Monday, June 15, 2020

Reading Romans (1)

I worked out a long time ago that God did not need to be appeased for human sin. It was the spiritual powers of evil that needed to propitiated.

My favourite epistle when I first became a Christian was Ephesians, which given that I am a Gentile, was the right place to start. I got from this letter a strong sense that I had been rescued from the spiritual powers of evil by Jesus death on the cross. This was confirmed in the letter to the Colossians.

When you were dead in trespasses and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, he made you alive with him and forgave us all our trespasses. He erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it away by nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and disgraced them publicly; he triumphed over them in him (Col 21:3-15).
He made us alive. He destroyed the power of the spiritual powers of evil by paying the ransom that they demanded for our freedom. There is nothing here about us needing to appease God’s wrath.

I have never studied the first few chapters of Romans in detail. For some reason, I have always tended to focus on chapters 8 to 16 in the latter part of the book, which deals with the status of the Jews and political issues. Recently, I began to look at the first few chapters in more detail. They are quite difficult to interpret.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul challenges a teacher who had been spreading false teaching amongst the Roman house churches. His opponent is unnamed, but he was probably a Jewish Christian arguing that gentile Christians should be circumcised and keep the sabbath in accordance with the Torah. He has a very harsh view of God’s actions on earth.

Paul presents his arguments in the form of a dialogue, in which he summarises what the Jewish Judger is saying, and then refutes it by expounding his own gospel. There are no quote marks or italics in the Greek text to delineate the two views, so the main challenge for interpreting the first few chapters Romans is discerning when the Jewish Judger’s voice is being summarised and when Paul is speaking his own view.

The letter was intended to be read aloud to church meetings by the person who delivered it; probably a businesswoman named Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2). Paul would have explained the contents to her, so she would have emphasized the different voices to her listeners during her reading of the letter. We do not have that advantage, so we have to discern the different voices from the text itself.

The people in Rome that Paul wrote to had heard the Jewish Judger speaking, so they would have recognised his words when Paul quoted them. They had probably written to Paul asking how to counter his claims. They did not need Paul to highlight the Jewish Judgers word’s, because they would have stood out to them like a sore thumb. The Jewish Judger would probably be listening when the letter was read out in Roman church he was active in, so his response would confirm that Paul was challenging him.

Paul’s understanding of God was changed dramatically when he had an encounter with Jesus. Meeting Jesus revealed Gods rightness and goodness to him. Jesus saw sinners as needing a doctor, not condemnation. Paul realised that his previous understanding of God as angry and vengeful was wrong. His gospel was a message about God’s mercy, kindness and long-suffering love; the mercy and love that enabled God to rescue him when he was angrily killing Christians. The person that Paul was confronting was stuck with the view of God that Paul had before he met with Jesus. He was stuck with a God who is full of anger and wrath. Therefore, any parts of the letter that are obsessed with anger and wrath are most like the message of the Jewish Judger that Paul was opposing.

I believe the main indication of the Jewish Judger is that Paul states his arguments in a way that exposes contradictions. The arguments that are not Paul’s are full of contradictions that any reader with a logical mind would recognise as contradictory, and therefore not Paul’s view. Sometimes a statement is made in contradiction with the Torah, something that the Jewish Judger wants to push. The obvious contradictions expose the parts of the letter that are stating the position of the Jewish Judger, and do not represent Paul’s views. They are actually exposing views that Paul considers to be wrong.

I will note all these contradictions as I go through, but an obvious one is in Romans 3:19-20. This statement begins by saying that the law applies to those who are "under the law". It then concludes that the purpose of this is to silence every mouth and bring the entire world before the bar of God’s judgment. This does not make sense. Laws that only apply to those who are “in the law”, the Jews, cannot be used to indict people who are not under the law. That would be unjust, so this passage contains a huge contradiction. It says the law applies only to the Jews, but then uses it to condemn the people of the world. God would not do that. It is the Jewish Judger who seems to do that, so these verses are not the message of Paul.

The second issue that an interpreter of the letter to the Romans has to decide is where the dialogue begins. I think the clue is in Romans 2:1-3.

Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. But we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things. And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things, and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God?
In these verses, Paul vigorously challenges his opponent. He refers to him as “O Man, whoever you are who judge”, which was a bit of put down. Paul criticises him for judging, but at first glance, it is not obvious who or what he is judging. By judging others, this Jewish Judger is putting himself under the judgment of God.

A closer examination reveals that Paul did expose the nature of the judgment that the Judger is making. Paul says twice that this Judger “practice(s) the same things”, or that he is “practicing such things”. This refers back to the last verse of the previous chapter, which condemns people who approve of people who “practice such things.” The things that are being judged are the practices that are listed in Romans 1:18-32. The use of the same expression (practising such things) links the two chapters, so the obvious conclusion is that the Jewish Judger that Paul is criticising is the one who is pronounced the judgment summarised in Romans 1:18-32.

This link is highlighted by the first word of chapter 2. The word “Therefore” indicates that Romans 2:1-4 is directly connected to the judgment in the previous chapter. There should not be a chapter break at the word “therefore”. This word confirms that the dialogue begins at Romans 1:18.

In Romans 1:17, Paul had just made the statement that God’s rightness has been revealed through his grace towards people receiving salvation through faith, both Jew and Greek. God’s rightness being revealed is an important theme in the letter. Everything that God does is right. He proves his rightness by “bringing salvation to everyone who trusts in Jesus”.

Salvation is a strong, positive word. Its meaning includes deliverance and restoration. Everything that was wrong is put right.

The statement in Rom 1:18-32 comes as a jarring intrusion against Paul’s message of God’s grace and rightness.

No comments: