Sunday, June 28, 2020

Romans (12) Judges

When we think about the judicial passages in Romans, we tend to think of a criminal court, but this concept is a modern one, which did not exist in biblical times. In our times, a crime is an offence against the state. In the UK, the court case is "The Crown v the offender". In the United States, it is the "The State of Florida v the offender". So, when a person is convicted of stealing, they have to pay a fine to the state, ie the payment goes to the government, not to the person who was robbed. Any reparation to the victim depends on the generosity of the state. It should not be taken for granted.

In biblical times, courts were more akin to commercial courts. The contest was between two people: the offender and the victim. If a person was convicted of theft, restitution was paid to the person whose stuff was taken, not to the king. Even murder was treated as an offence against the family of the victims. They have been robbed of their means of support and any potential inheritance. That is why they could choose a ransom payment because it would restore their economic position.

Many cases would be a dispute between two people who had a contractual arrangement with each other, or had an obligation of trust. One person has failed to comply with their contractual or fiduciary obligation to another, who would ask a judge to enforce the contract or trust and remedy the victim's situation (Luke 18:2-3). If a person has failed to carry out their obligation to a dependent, they could ask a court to put their situation right (Luke 12:13-14). Sometimes, the dispute might be about the ownership of a slave. More often, one person would be in debt to another and unable to pay what they owed. The creditor would ask the judge to rule that debtors and his family be made his slaves until the debt was paid (Matt 18:23-34).

The dispute is not between the offender and the judge. Rather, the judge was theoretically independent arbiter between the two parties to the dispute. Of course, many were corrupt and looked out for their friends.

This is how we should read Romans. The human problem is not that we have offended God. If the dispute was with him, he would have to recuse himself from the case, because he could not be a just/independent judge when he is one of the parties to the dispute. Rather, the dispute was between the spiritual powers of evil and humans. When Adam and Eve sinned, they unwittingly enslaved themselves to the evil spiritual powers. The evil powers demanded an impossible ransom for setting humans free.

The dispute is between humans and the spiritual powers of evil. God is the disinterested judge, not the person offended. The spiritual powers of evil were telling God that if he were to let humans off free, then he should let them off, too. They said that humans freely enslaved themselves, so if humans want to be free, they would have to pay the ransom demanded. They claimed that life for life is a fair demand.

The dispute was resolved when Jesus, a perfect human, surrendered himself to the spiritual powers of evil in exchange for the rest of humanity, and died as they had demanded. Once the ransom payment was made, humans were liberated from their bondage. God declared that ransom paid was sufficient. He judged humans to be in the right, and the spiritual powers of evil to be wrong. He declared that they had no case to make, against anyone who is united with Jesus. They cannot call his people to court.

Reading commentaries on Romans, it seems that they see the human problem as guilt before God. So, I did a search of five different translations of the letter and was supplied by the result. The only place where the English words “guilt” or “guilty” is used is in the NKJV translation of Romans 3:19. However, other translations do not use word guilty in that verse as it is not in the Greek text. The word used is “upodikos”, which means “subject to just judgment” of God. Funnily enough, different translations used the word guilt or guilty in the headings they inserted on chapter 1, 2 or 3, which suggests that they assume the letter is about guilt, even though the word for guilt is not used.

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