Romans

Romans 16: Phoebe the Deacon?

Let me introduce you to our sister Phoebe.  She is a deacon in the church at Cenchreae.  I want you to welcome her in the Lord, as is proper for one of God’s people.  Please give her whatever practical assistance she may need from you.  She has been a benefactor to many people, myself included. (16:1-2)

Phoebe was a deacon?

Yep.

Maybe that just means “servant,” like the KJV, the original NIV, the ASV says.

However, it seems there is something about the Greek word and the sentence structure that suggests the more formal words “deacon” or “deaconess” work better, as we find in the newest version of the NIV, the NLT, the CEV, and Wright’s KNT.  Also, her role as described in this passage above indicates this was more than just a great servant-hearted woman who worked behind the scenes to make the ministry of the church in Cenchreae work smoothly.  She was the “benefactor” of the Cenchrean church, likely meaning the church there met in her house.  She likely also provided a room for the many traveling missionaries; Paul indicates he had been privy to her hospitality.  All indications are that Phoebe was a well-to-do lady, maybe a business woman like Lydia the seller of purple cloth.  It was possibly this business that took her to Rome — no little expense — and Paul was taking advantage of that agenda.  Phoebe would have been carrying the letter to the Romans to the church there (depicted in the picture above even).  As was custom, she would have read the letter aloud to the church in Rome and been available to answer clarifying questions given that she had just been with the author.  Altogether, Phoebe was an esteemed leader in the early church known for her servant heart and at least this active effort to advance God’s kingdom.

This may be a realization that does not fit with what we have been taught in the past.  That is another perk to a comprehensive reading plan.  But this is an especially fitting way to end a letter that has focused on unmerited grace to all based on God’s love and calling, not one’s identity or status.

As we finish Romans today, what one major theme has really struck you this year as we read through this wonderful book?

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Romans 15: After Romans

What happens after the book of Romans?  Where in the life of Paul does this great book come?

Paul wraps up the teaching of his book halfway through chapter 15, then he starts to wind down this long letter by doing a bit of business.  Paul’s greatest desire is “to announce the good news in places where the Messiah has not been named” (15:20).  Specifically, Paul longs to go to Spain (15:24, 28).  He looks forward to finally coming to the Roman church, something he has not been able to do before now (15:23-24).  Rome will become a home base for his Spanish campaign, providing financial support (15:24).

But first Paul has to complete some unfinished business.  The Christians in Macedonia and Achaia have given Paul money to deliver to the poor Christians in Jerusalem who are suffering from a famine (15:26).  Paul will head back to Jerusalem then come to Rome.  The book of Romans was likely written in Corinth during the time mentioned in Acts 18, then taken by Phoebe to Rome around the same time Paul headed east.

Paul reveals some apprehensiveness about this trip to Jerusalem:

Fight the battle for me in your prayers to God on my behalf. so that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judaea, and so that my service for Jerusalem may be welcomed gladly by God’s people. (15:30b-31)

Acts 21 shows Paul had reason to be concerned.  Paul was quickly arrested in Jerusalem on trumped up charges and almost killed by the Jews.  By the end of Acts Paul does make it to Rome, but not in the way he wished at all.

Did Paul ever get to Spain as he wished?  The Bible never says definitively, but early church fathers Eusebius and Clement of Rome both indicate that Paul was released from house arrest in Rome and took the gospel as far as Spain.  It seems Paul does get his wish in the end, though not in the way he wished.

Isn’t that often how it works?

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Romans 14: Handling Disagreements between Christians

Have you ever known a church not to have problems?  There is no such thing as a perfect church; where people gather together in community there is going to be friction, disagreement and hurt feelings.  Maybe just as important as the question “What should we all believe and do?” is the inevitable next question, “How do we best handle those times when we do not all believe and do the same thing?”

Review: The church in Rome (or, more likely, the collection of small house churches that fellowshipped with each other) was a divided community.  Much of the issue was ethnicity.  The Jewish Christians in Rome thought the culture and leadership of the church should be more Jewish.  The Gentile Christians had drifted away from Jewish religious customs and had assumed the leadership of the church.  From chapter 2, we know they were arguing over circumcision.  Now in this chapter we see they are arguing over diet and holy days.  The main issues were whether to eat meat (14:2, 21), drink wine (14:21), and whether to view certain days like the Sabbath as holier than other days (14:5-6).  The issue with meat might have been about whether to eat non-kosher food, in which case the Jewish Christians would have been the “weaker brother,” or it might have concerned whether is was appropriate for Christians to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, and in this case the Gentile Christian more likely would have had the greater scruples.  Regardless, the disagreement in this church had reached the degree of judgment, condemnation, and exclusion (14:3).

What does Paul teach us (and the Romans) about how best to handle disagreements between Christians?

  1. Make people who are not like you feel comfortable by choosing to avoid arguments (14:1)
  2. Know that we don’t all have to agree on some matters and we shouldn’t make others feel unacceptable to God (14:3)
  3. Don’t make barriers where God has not (14:3)
  4. Hold on to the belief that God is capable of strengthening the faith of people who do not believe and act like you (14:4)
  5. Know that the genuine desire to honor God, not the action itself, makes what a person restricts himself from or participates in noble and worshipful (14:6)
  6. Remember that we are not living for ourselves and our own desires (14:7-8)
  7. Abstain from passing eternal judgments on others because that is God’s job, not ours (14:10-13)
  8. Be willing to sacrifice personal freedom in consideration of other’s conscience (14:14-15)
  9. Remember that the Kingdom of God is more so focused on internal virtues than external behaviors so abstinence or participation in the latter is less important than how we treat others (14:16-17)
  10. Strive to build each other up, not hurt the other (14:19-20)
  11. Know it is more loving to give up freedom out of deference for the other than to express your own religious freedom (14:21)
  12. Listen carefully to your conscience for guidance on how to act personally (14:22-23)

I have given a bit of thought to this topic ever since college and I always come back to the same conclusion.  It seems that the scruples of the “weaker brother” usually needs to be decisive in a disagreement.  The stronger sister can abstain or forego an action; the weaker brother cannot do something in good conscience he deems to be wrong.

What do you think?

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Romans 13: Love Is All We Need

Love is what God is looking for most from His people?  Love is all we need?  Love is the answer?  How can that be?

What about the Law?  Love is a willy-nilly notion.  It is here today and gone tomorrow.  Love can make people do stupid things.  We need something concrete, eternal, unchanging.  We need something you can look up, something factual.  Law is what we need.  At least this is something like what the most die-hard Jews in the Roman church might have been thinking.

And I would have to agree, if what we were talking about is the purely emotional, saccharine-sweet, I-get-butterflies-when-you-are-around kind of love.  Yes, I am not sure that kind of love is sufficient for a lifetime of guidance into right living.

But Paul is talking about something else.

Don’t owe anything to anyone, except the debt of mutual love.  If you love your neighbor, you see, you have fulfilled the law.  Commandments like “don’t commit adultery, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t covet” — and any other commandment — are summed up in this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no wrong to its neighbor; so love is the fulfillment of the law. (13:8-10)

How can the principle of love be enough to guide us into right living?  Paul answers that question twice: because love fulfills the Law.  All of the Jewish Laws were just ways to show love to our neighbors.  In appealing to love as the proper ethic for life, Paul was essentially returning to the basic principle that undergirds God’s way of life.  Paul goes further: Love is the fulfillment of the law because this kind of sacrificial love of will and choice sets out to always do what is best for a person, and in so doing does no wrong to its neighbor.  If the Roman Christians would treat each other that way they would be doing the Law that matters most to God.  If we today always did what was in the best interest of the people around us, we would truly be doing what God wants.

How does this teaching on love make something make more sense?

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Romans 12: True Worship

Today we move from one my most daunting passages to understand to one of my favorites.  Paul is known for structuring his letters with long theological sections about beliefs followed by much more practical sections about ethics.  Romans 12:1 is that pivot point in this book.

We use the word “worship” in many ways.  I have to wonder if most of the time we don’t reduce that word down to far less than what God intended worship to be.  Worship is that thing that happens at the church building.  It is singing and praying and preaching (and dancing and rocking a guitar or drum kit, if you church does that sort of thing).  Worship is what some person “leads.”  Worship has a set soundtrack.  There is a “worship hour.”  Worship has an “order” of set events.  Sure, you can worship anywhere — on a mountain top, down by the lake, in a hospital room, in a flash mob at the local mall — but still we are talking about the same action: singing songs and praying prayers.

Is worship this? . . .

The Roman church Paul was writing had also reduced the idea of worship down to far less than what God intended.  For them it was about religious activities and rituals and sacred days.  It was about symbolic acts like circumcision.  It was about what food was eaten or not.  Worship was a cultural expression and both the Jewish and Gentile Christians wanted to stamp their own ideals onto that expression.  In short, worship was what took place when “the saints meet.”

The word “worship” comes from an Old English word “worth-ship.”  The connotation of this word is to show honor to the inherent worth of the person being worshipped.  It is tied to the ancient practice of “kissing the feet of” the person being honored.  Worship is saying to another you are the one, not me.  You are the focus of life, not me.  You matter.  I adore you and want to do your will.  Can you sing that in a song?  Of course.  Can you pray those sentiments?  Definitely.  But it is so much more than that.

Paul reminds the Roman Christians of this point:

So, my dear family, this is my appeal to you by the mercies of God: offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.  Worship like this brings your mind into line with God’s. (12:1)

Worship is not a religious activity that takes place in a sacred place at a sacred time.  Worship is to happen everywhere all of the time.  God is not looking for some sacrifice of an animal or a sacrifice of discomfort in circumcision or a sacrifice of diet by avoiding pork or a sacrifice of time by observing the Sabbath.  Or let’s update that today: God is not looking for a sacrifice of time on a Sunday morning or a sacrifice of money put in an offering plate or a sacrifice of career by being an inner-city social worker or a sacrifice of zip code by living frugally and denying our comfort and status.  God wants us — all of us — as the sacrifice.  God wants us to tie our worship to how we live each day, as “living sacrifices.”  God wants acts of worship that are tied deeply to our “mind” and that shape how that mind thinks.  Everything we are and everything we do is intended to be worship.

For the ancient Roman Christians that meant that the most worshipful actions they could take would be to love (12:9-21).  They needed to worry less about what they did to their bodies and more about what they did with their bodies.  They needed to worry less about what food they ate and more about with whom they ate or refused to eat.  They needed to try less to get others to become like them and more so to become like others so they together might become like Christ.  And they most needed to do this with the people they disagreed with most.  Love is the act of worship God wants most.

. . . or is this worship?

How do we get this wrong (or right) too?

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Romans 11: The Powerful, Fair Promise-Keeper

Romans 9-11 is certainly on my list of the top five most difficult passages.  Maybe top three.  So I don’t feel like I have much to offer today.  But I guess that is another benefit to a comprehensive reading plan: you can’t avoid hard passages!

Here are the two main points I gather from the chapter:

1. God can do what He wants:

Paul describes God as having at that time a “remnant” of faithful Jews that He has chosen by grace (11:5-6).  At the same time God hardens the hearts of other Jews so as to open a door for Gentiles (11:7-9, 25).  Then God uses this influx of Gentiles to drawn back Jews through jealousy (11:12).  But the Gentile Christians in Rome should bear in mind that the same God who cut off Jews because of unbelief can do the same to Gentiles who get a big head and stumble (11:20).  This is a very active, sovereign view of God.

Vincent van Gogh, “Olive Trees”

2. But God is more than fair:

This second point ameliorates any anxiety about such a high degree of divine control that the first point may bring.  The central question of the chapter is stated in the first sentence: “Has God abandoned his people [the Jews]?”  The resounding answer throughout the chapter is “no” (11:2).  Even those Jews who had “tripped up” presumably by unbelief will not have “fall[en] completely” (11:11).  God wants to use Jewish jealousy to save Gentiles (11:14), and if those Jews return to belief they can be grafted back into God’s olive tree (11:23).  In what might be the biggest statement of God’s extravagant kindness, 11:28-29 seems to suggest that God will even honor his promises to the Jewish patriarchs to Jews who were still choosing not to believe.  God will keep his promises, even if they don’t.  We can rest assured that God will assert his power in a manner that is exborinantly fair.  

What struck you in this chapter?

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Romans 10: Trust Me!

A trap very easily fallen into when reading Romans is to bypass the original context and focus solely on what Romans can teach us.  Romans 9-11 is a difficult section of Scripture, but that is especially true when we forget about the original context.

Any good Jew in Paul’s time would have been tempted to appeal to their chosen-people status as grounds for salvific confidence.  The logic would have gone something like this: Israel was chosen by God, I am a Jew, so I am good with God. That line of logic has a modern equivalent: the Church is composed of God’s elect in this world, I go to church, so I am good with God.

In Romans 10 Paul is taking on this faulty thinking.  God isn’t looking for heritage or membership, He is looking for people who truly trust Him and His faithfulness to His promises.  God isn’t looking for people who “establish a covenant status of their own” (10:3), He is looking for people who have faith in their hearts, confess that faith with their mouths, and ask with dependency for God to save them (10:10-13).  That invitation was given to the Jews and some received it, though others did not (10:21).  That invitation is also open to all because it relies upon God’s goodness not those being saved.

If the Jewish Christians in the Roman church thought that being a Jew seals the deal, they missed the boat.  If we think being a church member ensures salvation, we too are just as lost.

What were you drawn to in this chapter?

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Romans 9: Who Is The Potter and Who Is The Clay?

Control freak!

There are a lot of us out there.  We like things a certain way.  It’s not so much that we are selfish and must have it our way, it’s more so that we are more comfortable when things go our way.  Life is more predictable.  Control freaks don’t like surprises.

On the other hand, control freaks really like performance-based systems.  Do something and get a predictable result.  One can know how they will be judged, so there are no surprises.  Performance-based systems like religious laws and customs because they bring, well, control.

The problem, though, is that we are not in control of the big matters of life, things like salvation, election, destiny, and calling.  Nor were the Roman Christians.  This was not their church, it was Christ’s.  They were not the ones who call people out of darkness, God is.  They were not the gatekeepers of the Kingdom, Jesus is.


To say it a different way, Paul reminds them that they are only clay in the hands of the Potter.  He will do what He will.

Who can stand against his purpose?  Are you, a mere human being, going to answer God back?  Surely the clay won’t say to the potter, “Why did you make me like this?”  Doesn’t the potter have authority over the clay? (9:19b-21a)

So the Potter has chosen to include Gentiles with their different way of life in this previously homogeneously Jewish Church.  That is God’s right.  It is up to us to accept and adapt.

We today should probably ask ourselves who the Gentiles of our world are. Who is God bringing into our churches or at least into relationship with Him even though they don’t fit our mold?  Are we trying to tell the Potter He can’t do things like that?

What do you think?

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Romans 8: Help In Our Weakness

21

In case we miss the answer we have been looking for since yesterday, Paul gives us the answer twenty-one times in Romans 8: SPIRIT.

Paul left us with a defense of Law; it is not the root of our problem.  But Law is also not the answer to our problem, because it lacks the power to move us past our own powerlessness.  What we need is a power outside of ourselves.  And this is exactly what God brings: the Holy Spirit of God living within us (8:9).

The spirit comes alongside and helps us in our weakness. (8:26)

Maybe you grew up as I did in a religious tradition too scared to talk about the Holy Spirit lest we be labeled as charismatic, as if that were some great sin.  However, when we neglect the Spirit we are left only with ourselves and we are back in the middle of the mess of Romans 7.

Christians are called to listen with attentive minds and hearts to the Spirit of God within us (8:5-6).  This Spirit will guide and empower the children of God to live in accordance of God’s wishes, as the Spirit is the first piece of the new life already given to us (8:14, 23, 26-27).  All that God intended in the Law becomes possible when we “live according to the Spirit” (8:4).

What verse caught your eye today?

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Romans 7: Law Is Not The Problem, Nor The Answer

After yesterday’s post it is tempting to think that the Jewish Law was the root of the Christians’ problem in ancient Rome, after all the commands of the Law are what allowed sin to tempt and enslave (7:9-10).  Of course, this message would not fly in a half Jewish church, not to mention the fact that it maligns something that came directly from God.

Paul makes it clear that he is claiming nothing of the sort:

So, then, the law is holy; and the commandment is holy, upright, and good. . . . We know, you see, that the law is spiritual. (7:12, 14a)

The Law itself is a good thing.  Guidance from God on how to live life righteously and wisely is never bad.  But the side effect of Law is temptation, incitement to sin, and ultimately enslavement.

Why is that?  Why is Law by itself not the answer to our sin problem?

Law possesses no power within itself to save us from ourselves. It offers direction but no propulsion.  It tells us what to do — and it is right and that guidance is a blessing — but it does not give us a way beyond ourselves to do the very thing we know and often want to do.

I don’t understand what I do.  I don’t do what I want, you see, but I do what I hate. . . . For I can will the good, but I can’t perform it.  For I don’t do the good thing I want to do, but I end up doing the evil thing I don’t want to do. . . . What a miserable person I am! (7:15, 18b-19, 24a)

Law is not the answer. We (and the Roman Christians) need a supernatural power beyond ourselves to enable the life of righteousness and wisdom the Law describes.

The answer comes tomorrow.

What did you notice anew in this chapter?

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Romans 6: Free at Last!

On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and freed all slaves living in America.  He was the president, he said they were free, and that is that.

Well, it wasn’t really that easy.  The Confederates were no longer acknowledging Lincoln as their president so his words weren’t worth much to them anymore.  At least until the Union won the Civil War and asserted their power and laws.

So at the point of the Emancipation Proclamation were the slaves free or not?

You are only free to the degree people (including yourself) let you be free.

There were pockets of slave owners in Texas that got together and conspired to keep the word of the Emancipation Proclamation from their slaves.  It wasn’t that hard to do.  Many slaves could not read.  The slave owners would also run abolitionists out of town or even in rare cases kill them lest they stir up the slaves into dissension.  When rumors of freedom did get through to the slaves, all the slave owners had to do was tell them to look at their situation.  How could these rumors be true?  They don’t appear to be free, do they?  In the end, in these pockets of Texas, even though slavery had been abolished, freedom was denied to the slaves for another two years.

The Roman Christians were at a crossroads.  Theologically they had to decide how free they would allow themselves to be.  Their slave masters were not flesh and blood though.  They had to decide how free from law and sin they would be.

Paul has been painting a picture of Law that is not pretty.  There is within fallen humanity a propensity to sin (5:12-13), but until a command comes along declaring what we should and should not do the sinful desires inside of us do not know how to tempt us (3:20).  Think of children: as soon as you say don’t do something, what do they want to do?  The very thing prohibited.  Likewise our sinful desires.  The law was not intended to be a way to salvation, rather it showed us how depraved we truly are (5:20).  To hang on to law as a way to get right with God is nonsensical.  Law leads to sin which produces guilt and ultimately death (6:23), whether spiritual death or the metaphorical death of hope and love and goodness.

In this chapter, Paul sketches out an alternative.  He tells the Roman Christians: “you have been freed from sin” (6:7, 18, 22). Sin is no longer their master, because they have been freed from an obligation to follow the Jewish Law.  Law played its role and now it is time for another option: the cross and the grace that is freely offered there.  As we identify ourselves with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus through baptism (6:3-5) we choose a new cycle.  The cross brings freedom which produces gratitude and ultimately life.

The wages paid by sin, you see, are death; but God’s free gift is the life of the age to come, in the Messiah, Jesus our Lord. (6:23)

Paul, though, leaves these two opposing options as exactly that: choices.  The Roman Christians can choose to go the way of law or the way of the cross.  He argues one will lead to death and one to life.  They have been freed from sin by the power of the cross.  Through Christ’s resurrection God showed this truly is His world and life and death, freedom and slavery truly are His to determine.  But they still have to choose to not let sin have that power over them by going the way of grace through the cross, not the way of law and sin (6:12-14).  They would only be as free in the Roman church as they allowed themselves to be.

Nobody is encouraging us to follow the Jewish Law these days, but we can still give our freedom away to a works-oriented religion.  Again, this only leads to inevitable failure, overwhelming guilt, and the death of hope.  But the cross still stands before us today offering grace and freedom, propelling us into a grateful and abundant life of service to God and others.

The choice is ours.  How free will we allow ourselves to be?

What struck you in this chapter?

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Romans 5: Grace All The More!

Down at the core of the gospel that this book of Romans is so much about (1:16-17) are two truths:

  • We are all a bunch of rascals.
  • But God can save us anyway.

The first point we don’t like to accept, especially in a culture where we grew up on self-esteem slogans and a foundational belief that all people are good.  The second point we absolutely love.  We deem it an inalienable right.  Though, I wonder if we can really appreciate the second point if we don’t fully accept the first.  Maybe that is why some of my favorite verses in the Bible are right here in this chapter:

While we were still weak, at that very moment he died on behalf of the ungodly. (5:6)

This is how God demonstrates his own love for us: the Messiah died for us while we were still sinners. (5:8)

When we were enemies, you see, we were reconciled to God through the death of his son. (5:10)

Where sin increased, grace increased all the more. (5:20)

It’s all about grace, and when we forget that we get out of alignment.  Then we sell our uniqueness and settle for something that is just like everything else.

Thank God for His abundant grace!

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Romans 4: Saved by Faith

In what would have been a powerful illustration to the Jewish Christians in the Romans church, Paul makes the point that just as was true in the life of Abraham, we are saved by faith not works.

Everyone has a definition of “faith.”  This chapter has a pretty good one too:

He [Abraham] didn’t waver in unbelief when faced with God’s promise [of a son even though he was approaching 100 years old].  Instead, he grew strong in faith and gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God had the power to accomplish what he had promised [even though it defied logic]. (4:20-21)

Faith is believing that God can do something even though it is entirely against all odds.

When was the last time you acted on a belief in God that defied logic and was against all odds?  

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Romans 3: Bad News, Good News

Sometimes to really appreciate the good news we have to first understand the bad news.  It seems this is what Paul has been doing in Romans and it all comes to a head in Romans 3.

Lest the Jewish and Gentile Christians in the Roman church who have been jockeying with each other for power miss the point, Paul makes everything crystal clear:

Jews as well as Greeks are all under the power of sin. (3:9)

No one is in the right — nobody at all!  No one understands, or goes looking for God; all of them alike have wandered astray, together they have all become futile; none of them behaves kindly, no, not one. (3:10-12)

For there is no distinction: all sinned, and fell short of God’s glory. (3:22-23)

Both sides need to stop their posturing for a minute and face a fact.  Jew or Gentile, it doesn’t matter.  Both are sinful in their own ways.  Both are equally sinful.  Sin, of some sort, has slithered into their hearts and is slowly taking over.  At this point there is only one thing that matters and they are all the same in this way: they are doomed because of sin.

And right at the point of that depressing fact is when Paul gives the first of several statements of the gospel or “good news” in Romans:

By God’s grace they are freely declared to be in the right, to be members of the covenant, through the redemption which is found in the Messiah, Jesus.  God put Jesus forth as the place of mercy, through faithfulness, by means of his blood. . . . He declares to be in the right everyone who trusts in the faithfulness of Jesus. (3:24-26)

It isn’t how good we are that matters, it is how good Jesus was.  It isn’t what kind of blood we have running through our veins that matters, it is whether we have been covered by Jesus’ blood.  It isn’t the rituals we have done that save us, it is the ritual of sacrifice that Jesus did that saves us.  Jew, Gentile, Greek, Barbarian, American, Afghani, Iranian, devoted church attender, or tortured soul — it doesn’t matter.  We are all the same at the foot of the cross.  Sinners saved by grace.

What one phrase from this majestic chapter means the most to you, and why?

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Romans 2: Those Self-Righteous Jews

. . . and then the other shoe dropped.

Yesterday, Paul seemed to be squarely on the side of the Jewish Christians, one more Jew who saw the Gentiles as an inferior people group and unfit for leadership in the Roman church.

Today, in a piece of literary genius, Paul turns the table completely.

So you have no excuse — anyone, whoever you are, who sit in judgment!  When you judge someone else, you condemn yourself, because you, who are behaving as a judge, are doing the same things. (2:1)

Sure, the Jewish Christians would not be practicing idolatry or sexual immorality or robbery of the conventional sorts.  They were not literally like the Gentiles.  But that is the problem with self-righteousness.  It settles for literalism, and congratulates oneself for not doing some specific act of perversion.  Yet the Law had become the Jewish Christians’ idol.  And their adultery was spiritual not sexual.  They were worshipping their own ability to be good, and stealing God’s glory.

Worse yet, these Jewish Christians had narrowly defined “good.”  For them, good meant being of Jewish heritage, being among those chosen by God to have the Law, knowing that Law, being able to teach that Law, following the rituals of that Law like circumcision, food laws, and holidays.  Good meant being a good Jew.  So defined, yes, they were very good, and their Gentile brothers and sisters did not measure up.

Paul sets the Jewish Christians in Rome straight.  Good is not defined by hearing the law or having the law, but by doing it (2:13).  Paul goes one further: “Jew” — as in the people cherished by God — isn’t nearly as much about ethnicity as obedience.  Circumcision isn’t about getting rid of unclean flesh as much as it is about getting rid of an unclean heart (2:28-29).  Therefore, an uncircumcised but morally upright Gentile with a tender heart might actually be a better Jew, than someone who can trace their heritage back to Abraham.

If you are a Jewish Christian in this Roman church you have just been put in your place.  These chapters might be a rough start to a letter, but we can be assured that Paul had everyone’s attention at this point.

Do we ever do this same thing?  How so?

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Romans 1: Those Perverted Gentiles

Imagine you are one of the Jewish Christians in this ethnically divided, prejudicial church and you hear Phoebe read the last part of this chapter aloud.  You know Paul can only be talking about Gentiles.

They knew God, but didn’t honor him as God or thank him. (1:21)

They swapped the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of the image of mortal humans — and of birds, animals, and reptiles. (1:23)

They dishonored their bodies among themselves. (1:24)

Men performed shameless acts with men, and received in themselves the appropriate repayment for their mistaken ways. (1:27)

They were filled with all kinds of injustice, wickedness, greed and evil. (1:29)

They know that God has rightly decreed that people who do things like that deserve death. (1:32)

Andrea Mantegna, “Bacchanalia with a Wine Vat” (c. 1500)

If you are one of the Jewish Christians who had started this church in Rome after returning home from Jerusalem after that first Pentecost of the Church (Acts 2), who then had been expelled from Rome by Claudius only to return to a very different, Gentile church, what are you thinking?

See, we were right!

Look what they come from.

Sure, they are Christians now, but can anyone really reform that much?

Their heritage is riddled with perversion, idolatry, and revelry.

We are so much better than they are!

Get rid of circumcision?  What comes next?  Some pagan festival like the Bacchanalia?

We should be the leaders in this church.  You can’t trust people like this.

If you are a Jewish Christian in this Roman church, you are liking this new letter from Paul, a fellow Jew.  Preach on, brother!

What grabbed your attention in this chapter?

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BONUS: An Introduction to Romans

Romans is a personal favorite of many people.  Paul, who almost all agree was the author, touches on almost every major theological belief in this great book, so the next three weeks are sure to be stimulating.

Rome was the center of the New Testament world.  A city of several million, it was the political and cultural center of the Roman Empire, home to the Caesars.  Rome was the ancient equivalent to New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong or Tokyo.  Religion was big in Rome, mainly the worship of the Roman gods and the developing Emperor cult, but there was a large, vibrant, and legal Jewish population in Rome as well.  Remember that when Christianity first stated it was considered a Jewish sect so it too was a protected religious movement and not largely persecuted.  Christians would suffer severely in Rome but not for another 20 years after the writing of Romans.

Romans was most certainly written in Corinth around AD 55 and delivered to Rome and first read to the church there by the deaconess Phoebe (Romans 16:1).

The purpose for Romans has been described in many ways.  Martin Luther read his own issues with the Roman Catholic Church into the book and saw Romans as a treatise against works-oriented religion.  It is certainly that, but that characterization has more to do with 16th Century Europe than 1st Century Rome.  Others imagine Paul sitting down and writing Romans as a theological compendium, a statement of his beliefs.  There is too much that is specific to the Roman church for that to be true, plus that would make Romans truly unique amongst New Testament letters.

Like every other letter in the New Testament, Romans is situational.  There was something going on that made Paul write this letter, to a church he had not started nor even visited.  Paul had a habit of setting up home bases for his various mission endeavors.  First it was Antioch, then Ephesus, now Corinth.  Paul’s greatest desire was to get to Spain where the Gospel had not really yet been preached widely (15:23-33).  By all appearance, Paul was preparing this Roman church to be his next launching point for that campaign.  However, this church was a divided church turned inward on itself in no condition to be involved in outward mission.  We know from the ancient Roman historian Suetonius that around AD 49 the emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews from Rome because they had been rioting amongst each other concerning a person named “Chrestus” (c.f., Acts 18:2).  This likely was an argument between Jews and Christians over Christ.  So for a span of five years until Claudius’ death in AD 54 when the Jews would have returned to Rome, this largely Jewish church with a defined Jewish flavor became thoroughly Gentile.  Leadership changed.  The culture and practices of the church changed.  Now in AD 55 we have a power struggle and identity crisis in the Roman church, largely involving ethnicity and customs.  Issues like circumcision, food, holidays, a background in paganism, an Abrahamic heritage, and the like would have been hotly debated, and these will pop up a good bit in our readings.  Paul is writing a significantly divided and prejudicial Roman church attempting to help them sort out their problems for the sake of the advancing Kingdom of God.

Background aside, Romans is so popular because the Gospel that all of us needs to hear speaks freedom, hope, love, and faith into every situation, whether in ancient Rome, modern Memphis, the Philippines, Malaysia or Canada.

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