Clearly Paul isn’t talking about himself as Christian—just look at 6:15-23, where Paul clearly said that a Christian is no longer a slave to sin. Rather, he is speaking as a representative Jew about the state he was in before he came to Christ. This is the state that Paul’s fellow Jews are in without Christ: they have the Torah, they know it is good, they know right from wrong, but since they are slaves to sin, they find ways of getting around the Torah so they can still sin. The Torah doesn’t bring death—it’s sin that manipulates the Torah that brings death.

Romans 7:18-23—Torah, Torah Torah! Wordplays! Wordplays! Wordplays!
And this brings us to 7:18-23, where Paul has a field day with wordplays on “Torah.” In 7:21, he states that he sees a certain “law” (i.e. torah) at work here: whenever he does good, evil is right there as well. First of all, he delights in the Torah of God in his innermost self (7:22). But then he finds that within him, there is another torah that is warring against the torah of his mind (i.e. the actual Torah in which he delights!)—this other torah actually makes him captive (i.e. a slave!) to the torah of sin that also is within him.

It is safe to say that Paul is describing, to use modern terminology, a living hell. What could be the response of someone who (a) knows what is good, (b) wants to do what is good, but (c) at the same time wants to do what is evil, and thus (d) finds himself powerless to do good, and essentially “addicted” to doing evil?  Paul gives that response in 7:24: Who will drag me out from this body of death?” The “fleshly” experience of being an enslaved sinner living under the good Torah brings nothing but despair. And the only one who can save someone from that living hell is Christ—and this is the very Good News that Paul elaborates on in chapter 8.

To sum up here, though, Paul’s argument is quite simple: the person living under Torah is a split person: his mind delights in the Torah of God, but his “members” are enslaved to the “torah” of Sin. The mind says, “Yes! Torah is good! I want to be a slave to the Torah of God!” But the flesh says, “I am a slave to the ‘torah’ of Sin!” And sin always overpowers a powerless (but good) rule-book!

Keith GreenNOTE: With all that said, Paul would never suggest that Christians don’t struggle with sin. The way Keith Green interprets Romans 7, although it is technically exegetically wrong (i.e. Paul isn’t talking about Christians here), it still can be applied to Christians who struggle with sin. That being said, though, it’s important not to leave it at that…and that’s why Romans 8 is so incredibly important.


Stay tuned.

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