James Patrick’s Blog

October 5, 2009

Promised Land in Romans, part one [I&NC #11]

The three chapters in Romans where Paul wrestles with the general unbelief of his own generation of Jews is actually a marvellous explanation of God’s sovereign purposes in this hardening.  Like the book of Acts, Paul recognises the Gentile mission as the reason why Israel has not yet inherited her covenant promises, but nevertheless he triumphantly reaffirms the certainty of fulfilment, because this fulfilment for Israel will itself signify the greater fulfilment of Christ’s inheritance of every nation for the Church.  In order to understand the flow of Paul’s argument, it is worth explaining briefly the situation that prompted the letter, and giving a summary of Paul’s reasoning up to the start of chapter 9:

Background to Romans

In the nine years since writing to the Galatians, Paul noticed that the massive growth of Gentile churches meant that the main theological question within churches comprised of both Jews and Gentiles had changed.  The decree of the Jerusalem Council confirmed that Gentile believers did not need to be circumcised (Acts 15:22‑31).  Instead, Jewish believers were quickly becoming a minority everywhere apart from the land of Israel, and as this religion became less recognisably Jewish, the question naturally arose whether Jews had any remaining significance at all in God’s purposes.  This question is still very common today.

The issue was most noticeable in the church in Rome, because Jewish disputes about the Messiah had led to the Emperor Claudius expelling all Jews in AD49 (cf. Acts 18:2), leaving an entirely Gentile church there.  Although Jewish believers did begin to return over the next few years (cf. Rom 16:2-4), the church there had changed unalterably, and tensions were introduced.  Jews boasted about their superior knowledge of God’s righteous Law, insisting on being teachers (1:17–3:20; 12:3), but Gentile believers criticised Jews for their weak faith when they continued to believe that eating certain foods or failing to observe Sabbath laws was sinful (14:1–15:4).

Paul wanted to visit Rome to teach into these tensions, but first he had to carry the gifts of the Gentile churches to their poorer brothers in Jerusalem (15:22-29).  He knew that this issue would only become more of a problem the longer he left it, but also that Rome, being the centre of wisdom and culture (1:14‑15), could positively affect the rest of the Gentile mission if they understood the truth (1:8‑13; 16:19).  He already knew a number of the Roman believers personally, both Jews and Gentiles, and he knew that there were some on whom he could rely to explain his arguments in more detail (Priscilla and Aquila – 16:3‑15; cf. Acts 18:2‑3, 26).  Therefore he decided to use his authority and well-known successes as the Apostle to the Gentiles to write boldly to the church in Rome and explain in detail the theological ‘mystery’ of Jews and Gentiles within God’s purposes (15:15‑19; 16:25‑26).

Paul knew that understanding this ‘good news’ was the solution to the unity problems; it would help the Gentiles to give due respect to God’s choice of the Jews first (1:16; 2:9‑10; 3:1‑2; 15:8‑9; cf. 11:16; Eph 1:12‑13; Jas 1:18; Rev 14:1‑5), but also help the Jews to stop boasting in the obsolete Law of Moses and walk in the freedom of the Spirit.  But how could Paul defend the ‘good news’ that God is able to bring ‘salvation’ first to the Jews (1:16), when the nation of Israel had obviously rejected their promised Messiah?  Perhaps He had passed over the Jews now that He had bigger plans; perhaps His commitment to them had failed (3:1‑4; 9:6; 11:1)?  Paul had no choice, therefore, but to tackle head on the question of God’s purposes for Israel as a nation.  If God couldn’t even reconcile His own Jewish nation to Himself, and so fulfil His promises of a permanent land inheritance, Paul could hardly presume to teach other nations about their glorious hope of inheriting the rest of the world in the Messiah (4:13; 8:18‑25).

Brief summary of Paul’s reasoning in Romans

What follows is a summary of the ‘mystery’ as Paul explained it to the church in Rome.  Israel’s inheritance of the promises made to Jacob is at the foundation of Paul’s entire argument:

The God of Jacob promised His people an eternal inheritance, but the holy Law He gave them through Moses before they entered the promised land instead made them slaves to sin just like the Gentiles, unable to inherit as ‘sons’.  God’s own Son therefore came as a Jew, so that by His obedient death He could legally free Israel from the Law’s power, dying in place of both Jews and Gentiles to pay for their sin.  Jesus was then resurrected, so that both Jew and Gentile alike could trust in God’s ability to raise the dead, and thus become righteous ‘sons of God’ just like Abraham, able to inherit his promised ‘blessing for all nations’.  The life of the Spirit that Jesus received began to spread, first to the Jews, and then, because of the temporary hardness of Israel, to nation after nation.  Eventually this life will ‘overwhelmingly conquer’ the death that Adam brought to all humanity and all creation.  Provoked by the mercy shown to all nations, Israel will finally return to God, bringing life from the dead and thereby inheriting her promises alongside every other nation, right across the earth.  For this reason, in the Church we should live out the ‘obedience of faith’, avoiding sin by the power of the Spirit, and showing love to others who are different from us, because this will demonstrate to worldly authorities and unbelievers the truth of God’s promises in Christ of harmony and ‘salvation’ for all nations together in the resurrection age to come.

Flow of Paul’s argument in Romans 1-8

Paul begins his argument by demonstrating to Gentiles that the Law of Moses is self-evidently accurate in its assessment of what is bad, and therefore comes from the Creator God (1:18‑32).  Gentiles are hypocrites, judging others for sins they commit themselves (2:1‑8, 14‑16), as Jews do also (2:17–3:20), meaning that Jews and Gentiles are equally sinners before God (2:9-13; 3:23).  The good news, however, is that God has displayed in Jesus’ death and resurrection a way of being right before God that does not depend on Law but rather on trust (1:17; 3:21‑22, 24‑30).

This doesn’t mean, however, that there is no longer any ‘law’ by which we must live (3:31).  Instead the ‘law’ we have to follow is the command to trust that God can do what He has promised and raise the dead (3:27; 4:3‑5, 22­‑25).  The Jews’ own ethnic father Abraham proved that being in right relationship with God did not actually depend on following Law, but rather on believing that God could raise the dead (4:1‑25), something Gentiles can now do as well as Jews.  Being right with God means Gentiles can share the Jewish hope of future resurrection inheritance, and the deposit of the Holy Spirit helps us make it through present tribulations while we wait (5:1‑11).  In fact, to prove His love for Gentiles and intention to include them in the Jewish hope of ‘salvation’, the Messiah died for them before they even knew about Him, while they were still ‘sinners’ (cf. Gal 2:15).

God’s plan to ‘reconcile’ every nation to Himself, using Gentiles themselves to spread the good news of life to others (5:11), was actually just like the way death had initially spread to all humans starting with one man, in fact, with just one action (5:12-19).  But compared with Adam’s sin, Jesus’ obedience accomplished even more, overcoming even the punishments that started to accumulate for Jews when Moses brought in the Law (5:13‑14, 20‑21; cf. 2:12; 3:25; Acts 17:30).  If His grace is powerful enough to atone for breaking the Laws of Moses, that still doesn’t mean Jews are free to keep breaking it (6:1-14; cf. 3:8, 31), because belonging to Messiah means recognising that His crucifixion was a payment for Jews breaking the Law, and we Jews are now made alive with Him in this new age of laws on our hearts (cf. Gal 2:19-20; 3:13; Heb 10:19-26; Isa 59:12-21; Jer 31:31-34).  Equally, Gentiles who were never under ‘Law’ in the first place, are also not free to presume on His death-defeating grace (6:15-23), because they used to be obedient slaves to sin but now have a new master, One who can give them far better promises than the ‘wages’ of death they used to get.

Paul then realised that the Gentile illustration of slavery to sin could be linked to the Jewish illustration of sharing in the curse-bearing death of Messiah which did away with the former age of habitual Law-breaking.  Therefore he turns back to his Jewish listeners (7:1), who knew well the illustration of the nation being ‘married’ to her God (e.g. Isa 54:1-8).  The Law of Moses had actually bound her to the husband of Sin, producing the offspring (‘fruit’) of death; the only way she could become married to Messiah would be for the old marriage covenant (Law) to be ended through her own death (sharing the shameful curse of a crucified Messiah in baptism), freeing her then to wed her Messiah (7:1-6).  The marriage Law wasn’t what produced death, but it was the husband Sin who used the Law to produce deadly offspring.  Therefore the nation of Israel (habitually unfaithful even beforehand) had been given in marriage by God to her chosen husband Sin, but God wed them using a holy covenant of Law.  This resulted in the situation where the nation realised she desperately desired another husband in order to produce righteousness, but having been married to Sin she was ‘sold in slavery’ to this husband because of the Law (7:7-25).  Even the individual Jew under the Law [or Christian without a true experience of grace] can testify to this desire for freedom from Sin and joining to Messiah.

That is why there is no longer any condemnation for the Jewish believer who does not obey the Mosaic Law – the new marriage covenant ‘Law’ of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jer 31:31‑34), in whom we are now ‘married’ to the Messiah, is evidence that we are no longer in our former marriage, bound by the Law of Moses to Sin and its offspring Death.  The holy Law could not change the Jewish nation’s uncircumcised, fleshly heart, by enslaving her to Sin and showing her the results of her rebellion.  Instead God’s own Son entered that marriage by becoming Jewish in the ‘likeness’ of that fleshly nation that was bound to Sin (8:3; cf. 1:3; 15:8; Gal 4:4‑5), and because He obeyed the different Law of the Spirit even to the point of crucifixion, the fleshly Law of Moses condemned Him (as an ‘adulterer’ breaking Israel’s marriage covenant with Sin – cf. Num 5:19-28) using the curse against ‘anyone who is hung on a tree’ (Gal 3:13).  As the representative head of the Jewish nation (i.e. the Davidic Messiah) He Himself suffered the holy Law’s curse on behalf of the whole nation (Gal 3:10, 13) and suffered the ‘exile’ of death as a penalty (cf. Heb 13:12-14).  However, although He was a Jew according to the flesh, He had never consummated Israel’s marriage with Sin to produce Death despite being faultless according to that covenant, and when He was still punished for breaking the covenant, He condemned Sin as the false husband, and His own representative death ended the old marriage covenant of the Law of Moses joining Israel to Sin (8:1-3).

The nation of Israel can therefore be faithful to her holy marriage ‘Law’, not the Law of Moses with Sin but the Law of the Spirit with her Messiah, and produce life.  Marriage ‘faithfulness’ (i.e. righteousness) is now found not through the Law of Moses, obeying Sin because of fleshly uncircumcision of heart, but rather through the Law of the Spirit, obeying Messiah because His Spirit has circumcised our heart and we are no longer ‘in the flesh’ (8:4‑10).  Believers, not unbelieving Jews, are those who truly observe the new ‘Law’ that has been given to Israel in Messiah (cf. Gal 5:13-26; 6:15-16).  We must therefore live according to the commands of the Spirit, who will ultimately cause us to inherit resurrection life as the true ‘sons of God’ and heirs of God, unlike unbelieving Jews (8:11‑14; cf. Gal 3:24‑26; 4:1‑2, 4‑5, 29‑30).  Not only are Jews truly ‘sons of God’ if they are led by the Spirit, but also Gentiles who were ‘slaves’ can be adopted as ‘sons of God’ and ‘co-heirs’, if they are led by the Spirit (8:14‑15; cf. Gal 3:26-29; 4:3, 5-8; 5:1-6).

Having returned now to his earlier focus on what ‘salvation’ means – the resurrection life that Gentiles and Jews will both inherit (cf. 5:2-10), Paul expands on this hope of inheritance.  The coming ‘restoration of all things’ will happen at the time we are all alike ‘adopted’ as fully mature heirs of God and receive resurrection (8:23; cf. Gal 4:1‑2), and it will include all of creation, not just our own physical bodies.  In the meantime we must rely on the Spirit to endure our temporary present persecution, being confident that no persecution can prevent us from eventually receiving “all things” as our inheritance (8:17‑39).

Paul quotes here from Psalm 44, a psalm which recalls how ‘in the days of old’ God Himself ‘planted’ Israel in her land without her help.  Now, though, He has apparently rejected His people, scattering them into exile so that the Gentiles mock and revile them.  The psalmist protests that the righteous within Israel have not turned away from God, but calls on Him to redeem the nation for His own sake.  Evidently Paul is conscious of His own nation’s wickedness and imminent judgement, even though there is a suffering righteous remnant who have accepted their Messiah’s new covenant.  In the face of Israel’s hardness of heart, however, Paul is for some reason still able to rejoice (8:37) in hope that God will again redeem Israel and plant them in the land of their inheritance, for His own sake, at that time when the rest of creation too is freed from slavery to corruption and all the ‘sons of God’ are revealed in glory.

The next three chapters of Romans, therefore, explain why Paul can be so confident that his own nation will experience ‘salvation’, despite all present evidence to the contrary.  Within these chapters, the verses at the beginning and end of his explanation offer the clearest evidence of Paul’s conviction that the covenant of land remains in effect for Israel.

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