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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Romans 16

In the immediately preceding verse Paul has seemingly closed with a benediction: “May the God of peace be with you all.” At the end of this chapter he will add a more developed one: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you” (NIV).



What does he mean by “the God of peace”? Jesus promised that wars will be with us until he comes again. None of the apostles was a pacifist. It is true that Paul uses the word “peace” earlier in the letter for “peace with God” that we enter by faith in Christ. We are no longer God’s enemies, but his children. Notice, however, that this is not a statement of fact: “the God of peace will be with you”, but a prayermay the God of peace be with you”. This is something Paul prays for and has devoted much of his letter to promoting. It is the peace between factions in the church with differing convictions and scruples. It is peace between different races, in this case between Jewish and non-Jewish believers. The success of the gospel in the Roman empire would depend in large measure on the peaceful collaboration of believers from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, just as it does today in the world of the 21st century.



But this fervent desire expresses itself in these closing lines not just in the phrase “may the God of peace be with you.“ It is implicit in a very practical way in his singling out of his fellow Jews among the believers in Rome to receive his greeting. The NIV unfortunately translates these terms as “relatives”, ESV as “kinsmen”. But what is meant is “fellow Jews” (Andronicus and Junia in v. 7, Herodian in v. 11, ).



Since it would have been well known in the Roman house churches that these people were Jews, Paul would not under ordinary circumstances have needed to mention their race. By going out of his way to call them “my fellow Jews” he again stresses his solidarity with the Jewish people and the importance of respecting Jewish believers. Might there already have been a vicious notion circulating that all Jews were “Christ-killers”? If so, Paul would want to scotch that quickly.



Paul doesn’t call attention to the Jewishness of every Jew whom he greets in this passage. Priscilla and Aquila (v. 3) were Jews. But he implies their Jewishness when he writes “all the churches of the gentiles are grateful to them” (v. 4). By these words, he implies that all gentile believers should feel gratitude to the Jewish people for the Messiah (Romans 9-11).



16:1-2 Paul has something commendatory to add about virtually every named person in this section. We can start with Phoebe, who apparently brought the letter from Greece. Paul wrote it in Cenchrea, where Phoebe lived and was an active Christian. Paul calls her a “servant of the church” —the word translated “servant” is diakonos, the same word translated in other places as “deacon”. But does this imply an office? Some would argue that it does, since the word is not feminine, which one might expect if it simply meant a servant-like woman. But others suggest that it indicates a well-to-do patron or sponsor of the local church in Cenchrea. Galatians 2:17 reads as follows in the NIV:


If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not!


Well, if you read this verse in another translation you would see that Christ was described either as the “servant of sin” (ESV) or the “minister of sin” (KJV, NASB). The word translated there (Greek diakonos) is the same word used in Romans 16 of Phoebe. It means “sponsor”, or—in the language of international business—“facilitator”—someone who does whatever it takes to encourage the success of another person or an enterprise. Paul denied in Galatians 2:17 that by saving us without requiring good works to earn it Christ was facilitating or encouraging sinful behavior.



In Romans 13:4 Paul describes any Roman officer of the court as God’s “facilitator” (Greek diakonos), who by enforcing just laws against murder, theft, etc., helps us to live the way God wishes us to. In Romans 15:8 he describes Jesus himself as a facilitator (diakonos, NIV 'servant') to the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, confirming the promises made to the patriarchs, and making it possible for them to believe and enter the promised kingdom.



Phoebe too was a “facilitator”—using her time, talents and wealth to enable the believers in Cenchrea and in Rome to fulfill their God-given calling. In v. 2 Paul calls her a “patron” (ESV, “a great help” NIV) of many including himself. The Greek word prostatis, translated “patron” here, implies providing financial and legal support. Phoebe not only had wealth, but “connections”, which she had used in the past to help Paul himself.



She traveled to Rome on this occasion not only to deliver Paul’s letter, but on personal business. Some scholars believe that, since the literal translation of v. 2 (obscured in both the ESV and NIV) is “I ask you … to assist her in any way she requires in (her) task”, and the Greek word rendered “task” (pragma) is used elsewhere by Paul for a lawsuit, Phoebe may have needed the influence of local Christians in achieving her ends in a courtroom appearance. Although she had powerful connections in Cenchrea, she had fewer in Rome, and might have needed some local help.



16:3-5a We have already mentioned Priscilla and Aquila. Paul here uses her formal name “Prisca”. In the Book of Acts, Luke used a familiar or nickname, Priscilla, which means “little Prisca”. We have no evidence for any time when they risked their lives for Paul. It has been guessed that this might have been at the time of the riots in Ephesus, part of which Luke tells us in Acts 19. The phrase “risked their neck” has so common an expression in later times, largely through this use of the idiom in the bible, that we often do not realize that in Paul’s day this wasn’t just a colloquialism for risking one’s life in general, but was a specific allusion to risking execution—putting the neck on the chopping block, as it were.



Paul uses the term “my beloved” of several persons whom he greets (Epaenetus in v. 5, Ampliatus in v. 8, Stachys in v. 9, and Persis in v. 12). Although elsewhere in this letter he calls all the believers there “beloved” (1:7; 12:19), he seems to single out only a few in these greetings. What might he mean? The NIV is inconsistent in paraphrasing these examples in ch. 16, sometimes translating “my dear friend”, at other times “whom I love in the Lord”. Certainly, any show of favoritism would not go over well with his hearers.



Seventeen times in verses 3-16 Paul asks his hearers to “greet” someone. The last time (v. 16) he urges that they “greet one another with a holy kiss”. This seems to indicate that he wished some concrete display of love to be shown publicly in the house churches. In the Middle East today friends greet each other with a double kiss, one on each cheek. J. B. Phillips paraphrased it in a way culturally more fitting for the modern western world when he wrote “give each other a hearty handshake all around”. But of course this overlooks the fact that a good hug is also acceptable, especially among those of the same sex. However this public greeting was to be realized, the point was that it was not a gesture given lightly, but was reserved for those who truly love each other in Christ.



After the long section of greetings to Roman Christians, in vv. 17-20, Paul has some closing advice. Here he finds it necessary to warn them about persons he is aware of whose behavior and teaching are hostile to the purposes of unity in faith and love. Their primary characteristic is that they encourage divisions. Keep in mind that the Romans believers met in several house churches. There was always the danger that they would fail to maintain unity and constant fellowship between the individual churches. Paul doesn’t specify the behavior or teaching that constituted the threat, but we can be sure that it was something that the teaching in this letter was aimed at correcting: either a works-based or law-based salvation or the very opposite: the attitude that “I can do anything I want now that Christ has forgiven me”—an attitude that goes along with the despising of fellow believers with scruples against such behavior. If mutual love and understanding characterized the “peace of Christ”, then these people were the “disturbers of the peace”. Paul characterizes their method as “smooth talk and flattery” in v. 18. His advice “I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil” (v. 19) sounds like a paraphrase of Jesus words “be wise as serpents, but harmless as doves”. And if so, then the wise as serpents reminds Paul that Satan is the great Serpent, whom Christ will crush under their feet “soon” (v. 20).



After another section of greetings sent to Rome by Paul’s Christian friends who know and are known by the Roman churches (v. 21-24), he reaches the end. Final words. God is able to establish them by the gospel that Paul and the other apostles preach, and which they all must focus on bringing to the nations. To this God will all the glory be forever through Jesus the Messiah.



Thursday, May 14, 2009

Romans 15 - Part Two

15:17-22
“Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done— by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. 20It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. 21Rather, as it is written: “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.” 22This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you.” (Romans 15:17-22 NIV)
Paul’s “service to God” that he glories in is a combination of evangelism, teaching and mentoring—all aimed at presenting his flock to God as an acceptable offering. “Leading the gentiles to obey God” (v. 18) meant first of all urging them to obey the call to believe in Jesus as the crucified and risen Savior and Lord. This is “the gospel of Christ” (v. 19), as he wrote previously to the churches in Corinth (1 Cor. 15:1-3). Paul was happy to share that gospel wherever he happened to be and to whomever he met. But it was his special desire to make it known where people had never heard it before (v. 20-21). Because these Romans had already heard and believed the gospel, visiting them was a lower priority for a lengthy period: thus “this is why I have often been hindered from coming to you” (v. 22). It was not that he did not want to visit them. But for a long time there were more urgent matters.

15:23-29

“But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to see you, 24 I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to visit you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while. 25 Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. 27 They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings. So after I have completed this task and have made sure that they have received this fruit, I will go to Spain and visit you on the way. I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ.” (Romans 15:23-29 NIV)
When he writes that “there is no more place for me to work in these regions”, he doesn’t mean teaching and guiding the new believers, but evangelizing cities and towns where the gospel had not yet been preached. He would have been the first to admit that not every town in Greece, Syria and Asia Minor had heard the good news. But he and the other apostles had established communities of witnessing believers in most of the urban centers in those regions, and it was now up to those believers to spread the gospel in the surrounding areas.

“These regions” refers to the areas where Paul himself had concentrated—not other apostles who were working further east (Syria, Iraq) and south (Egypt, North Africa). The next stage in his plan would be the western Mediterranean with its center in Spain (v. 24; see my earlier blog posting). In v. 24-29 he sketches his provisional plan: first to take the benevolence offering of his churches in Greece to the Jewish believers in Judea (v. 25-27), then to sail west, stopping over in Rome to visit them before continuing westward to Spain to begin a new chapter in his missionary work (v. 28).

The “full measure of the blessing of Christ” that will accompany him when he next visits them will be a teaching ministry, elaborating on what he has already taught them in this letter. Little did he know that God would alter his plan, and that the next time he would visit Rome would be as a prisoner to stand trial before the emperor (Acts 28:14-31)! For more on this visit, see my blog on Acts 28.

15:30-33

“I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. 31 Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea and that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints there, 32 so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and together with you be refreshed. 33The God of peace be with you all. Amen.” (Romans 15:30-33 NIV)
When Paul asks for their assistance, he does so on the basis of what Jesus has done for them all: “by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit”. The ministry of each believer is part of the ministry of the entire church of Jesus: we are all in this together, and it is a team-work (“ join me”). The work of the church is always a struggle, for the powers of evil have not given up their opposition, in spite of the mighty victory over them that Jesus won at the cross. Our struggles in sharing the good news with our acquaintances are the result of spiritual powers (Ephesians 6:11-18) operating on their minds, without their even being aware of it. Paul had written in 2 Corinthians 4:4
The god of this age [Satan] has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
Our chief weapon in this spiritual struggle is prayer (Ephesians 6:18), and that is what Paul asks these Roman believers for (vv. 30-32). All too often you and I simply ask others “pray for me” without giving them guidance as to what specifically to ask God to do. Paul did not make that mistake: in vv. 31-32 he gives them specific things to ask God to do: safety in Judea from unbelieving opponents, acceptance of the gift by the Judean Christians, and return to Rome with joy.

Ironically, those three requests were granted by God, but in a way unexpected. Paul was beaten by a mob and arrested and tried in Judea by the Roman garrison. But his life was saved and he had opportunity to witness not only to the Roman governor, but to the Jewish king Agrippa. He was sent to Rome by ship, and the trip was harrowing, but he arrived safely and again was able to witness to Jews in Rome!  We never know how God will choose to answer our prayers, but we may be sure that he will always do so, and in ways that will be better suited to his purpose and our ultimate good than we can imagine when we pray: “[God] is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20).

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Romans 15 - Part One


“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. 2 Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. 3 For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” 4 For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:1-4 NIV)
It may help us to understand what the text means by “strong” and “weak” if we translate the two words as “able” and “unable”. The consciences of the first group made them able to eat things the other group was unable to eat, and able to do things on days that the other group could not in  good conscience do. the words “we who are strong” show that Paul belonged to the first group, but was happy to give up some of his own freedom and rights in order not to harm those in the second group. As he puts it here, it was a matter of priorities. “Pleasing” himself took a back seat to “pleasing” his christian neighbor “for his good, to build him up”. Those last two clauses are very important. Paul never advised Christians to conform to sinful behavior in order to please others. All accommodation was directed to the twin goals of the spiritual good of others, building up their faith in the Savior. Any accommodation that tended to weaken faith in Jesus or commitment to the scriptures was not for the other person’s “good”.

Jesus is the primary example. The insults that others normally directed to God and to his word, the scriptures, regularly fell on Jesus, since he was always loyal to god and to the scriptures. And because insulting God regularly takes the form of belittling the Bible, sometimes by pitting one part of it against another, Paul reminds his hearers that everything written in the earlier scriptures (which for him was the Old Testament) was to help us endure temptations and challenges to what we believe and how we live, and to encourage us with the prospect (“hope”) of Jesus’ ultimate victory.

15:5-12

“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs 9 so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy, as it is written: “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing hymns to your name.” 10 Again, it says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” 11 And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and sing praises to him, all you peoples.” 12 And again, Isaiah says, “The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; the Gentiles will hope in him.”” (Romans 15:5-12 NIV)
5-6 And although endurance and encouragement come through our study of the Bible, ultimately it is God who bestows it on us. And that God—Paul reminds these Romans—is the God of both Jews and gentiles, who wishes there to be no disunity between Jews and gentiles who believe in Jesus as the Messiah and Savior (“Christ Jesus” = “Messiah Jesus”). The words “with one heart and mouth” were intended to recall what he had written in Romans 10:9-10 “That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved” (see my discussion of Romans 10:9-10).  This was and is today the basis for Christian fellowship, regardless of differences in race or culture.

7-12 Paul’s words here are mainly addressed to the gentiles, who were in the majority in the Roman churches at this time. And as we have seen earlier in this letter, Paul is combatting their tendency to discount the Jews, even including Jewish believers. So Paul uses somewhat strong language here: “Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs” (v. 8). The  first item on God’s agenda in Jesus was to confirm his promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. this was “God’s truth”. And in confirming these promises Jesus became “a servant of the Jews”. Secondly, in v. 9 Paul repeats what he had written earlier in chapters 9-11, that it was only through promises confirmed to the Jews that the gentiles could experience God’s mercy in Christ. In chapter 11 he had described gentiles obtaining God’s mercy by being grafted into the olive tree which was Israel. Gentile salvation in a real sense is derivative, coming through the Jews. Therefore gentiles should not feel superior or discount Jews, but see them through the lens of Jesus,  the “servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth”. The rest of this section consists of Old Testament verses Paul quotes to show that god’s plan always was for Jews and gentiles to share a common faith in him and to joyfully worship him together. This common faith had its center in the assertion that “Jesus the Messiah (‘Christ’) is Lord.”

15:13-16
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. 14I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another. 15I have written you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me 16to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13-16 NIV)
In these verses Paul continues to address primarily the majority gentile group (see v. 16). His concern is not just with their salvation, but also that they might become “an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” Part of achieving that goal was to correct their mistaken attitude toward the gospel and toward the Jewish people. This should result in harmonious worship and a believing community characterized by hope, joy and peace in Christ. The urgency and importance of Paul’s task necessitated his writing “quite boldly on some points” (v. 15). We don’t know just what parts of his letter Paul considered “quite bold”.  Verse 16 shows that he saw his responsibility as similar to that of a priest under the Old Testament system. The believing gentiles were like an offering that he presented to God. And all temple offerings had to conform to strict quality controls.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Romans 14

14:1-3 Dietary issues
“Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” (Romans 14:1-4 NRSV)
The first matter of dispute concerned diet. Laws regarding diet are common in the religions of the world, in both ancient times and today. And differences of this type frequently keep adherents of different religions from eating together. Indeed, it is thought that this was the intention of God in instituting the dietary laws of Israel: to keep them from “inviting a Canaanite home to dinner,” as one wag put it so cleverly. But that very fact was why the abolition of the Old Testament dietary laws was an essential part of the gospel of Christ, for that gospel has at its heart the participation of all nations in the community of the forgiven and redeemed.

Yet although Paul was willing boldly to “beard the lion” on issues affecting salvation, when it came to matters that did not affect salvation, he advocated toleration of divergent views. The “weak” in dietary scruples in Rome and Corinth did not consider their abstention from meat to be a condition of their salvation. If they had, Paul would have rejected this belief as legalistic and denying the essential gospel truth that we are saved by faith alone. Table fellowship between the “strong” and “weak” groups was possible, if the “strong” became “weak” on occasions where both needed to be together in such fellowship. This was Paul’s own practice.

The specific origin and rationale of the “vegetarian” Roman Christians is debated. If these people were Jewish, it is not easy to see how Jewish law would have required abstention from meat. The whole spirit of the laws of Moses on clean and unclean meats (Leviticus 11) was to distinguish between two types of meat, not to reject all meat. In the Greco-Roman cities where Jews lived, Jews (and some Christians) sought to avoid eating meat offered in a pagan temple prior to its sale in the public meat market, and meat from animals not slaughtered in the correct (kosher) manner. But these two dangers did not make it impossible for Diaspora Jews to eat “clean” meat. Yet in spite of these problems, it may be that the “weak” in the Roman churches included Jews like Priscilla and Aquila (see my earlier blog posting) and gentile “God-fearers”.

14:5-12 Sacred days
“One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. 8If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. 10You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11It is written: “ ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.’” 12So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:5-12 NIV)
The second area of disagreement concerned whether one should observe certain days as “sacred” or not. Here again, one can cite the Jewish Ten Commandments as supporting the first view. But then the same can be said of most other religions of the Roman empire. In paganism it was unwise to undertake any important task on a “sacred” day, because it was unlucky to do so. On the surface this sounds similar to the biblical Sabbath, since the Israelites were forbidden to “work” on the Sabbath. But the reason for the prohibition was quite different. It had nothing to do with being “unlucky” and thus dooming any work done on that day to failure. Rather, it elevated the sacred Sabbath as a time for rest and worship. But these “strong” Christians apparently thought any observance of  “Sabbath” laws to be a denial of Christ’s having fulfilled (and thus abrogated) Jewish ceremonial customs. For them, treating a day—such as the Lord’s Day—differently from the other days was a retreat into Judaism and a denial of the radical transformations that Jesus introduced by his death and resurrection.

In verses 6-8 Paul singles out the good motives of Christians on both sides of the issue. As with the dietary scruples, he wishes to affirm both groups and urge them to learn to live together in love and understanding.

Verse 7 on the surface sounds like not living to oneself means a failure to realize that we live to and for one another. In fact, as verses 8-9 show, he means that believers on both sides of the issue live for the Lord Jesus. Yet if both sides live for the same Lord Jesus, the point is that they should live together in harmony and love.

In verses 10-12 he makes the point that, since sincere believers on both sides of the issue do what they do to please the Lord Jesus, and we will all receive his approval or disapproval at the time of judgment (v. 10), we should not preempt that judgment by making our own judgments ahead of time. In this Paul stands in the tradition of Jesus himself, who urged that his followers refrain from judging each other (Matt 7:1).

14:13-20 The recommended attitude
“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way. As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble.” (Romans 14:13-20 NIV)

Clothing ourselves with Jesus Christ (13:14) means acting as Jesus did and does (Col. 3:12; 1 Pet. 5:5; Rev. 3:18). And although Paul usually uses the word “God” to refer to God the Father, and “Lord” to Jesus (Rom. 4:24; 5:1, 11; 6:23; 7:25; 10:9; 14:6), he may not always have done so. It is therefore possible that in v. 3 the “God” who has “welcomed” (NRSV, ESV; “accepted” NIV) the “weaker” Christians is in fact Jesus.
Both words, “welcome” and “accept” (14:1, 4), properly express a common meaning of the Greek proslambanō, that of admitting someone into a fellowship (Acts 18:26; 28:2; Rom 14:1, 3; 15:7; Philem 1:17). And the imperfective (“present tense”) form of the verb here expresses a habitual or regular activity: “go on welcoming/admitting” such persons into your assemblies. The fact that disagreements between two attitudes existed in the Christian assemblies in Rome was no reason to institute a policy of selective admissions. This entire letter is suffused with a passionate desire that Christian assemblies around the empire be characterized by mutually accepting groups of believers in Jesus, first and foremost Jewish and gentile believers.

It is quite possible that we should imagine a setting in someone's house, where a guest at a Christian gathering may not be able to eat whatever is offered. The admonition to welcome such a person may therefore be quite concrete. It is important to note that among the poor the eating of meat was comparatively rare, and occurred chiefly on festal occasions or in the homes of the well-to-do. (Ziesler, Romans 327).

The whole question of the origin of these terms “weak” and “strong” to designate persons with certain scruples (the “weak”) versus others who do not have them (the “strong”) is debated (see my earlier blog posting).

Julie Galambush, who converted from Christianity to Judaism, puts it this way in her book The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book (2005, p. 199):
It is unclear whether the division between "weak and strong" corresponds to that between Jew and Gentile. Are the Jews observant and therefore "weak," or is this an intra-Jewish debate over what constitutes proper observance for Jewish believers? In either case, Paul's response is simple and unequivocal: "Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat" (14:3).

Were these Paul’s own preferred terms or those of the “strong” in the various congregations? We know from the Corinthian correspondence that Paul’s critics there condescendingly called him “weak” (2 Cor 10:10). And his response was to accept the term as a compliment: he gloried in being “weak”, but “weak” in the way he chose to interpret the word (1 Cor 1:27; 4:10; 12:10; 13:9; 2 Cor 11:29; 12:10; 13:4, 9). But that was in a somewhat “adversarial” context, where others were attacking him and his right to lead them spiritually.

In Romans no such situation can be assumed. Rather he is pleading for peace, unity and love among the Christians in Rome. So he does not mock the “strong”, as he did in Corinth, but pleads for mutual understanding.

In both verses 2 and 5 Paul merely describes the situation, which was familiar to his hearers: there are differing views among true Christians as to what may be eaten and what days one should observe as sacred. In both cases he advises those on both sides of the issues not to despise or judge those on the other side.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Romans 13 - Part Two

13:8-10

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10 NIV)


The connection with the preceding is made through the words “what you owe” in v. 7 and “owe nothing” in v. 8 (paraphrased in the NIV as “let no debt remain outstanding”). This short passage completes the “debts” of v. 7 with a comprehensive debt to all people of Christian love. Paul has not related the obligations in v. 7 to the law of Moses, but he is at pains to relate the obligation of love to that law. The basis—the very heart and soul—of the law of Moses is the Decalogue, the “Ten Commandments”. And it is obvious that all of the commandments that Paul cites here involve doing harm to another person. And since one cannot harm another out of love, love is the driving force of fulfillment of the law. Whereas the original command “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” and Jesus’ repetition of it are styled in the positive, Paul has turned it around and phrased it in the negative. His reason is that the Decalogue is also phrased in the negative, and he wishes to show how the love command embraces all those negatives. He realized just as well as we do that the full implementation of Christian love results in positive acts toward others.

13:11-14

“And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” (Romans 13:11-14 NIV)


We have already explained (see under "4:17b-25 Describing Abraham’s faith as resurrection faith" there) that Paul and the other apostles understood that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus inaugurated the “Last Days” within the community of believers. For the outside world those Last Days have not yet begun. Christians have died and been raised to new life with their Lord (Rom. 6), and this means that the life they live, though played out in a world that is still evil, is an eschatological life, a realization of the powers of the Age to Come, marked by the presence of the Holy Spirit within them. In these verses Paul alludes to this teaching. From the standpoint of the world, it is still “night”, and rulers of “darkness” still rule, but the Second Coming of Jesus (the “day”) is almost here—“almost here” both in the sense that it is the next item on the agenda for the entire world, and in the sense that it is already present only within the body of believers.

Since the "night" is almost over for the world, and since the dawn of the new "day" has already come for believers, we who believe should be fully awake and living as we will live in the Age to Come (see also Matt. 4:16; 6:23; 8:12; 25:30; Luke 1:79). Deeds of darkness and night belong to unbelievers (Luke 11:34-35; 22:53; Jn 1:5; 3:19; 8:12; 12:46), for whom the new day has not yet dawned. And since in Roman society (and perhaps in all ages) the nighttime hours are preferred for debauchery, Paul urges these believers to live as though it were always broad daylight.

In verse 14 he switches his imagery, and for the first time in this chapter speaks of Jesus: we should “clothe ourselves” with the Lord Jesus Christ. Garments as symbols of behavior are common in the Hebrew scripture (Isa. 59:17; 61:10; Jer. 2:34; Zech. 3:1-4), and elsewhere in the ancient world. Both Paul and Peter love to use this metaphor for taking on the character traits of the Lord Jesus (Rom 13:12, 14; 1Cor 15:53; 2Cor 5:2; Gal 3:27; Eph 4:24; 6:11, 14-15; Col 3:10, 12, 14; 1Th 5:8; Titus 2:10; 1 Peter 3:3-5). Paul sometimes explicitly pairs putting on Christ (or the “new man”) with putting off character traits and behavior patterns of the pre-Christian life (Eph 4:22-24; Col 3:7-11).

All of us—both men and women—take a good deal of care in choosing what we will wear each day. We choose according to both the attractiveness of the clothes and their appropriateness to the activities we plan for the day. But do we think much about our behavioral “clothes”? Is what others see in our attitudes and actions really a good picture of what Jesus has done for us and wishes to do for others through us? Do we “clothe” ourselves with humility, kindness, generosity, patience, and good cheer? Or do we—through deliberate choice or just inattentive neglect—allow our behavior to reflect an attitude of disregard—and even dislike—for those we meet?

“Clothing” ourselves with Christ is not the same thing as putting on a mask or a disguise: it is not what hypocrites do. When we “put on” Jesus, it is done sincerely—from the heart, not to hide the real “me” but to let Jesus be the real “me”. If acting as you know Jesus wants you to without “feeling” the desire to do makes you feel hypocritical, re-read what I wrote above in the posting on "Romans 12 - Part 3" about how actions can produce the desires.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Romans 13 - Part One

In the preceding context Paul has been writing about avoiding conflicts within the community of believers. By exercising the radical principles taught by Jesus of loving those who hate you (Rom. 12:14, 17-21) the Roman believers should be able in most cases to live at peace with one another (Rom. 12:16, 18). This is the first step in a corporate witness to those outside the community of faith. The worst possible testimony to non-Christians is division and rancor within the ranks of Christians. Internal division is also a sure sign of weakness for outsiders who wish to destroy the new faith. And certainly the Roman government had no particular desire to protect or preserve this new sect, the very existence of which had recently stirred up such violent opposition among the city’s Jews that an imperial edict had to be issued, banishing for a while from the city the supposed instigators, who were probably the Jewish Christians.

This quite naturally led to the subject of the relationship of individual members of the Jesus community to the Roman government. Here too the wish of the community’s Lord is for respect and peace.

The Christian communities in Rome were under more than usual surveillance ever since the Jewish Christians had been allowed back after Nero’s revocation of Claudius’ edict. It was important that these communities keep a low profile and give no substance to the false charges that they were plotting to overthrow the government.

As in many areas of biblical teaching, it is important to see that Paul is not speaking here to the issue of pacifism.
 “Finally, it perhaps needs to be added that this passage does not speak to the issue of international conflict and so neither raises nor answers questions about a just war. Tax police are not soldiers, and what is expected of Christians in this passage is respect and resources. Nothing is said or implied about war or joining the military. This is not surprising since Roman legions had patron deities, and Christians would not have been able to participate in honoring them, as was required. Nor is anything said to suggest that the state has no right to use force to enforce its legitimate policies. Indeed, the opposite is said. Paul's ethic of pacifism and/or nonresistance in Romans 12-13 is an ethic for Christians and the Christian community. It is not an ethic he seeks or believes should be imposed on the non-Christian state” (Witherington, Romans, p 308).

13:1-2
“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:1-2 NIV)

Paul’s argument is based upon the principle that all rulers ("governing authorities")—including pagan ones—owe their position to the permission and will of the Lord of history. This was already affirmed by the Israelite prophets of old (Dan. 2:21; 4:10-25). And although at this very time revolutionary sentiment was boiling among many Jews in Palestine, neither Jesus nor his followers aligned themselves to revolutionary groups, such as the Zealots. This was the model that Paul wished to establish also in the capital city itself. Faith in Jesus, like the allegiance to Yahweh in the Old Testament, always implied a God-given critique of injustice in the communities where followers of Yahweh/Jesus lived. But the judgment on that injustice was God’s alone: it would not come through armed resistance by the believers. And lest the believers in Rome claim that they are exempt from what the rest of the (unbelieving) population must do, because of their heavenly citizenship, Paul emphasizes that everyone must submit (v. 1).

In view of all this, Paul's exhortation to pay customs and tolls fits in well as a proper Christian response to the state when it operates properly. Other expressions of allegiance such as emperor worship could not be assented to, so Christians had to be doubly diligent to perform fully the civic duties they could carry out.
"All that is asked of the readers is that they 'do good,' 'pay taxes,' and 'honor and respect those in power.' All that is legitimately ascribed to the authorities is punishing the evil and rewarding the good. This limited homage is far from an enthusiastic endorsement of the empire" (Witherington, Romans, 310).

13:3-7
“For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4 For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” (Romans 13:3-7 NIV)

Wearing the sword was characteristic of the emperor but also of various deputies beneath him in the power structure. The sword symbolized the government's right to capital punishment.

It is proper to fear God’s righteous judgment. And since Paul has established that it is God who has established human governments to enforce justice and promote righteousness, it is appropriate for the believers in Rome too to fear the authorities, if they do not respect God’s duly constituted authorities but rather take up arms against them. Although in this section Paul does not explicitly quote scripture, he clearly has in mind Old Testament precedences and instances of each of his commands and warnings. In the present instance he undoubtedly thinks of passages in Jeremiah, where the prophet informed the Judaean king and his court that God had appointed the Babylonians to rule over them at this time, and warned them not to attempt to rebel, which they were bent upon doing (Jeremiah 21).

Peter Stuhlmacher in his commentary on this passage summarizes the situation:
“These verses are also unmistakably based on Old Testament and Jewish tradition. Already in the letter of the prophet Jeremiah to the Jewish exiles in Babylon from Jer. 29:1-23 the people are summoned to the greatest possible loyalty toward the power of Babylon as a foreign government. Moreover, this biblical instruction persistently influenced Pharisaism and early Judaism. Thus, until the outbreak of the (first) Jewish war of resistance against Rome in A.D. 66, offerings "for the Caesar and the Roman people" were presented twice a day in the Jerusalem temple (Josephus, Bell. 2.197). Furthermore, in the Sayings of the Fathers 3:2 the following saying by Hanina, the last Jewish head official of the temple, is transmitted: "Pray for the well-being of the government; for if there had been no fear before it, we would already have swallowed one another alive." In Prov. 8:15f. it states that the kings and rulers on earth judge and decide rightly by virtue of the wisdom granted to them by God. In Sir. 17:17 we read that God "orders a ruler for every people," while in Wis. 6:3-4 it is emphasized that the power of the earthly rulers is granted to them only by God, so that they are "servants of his kingdom" and stand under the judgment of God if they misuse their power. Conversely, beginning with Prov. 24:21 and extending on to Philo (cf., above all, Leg. Gai. 140), the constant Jewish conviction is that fear and the giving of honor are due to those who rule” (Paul’s Letter to the Romans [1994], pp. 199-200).
It may have sounded blasphemous to many of Paul’s audience to hear him say of the Roman emperor “he is God’s servant” (v.4), but for this too there was Old Testament precedent. Through Jeremiah the prophet, God called the pagan king of Babylonia, Nebuchadnezzar, “my servant” (Jer. 25:9; 27:6; 43:10). And through Isaiah the prophet, God called Cyrus the Great of Persia “my shepherd” (Is 44:28-45:1; 45:13).
Paul adds that such an official is the “servant of God” most especially when as the executor of justice he exercises wrath on evildoers. C. K. Barrett observes that by executing justice the magistrate shows a preliminary manifestation of God's wrath, restraining evil, and so postpones the final manifestation of God's wrath (2 Thess. 2.6-7) (Barrett, Romans, 227).

There is no doubt that the gospel writers, especially Luke in both his gospel and Acts, give a generally favorable picture of Roman governing officials—in Palestine, Asia Minor, and Greece. Critical scholars often attribute this to an “agenda” of the New Testament writers, who wanted to curry favor with the Roman authorities in order to gain more freedom in worship and evangelism. Since by “agenda” they mean that the New Testament writers misrepresented the events portrayed, I most emphatically disagree with them.
We should also note that in these verses the issue on which the governmental authorities intervene in the individual’s life has to do with the citizen's doing “wrong” (v. 4). Paul would certainly have agreed with Peter, who wrote to Christians living under Roman rule in Asia Minor, that suffering punishment for doing wrong must be clearly differentiated from suffering incurred because of Christian faith and conscience (1 Peter 2:19-21; 3:14, 17; 4:15-16).

There seems to be an intentional limitation of the area of obedience given in verse 7, which many scholars believe is Paul’s summary: Christians owe to the government their taxes, respect for their authority, and honor. But the respect and honor are due to the office of rule itself, not necessarily to its occupant who behaves unjustly. We see this distinction in Paul’s reply to the high priest who—contrary to Paul’s legal rights— ordered him struck in the face (Acts 23:1-5). On that occasion Paul rebuked him for his illegal act. And when scolded for speaking ill of “God’s high priest”, Paul replied with irony “I did not know he was God’s high priest,” that is, “he certainly wasn’t behaving like one”!

If Christians in the United States complain at times of high taxation, we should be aware that at the time Paul wrote this to the Romans, they were paying exorbitant taxes to the government, including a head tax, a sales tax, an inheritance tax, and taxes for emancipation of slaves. Outside of Rome they also had to pay an income tax. Extra-biblical evidence from Rome at this time shows considerable unrest among the general population because of the greed and corruption of the state tax-collectors. Yet Paul does not urge the Christians to rebel.

“According to Tacitus, there were at this period growing complaints in society at large about taxation—so much so that in A.D. 58, Nero responded by proposing to abolish all indirect taxation (Annals 13.50-51 [see also Suetonius, Nero 10]). Was Paul anxious lest believers, living, as they knew themselves to be, in the new age, would have strong feelings about this—and an immediate temptation to resist payment? Did he fear that they might bring themselves into dispute with the authorities over an issue that did not have any direct bearing on the gospel? If so, his next words were appropriate to address such concerns. ‘For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God's public servants [leitourgoi], attending to this very thing. Pay to all of them what they are owed [opheilas], tribute to whom tribute is owed, tax to whom tax’ (13.6-7a). Such subjection to the authorities is not, moreover, merely a matter of the proper settlement in cash or goods; it is also a matter of respect and honor. As believers are concerned with the proper honor of God and of those within the believing community, so they are concerned with the honor of those beyond it, paying respect to whom respect is due, and honor to whom honor (13.7b)—for all, potentially, are members if God's people” (Christopher Bryan, A Preface to Romans [2000], 207).

It is very important too that we seek to understand Paul’s advice here in its local historical context. As Witherington (Paul’s Letter to the Romans [2004], 16) writes:

We should not be surprised to find Paul endorse the strategy he does in Romans 13 when it comes to respecting Roman authorities and paying one's taxes. In A.D. 56-57, Paul had no reason to suspect that Christians, particularly the Gentile Christians he was mainly writing to, were likely to be abused by Nero or other officials. After all, it was Nero who allowed Jews and Jewish Christians to come back to Rome, when he took the throne. We need to hear both sides of the conversation between Paul and the Roman Christians, for a text without a context … is just a pretext for whatever the individual reader wants it to mean.

Fortunately, even if modern readers don’t know all of the local context in Rome at this time, there are enough similar situations elsewhere in scripture to give a balanced picture of Christian responsibility to governing authorities, when they exercise their legitimate authority and when they overstep it. Paul’s words here should not be seen as a carte blanche for governmental abuses to go unchallenged and unchecked.