What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written,
“Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense,
And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.”
Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness. But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
–Romans 9:30-10:13 (NASB)
This is almost “what I taught in church today,” since I went armed for Sunday school class with four books and a journal article. Dean normally teaches Sunday school, but he’s taking a few weeks off, so Charlie is filling in. Charlie was the Sunday school teacher when I first started going to this church and I have a real affection and admiration for him. I like Dean, but Dean is a teacher of “limited dimensions”. Charlie accesses less material but is willing to more deeply engage the text and has a more favorable approach to the Tanakh (Old Testament) and the centrality of Judaism in Christian salvation.
I met Charlie just outside the sanctuary just before services began and he noticed I was carrying a load of books. I complemented him on inspiring my studying diligently for his class since he asked questions that are not easy to answer, especially if you don’t have a traditionally Christian matrix of interpretation to go by. Charlie appreciated it a great deal and I’m thankful he didn’t mind me wanting to be “unconventional” in his class.
Just so you have an idea of what I studied from. I accessed Brad Young’s The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, Mark Nanos’ The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letters, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s Growth Through Torah, and Larry Hurtado’s How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus. I also took my copy of Messiah Journal issue 112/Winter 2013 to reference Jordan Levy’s article “The Crowning Jewels of the Nations”. I didn’t specifically quote from any of these sources during class but wanted them handy in case I needed them. I also wanted to dramatically illustrate what it is to actually study the Bible. Many people in class don’t even read over the notes.
I’m going to replicate Charlie’s study notes here and then provide the answers as I originally conceptualized them. I’ll also comment on some of the differences between what I was going to say in class and how it actually worked out.
From the introduction of the notes:
Paul has previously in chapter nine given the history of the people of Israel regarding God’s working as receiving “adoption as sons; the divine glory, the covenants, receiving the law, the temple worship, and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them the human ancestry of Christ.” (Romans 9:4,5).
Since everything that follows has to do with the “plan of salvation” or more accurately, the plan of redemption for Israel and for the people of the nations, I paid a lot of attention to “the covenants” and “the promises”. Anything we think we have as Gentile Christians comes from Israel, for it is only through the covenants and the promises that we can be grafted in to the root.
1. In chapter 10 verse 1 Paul states his heart’s desire and prayer for Israelites is that they might be saved. What does the term “saved” mean to you? Is this a good term to use today?
I might as well have referenced The Truncated Gospel or Scot McKnight’s book The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited to explain how I understand “saved.” Pastor Randy is out of town for several weeks, so he had a fellow named Mike substituting for him in giving the Sunday sermon, also based on the above-quoted scripture. I could barely stand listening to Mike’s message (and I’m sure he’s a very nice guy) because he very much seemed to think the plan of salvation is believing in Jesus so you can go to Heaven when you die. He missed the whole meaning of “raised from the dead” (Romans 10:9).
But what’s the big deal about being resurrected besides the fact that you live forever? Why is that our hope? Furthermore, why is it the good news for Israel first and then only afterward, for the Gentile? It has to do, not so much with God’s plan of salvation but His plan of redemption, especially the redemption of Israel. This is why you need to know about the New Covenant. This is why you need to know Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 among scores of other scriptures from the Prophets.
At a later point in the class, people remarked that you can’t understand the New Testament without understanding “the Law” (Torah). They don’t know the half of it. The “being saved” Paul greatly desired for the Jewish people was the fulfillment of the covenants and the promise of complete and final redemption for the nation of Israel and all Jewish people, the raising of Israel to the head of all the nations, restoring the Jewish exiles to their Land, rebuilding the Temple, and then allowing the people of all the other nations (Gentiles, us) to come alongside Israel and be granted the blessings of forgiveness of sins, reconciliation to God, the resurrection, and a life in the world to come by worshiping God through Messiah.
Being saved is so much more than being a disembodied Spirit in Heaven, it’s the restoration, not just of people, but of all Creation with Israel at the center of all things and King Messiah at the center of Israel.
4. In verse 9, what does it mean to confess “Jesus as Lord”?
No, I didn’t forget how to count. Somehow this topic came up next. I brought the Hurtado book with me mainly because I approached the answer from the direction of Messiah’s divine nature, but here I missed a beat. After my rather long-winded answer, Charlie came up with a better answer.
What is it to have a “Lord” and “King”? We don’t really understand what an absolute ruler is in America. Even in most nations that have royalty, that King or Queen or whatever doesn’t really hold absolute authority over the lives of that nation’s citizens. In days of old, a King’s word was law and if a King wanted, for instance, a person to be put to death, there was no trial, no arguing for that person’s rights. The King said “die” and that person was put to death.
OK, that’s an extreme example, but hear me out. If Jesus is Lord of our lives, and we have “surrendered” everything to him, then that means we have no will for ourselves except the will of God. Jesus described his own relationship with God that way (John 5:19, 8:28, 10:30, 17:21). This is another illustration of what Jesus came to show us…how to properly relate to God as God and to Jesus as Lord.
Do you know how amazingly difficult that is to live out? That means ever single decision we make, every act, every thought, is expended to satisfy the desires of God. We have no lives of our own as such. Only lives that are lived out in service to the great King. We are servants. We are slaves. This was certainly Paul’s attitude (Romans 1:1). Apprehending this is extremely difficult and I wonder how we can be considered sons and daughters of the most high by adoption and still be the lowliest of thralls, completely and totally subject to the will of God? It seems as if sonship and servanthood on those levels would be almost mutually exclusive.
It makes me realize just how far away I am from being who God wants me to be. Every time that I make a decision based on what I want, right down to the choice of a meal, my job, my spouse, and even the color of socks I wear each day. I know some decisions have more impact than others, but just inventory all the decisions you’ve made over the last twenty-four hours. How many were made for the sake of Heaven and how many were to please some personal desire?
This led into an interesting discussion about how many people in “the Church” are not “saved,” that is, have not truly turned their lives over to Messiah in absolute totality (is anyone capable of that level of commitment?). Then I asked, should we evangelize in the Church? Should we evangelize in the church I attend? What does this mean for our discipleship (or lack thereof) as a formal church responsibility? How should churches…how should my church bring up new believers to maturity?
I made a point that at the first “confession of faith” no one could possibly know all of the implications of what it means to be a disciple. It could take years (as in my case) to come to the point of understanding exactly what our faith asks of us.
2. According to verses 2 and 3 being “zealous for God” is not enough. Zeal without knowledge is inadequate. What does this mean? What are the implications for “American Christians” today?
In his commentary on Torah Portion Pinchas, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin in his book (pg 360) said, “Zealousness with negative motivations is a crime.” I didn’t express it as such when I spoke up, but I did mention something like, “Just because you say something with conviction doesn’t make it so.”
Others brought up different political and religious groups, all of which have zeal, with some of that zeal registering on a scale going from error to homicidal (speaking of the recent acts of terrorism against Israel). Paul said that some Jews were very zealous but lacked knowledge. Knowledge of what? I considered saying something about Young’s book which, in part (pp 206, 208) highlighted the importance of Torah study. It’s not like Jewish people lack for knowledge of God, but Paul was zealous against Messiah before his fateful encounter in Acts 9, in spite of his great learning. I think Paul must have been writing from his own experience. I think Paul acquired a knowledge after his first vision that he had lacked before.
I brought my copy of Messiah Journal in case the conversation turned from zealousness to jealousy, but it never went in that direction. Still, better to be prepared.
What about American Christians and zeal? I’ve said before that there are approximately 41,000 different Christian denominations if you count the national variants. Occasionally, you see some sort of statistic stating that most Americans consider themselves “Christians”. Given the state of our nation and the behavior of many people, that doesn’t seem right, but then how are these poll takers defining “Christian”?
I guess this goes back to the Lordship of Christ and whether or not our zeal is for the sake of God or for our own sake. My experience in the religious blogosphere tells me that everyone pushes their own theology and doctrine, presumably for the sake of Heaven, but attitudes I’ve encountered indicate that the motivation of at least some highly vocal bloggers might lie elsewhere. The trouble is, people, me included, have a terrific ability to delude ourselves. We can honestly think we’re serving God when in fact, we’re serving what makes us feel better. Being a servant, being a slave, isn’t about what makes us feel good but about what serves God’s interests among humanity. Sometimes, that might feel pretty uncomfortable, but when you’re a slave, you don’t ask for comfort, you just do what you’re commanded. That’s what obligation means. In essence, you have no rights.
Of course, God is both perfectly just and perfectly merciful, so He won’t abuse absolute authority and cause needless suffering (though it might feel otherwise sometimes).
If we act with zeal, we’d better be right. Pinchas risked much but as it turned out, his motives were only for God. R. Pliskin advises (pg 358), “A Torah scholar should be consulted whenever questions arise.” Translated into a more Christian-friendly context, I take it to mean that whenever we feel like going off half-cocked, we should check in with a wiser disciple of the Master, a friend or mentor, to verify that our motives are pure and that we are acting as servants and not our own masters.
3. In verse 4 what does it mean when it says “Christ is the end of the law”? If the law is no longer valid, then it has no effect on us, and why should we study it?
I didn’t like this part of Mike’s sermon at all since he was reading chapter and verse from the traditional supersessionist Christian playbook. No, Jesus didn’t abolish the law, but he fulfilled it, which, according to the aforementioned playbook, means the same thing.
In my Sunday school class to respond to this question, I relied heavily on Nanos and his book. The Greek word “Telos” which we translate as “end” can also be translated in a lot of other ways including “goal,” “aim,” “focus,” and “target.” During Mike’s sermon, I realized that Messiah being the focus or the target or the aim of the Torah can mean that it is only through faith in Messiah that observance of the mitzvot comes to completely fulfilling Torah’s meaning and purpose.
But performing the commandments simply for their own sake justifies no one before God. I do agree that we need to have faith as Abraham did and then approach the requirements of obedience. The psalm for last week’s Torah portion says in part:
“Hear, O My people, and I will speak;
O Israel, I will testify against you;
I am God, your God.
“I do not reprove you for your sacrifices,
And your burnt offerings are continually before Me.
“I shall take no young bull out of your house
Nor male goats out of your folds.
“For every beast of the forest is Mine,
The cattle on a thousand hills.
“I know every bird of the mountains,
And everything that moves in the field is Mine.
“If I were hungry I would not tell you,
For the world is Mine, and all it contains.
“Shall I eat the flesh of bulls
Or drink the blood of male goats?
“Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving
And pay your vows to the Most High;
Call upon Me in the day of trouble;
I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me.”
–Psalm 50:7-15 (NASB)
It isn’t just what we do but why we do it that matters. Sacrificing to God without proper intent and devotion was a meaningless act. I think this is what Paul was talking about when he said that many Jews of his day “have zeal for God” but are “ignorant of the righteousness of God.”
This was a difficult area for me to speak on since I had to explain that Paul wasn’t against performing the Torah mitzvot at all. After all, he was born, lived, and died an observant Jew. He never taught any Jew to disobey the Torah of Moses or to forsake circumcising their sons and testified many times under oath to that fact. However, he was against failing to have proper knowledge of God’s righteousness and acting our of that ignorance, as he had done previously. Righteousness is not by ethnicity only (Nanos, pg 182).
I think I got my point across, but if anyone realized I was saying that the Jews remained obligated to observe the Torah commandments while Acts 15 called Gentile disciples to a less stringent level of obedience, they didn’t call me on it. No one mentioned it to me after class either.
The general consensus of the class is that Jesus was the end of the Jewish people trying to justify themselves to God by their own efforts. The problem is, that isn’t why the Messiah came. He came to bring the good news of Israel’s redemption and proof that the New Covenant promises where literal and beginning to enter the world. It had nothing to do with whether or not some Jewish people felt that their ethnicity or their observance was the sole cause of their justification before the Almighty. As John the Baptizer said:
…and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham.
–Matthew 3:9 (NASB)
It was at this point that class time ran out. Unlike Dean who needs to shoot through all of his prepared material in less than an hour, going a mile wide and an inch deep, Charlie doesn’t care if we cover all of his questions or not as long as we dig deeper and have a meaningful interaction.
Here’s the question we never got to:
5. Does anyone, or any group have any “special in” with God today, or is it “whosoever will may come?”
My answer was “Yes and No.” The Jewish people are born into covenant with God, frankly, whether they want to be or not. “God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29) so once God made a covenant with Israel, it’s permanent. In fact, the Sinai Covenant folds right into the New Covenant and Israel is subject to both of them. They define Israel as a people and a nation, define God’s relationship to His chosen nation, and ultimately, the later covenant defines how it is even possible for Gentiles to be “grafted in” (see Romans 11:11-24) to the root as “wild” olive branches alongside the “civilized” olive branches of Israel.
I was disappointed that I didn’t get to address this question but in retrospect, I suppose it was all for the best. I’d have had to try to explain how, on the one hand, only a remnant of Israel would be saved (Romans 11:1-6 referencing 1 Kings 19:18), and on the other hand, how all of Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26-29, also see Jeremiah 31:34).
Everything goes back to the covenant status of Israel. Paul wasn’t rejecting the non-believing Jews and in fact, he bemoaned their lack of faith because he saw devotion to Messiah as the next “evolutionary” step in the development of God’s redemptive plan for Israel through the irrevocable promises of the Sinai and New Covenants.
In preparation for this class, I read the entire Epistle to the Romans and did something I usually don’t do. I took copious notes directly on the pages of the Bible (I usually use sticky notes so I don’t mar the pages). Romans is so much more clear to me when I read it in one shot rather than sampling little “sound bytes”. Paul’s intent seems so plain to me.
While I thoroughly enjoyed Nanos’ book The Mystery of Romans, in some ways, it made the letter seem so much more complicated (not that it isn’t complicated) than it needs to be. Maybe it’s because I’ve come to a point in my education and apprehension of the Bible, that I’m finally able to read Romans in a way that makes sense and that, within the larger Biblical context and from a “Messianic” point of view, doesn’t require the plan of God to “jump the tracks,” so to speak, and have God abandon “Plan A” to go to “Plan B”.
God doesn’t make mistakes. There’s always been one redemptive plan and it has been for Israel first and then for the rest of the nations. Knowing that, we can read Romans in a way that confirms God’s devotion to Israel and renders Paul as a Jewish Pharisee devoted to the Torah, to his mission to Israel and the nations, and to his service to Messiah as his Lord’s special emissary.
Addendum: Derek Leman wrote an excellent commentary this morning called How Your Bible Christianizes Paul. His points fit very well with that I tried to do yesterday in Sunday school class. Have a look at what Derek said.