For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.”
-Romans 1:16-17 (NASB)
When I was preparing for last week’s Sunday school class for the study on Romans 10:1-13, I decided to read the entire Epistle to the Romans. I’ve studied Romans before, principally using the Mark Nanos book The Mystery of Romans, but there’s something to be said for just reading the Bible and letting it speak to you.
I prefer, when I can, to read entire books in the Bible rather than just a few verses at a time. Imagine reading your favorite novel three or four sentences at a time, then putting the book down for four days, picking it up and reading another few sentences.
First of all, it would take you forever to get through the novel and secondly, you probably would have a tough time keeping the book’s overarching narrative in your mind as a complete story.
But we think nothing of treating the Bible or any of the books it contains as if it were a large collection of “sound bytes”.
Paul wrote each of his letters to be read as a whole, including Romans. Why don’t we read them that way? The impression we get of the epistle (or any other single book in the Bible) will probably be different and perhaps yield a more complete impression in the mind of the reader.
Alas, I can’t review the whole epistle to the Romans in a single blog post, so I’ll have to break my own rule. But I can use a series of blog posts to communicate my overall impression of Romans a few chapters at a time? Hopefully, that will be sufficient.
None of this is scientific or scholarly. I don’t read Biblical Greek and I didn’t use any references or other study aids while reading Romans. I just read Romans and took notes on the margins of the pages as I was reading. That’s what I’m going to share with you.
Oh, these are just impressions. Little bits and pieces that I picked up in my overall read of the letter. I’m not going to comment on all the verses in each chapter. Just what prompted me to write a note down.
Take it for what it’s worth.
The first thing I noted in my reading of Romans was the above-quoted verses. Paul was not ashamed of the Good News of Messiah. That good news is the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
What is “salvation?” We like to think that it’s as simple as being saved from the consequences of our sins and being reconciled to God, but remember, for Jesus and for Paul, based on the New Covenant promises, having your sins forgiven is only the first step.
The New Covenant promises are aimed solely at the Jewish people and the nation of Israel, and include restoring national Israel to its former glory and elevating her as the head of all the nations of the world. It’s the promise that Israel’s Messiah King will rule with justice and mercy, not over just Israel, but the nations of the Earth. It’s the promise that Messiah will completely end the Jewish exile and return all Jews to their nation. It’s the promise to rebuild the Temple and to restore the sacrificial system in accordance to the commandments. It’s the promise to defeat all of Israel’s enemies and bring them (us) under subjugation. It’s the promise to establish a reign of worldwide peace and tranquility. It’s the promise of the resurrection for the just, that they (hopefully, we) will live in the resurrection under Messiah’s reign, for that is the hope of our faith. It is the promise…
You get the idea.
So when Paul says something as simple as “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek,” he’s really saying all of the stuff I put into the previous, large paragraph. That’s why it’s first to the Jew. Because promises were made to the Jewish people. Gentiles, by God’s mercy and favor, get to come along for the ride…but I’ll get to that in a subsequent blog post.
For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
-Romans 1:21 (NASB)
I read this the same weekend I read Torah Portion Pinchas and hopefully you’ll see the connection. After Israel was spared being cursed and was in fact blessed by the Gentile prophet Balaam, Balaam had the “brilliant” suggestion to have Moabite and Midianite women seduce the men of Israel sexually to incite them to worship their (foreign) gods.
It worked. If not for the zeal of the Kohen Pinchas (Phinehas), the plague of Hashem might have consumed the whole nation:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.'”
The name of the Israelite who was killed, the one who was killed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri son of Salu, chieftain of a Simeonite ancestral house. The name of the Midianite woman who was killed was Cozbi daughter of Zur; he was the tribal head of an ancestral house in Midian.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Assail the Midianites and defeat them—for they assailed you by the trickery they practiced against you—because of the affair of Peor and because of the affair of their kinswoman Cozbi, daughter of the Midianite chieftain, who was killed at the time of the plague on account of Peor.”
When the plague was over…
-Numbers 25:10-19 (JPS Tanakh)
The Israelites knew God but they did not honor Him.
There’s also the corresponding Psalm for this Torah Portion:
But to the wicked God says,
“What right have you to tell of My statutes
And to take My covenant in your mouth?
“For you hate discipline,
And you cast My words behind you.
“When you see a thief, you are pleased with him,
And you associate with adulterers.
“You let your mouth loose in evil
And your tongue frames deceit.
“You sit and speak against your brother;
You slander your own mother’s son.
“These things you have done and I kept silence;
You thought that I was just like you;
I will reprove you and state the case in order before your eyes.
“Now consider this, you who forget God,
Or I will tear you in pieces, and there will be none to deliver.
“He who offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving honors Me;
And to him who orders his way aright
I shall show the salvation of God.”
-Psalm 50:16-23 (NASB)
Even in the condemnation of the faithless and the wicked, God still offers a path back to salvation and redemption.
And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.
-Romans 1:28-32 (NASB)
God always offers a way back, but you have to be willing to take it. You can only access the path of teshuvah and return to God if you repent of your sins. If you don’t, if you are guilty of what the above-quoted verses state, if you fail to acknowledge God, then God, according to how I read Paul, will give you enough rope to hang yourself with.
Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?
-Romans 2:4 (NASB)
God doesn’t always “drop the hammer” the minute we stray from the path of light and into darkness. In fact, often he just lets us do what we want to do, and it’s easy to take that as a sign that God doesn’t seem to mind. No, that’s not it. He’s giving us the rope with which to hang ourselves, but he’s also giving us time to realize how badly we’ve messed up. He’s giving us time to repent. For when our time is up, then and only then will it be too late.
He thereupon says to them, “Permit me to go repent!” And they answer him and say, “You fool! Do you know that this world is like the Sabbath and the world whence you have come is like the eve of the Sabbath? If a man does not prepare his meal on the eve of the Sabbath, what shall he eat on the Sabbath?”
-from Ruth Rabbah 3:3
quoted by Young in
Chapter 15: Death and Eschatology: The Theology of Imminence, pp 281-2
The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation
I quoted this yesterday and for the same reason. To illustrate that we have lots and lots of time, at least as humans measure time (but maybe not as much time as we think), but in the end, God’s justice prevails. Don’t take God’s patience lightly.
There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God.
-Romans 2:9-11 (NASB)
I found this rather sobering. God puts the Jew first in both good and evil. If the blessings of the New Covenant come to the Jew first, so does tribulation and distress. There’s a definitely negative aspect to being at the center of God’s attention. I read “no partiality” both as God delivering consequences equally upon the Jew and Greek and as God not being partial to Israel giving her only good but not evil.
For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law…
-Romans 2:12 (NASB)
It seems that Jews will be held to a higher standard than Gentiles. But was Paul writing to believing and unbelieving Jews and to pagan Gentiles when he said “under the Law” and “not under the Law”? Paul was writing to the “church” in Rome, which Nanos said was more likely to the believing and non-believing Jews and the believing Gentiles in the synagogue. Paul had no audience with the pagans and his letter wasn’t addressed to them. So who is under the Law and not under the Law? Were the believing Gentiles under the Law?
…for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.
-Romans 2:13-16 (NASB)
This is getting very close to something like having the law “written on hearts,” for how would Gentiles who were not given the Law at Sinai “instinctively” know to do the things of the Law? And what did they do? Did Gentiles “instinctively” put tzitzit on their garments and lay tefillin? Did they “instinctively” start observing the Shabbat and keeping kosher? Or is being kind, gracious, and compassionate a more “instinctive” response in doing the Law?
If Paul is talking about Gentiles who are already disciples of Jesus, then they would possess the Holy Spirit and the finger of God would be just beginning to write the Law upon their hearts.
But the Jewish believers (and non-believers) already had the Law.
But if you bear the name “Jew” and rely upon the Law and boast in God, and know His will and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law, and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth, you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself?
-Romans 2:17-21 (NASB)
Is it possible to take a gift for granted. Were there Jews who relied on outward behavior alone to justify them before God. Yes, it is the “doer” of the Law who is made righteous, but only by faith. Performing the mitzvot without faith is not effective. See Psalm 50 above if you don’t believe me.
Hopefully, a believing Jew would not take the Torah for granted, but if Nanos is right, Paul was also writing to Jews who were not believers in Jesus as the Messiah, and some of them may have strayed from their faith, relying on behavior and ethnic identity alone to justify them before Hashem. This is Paul’s dire warning to his brothers.
…you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal? You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? For “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” just as it is written.
-Romans 2:21-24 (NASB)
Hypocrisy? Jesus accused his brothers among the Pharisees of hypocrisy more times than I can count.
Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.”
-Matthew 23:1-3 (NASB)
I’ve quoted Noel S. Rabbinowitz’s paper Matthew 23:2-4: Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisees and Does He Endorse Their Halakhah (PDF) more than once to illustrate while Jesus accused at least some of the Pharisees of not practicing what they taught, he confirmed that what they taught was correct, and that they had the proper authority to be teachers in Israel.
Applying that forward to Paul, he may well have accused some of the Jews in the Roman synagogues of hypocrisy but at the same time acknowledged what they taught was correct and that they had the authority to teach in the synagogues. Thus, Paul was criticizing the hypocritical practices of some of his audience, not their validity as Jews nor the validity of the Torah as a continued covenant obligation for Jews.
But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God.
-James 2:18-23 (NASB)
Faith and works are required. They come as a set. You cannot properly separate them. Faith without works is dead but so is works without faith.
Make no mistake though. God fully intended (intends) for Jews to observe the mitzvot.
“For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.
-Deuteronomy 30:11-14 (NASB)
That completely shoots down any Christian argument that God gave the Jews the Law to prove how impossible it would be to keep, thus showing them that they could only be “saved” by faith and grace alone, apart from the Torah.
For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.
-Romans 2:25-29 (NASB)
If a Jew fails to perform a mitzvah, does he stop being a Jew? Does he become “uncircumcised?” This used to puzzle me. The whole “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh” thing has been used to justify calling Christians “spiritual Jews” and to support the old, tired theology of supersessionism. But I don’t think that’s what Paul is saying.
Paul is trying to inspire zeal for the Torah and for faith in Messiah in his non-believing Jewish brothers in Rome. How would he do that by insulting them and rejecting them? Worse, how would he do that by denigrating the Torah? He couldn’t.
But he could be saying that a Jew is justified before God if he is outwardly a Jew, that is, if he is obedient to the commandments, and if he is inwardly a Jew, that is, if he has faith in God and that faith is the motivation for obedience. The two go together…faith and works.
I had intended to cover Chapter 3 as well in this first “reflection” but I can see this “meditation” is long enough as it is.
This is an experiment of sorts, so let me know what you think. Should I continue writing my reflections of Romans for the entire epistle?
Next up: Reflections on Romans 3.