We made it.
The Big One.
Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.
Of all the letters in the New Testament, none has quite the stature of Romans. This is 16 gnarly chapters of pure Pauline theology, laid out for us in full. A large majority of what we consider Christian orthodoxy today, the theological concepts and ideas we take for granted, come from this magisterial work. The culmination of more than twenty years of thinking and writing and traveling and working, this is truly Paul’s magnum opus.
But yet, we hardly seem to understand it.
Several times over the last few years, I’ve tried to plow into Romans and understand what this thing is all about. And each time, I’ve come crashing down, rarely making it past 8 or 9 chapters.
No doubt about it: Romans is dense.
It’s hard to follow.
It has lots of big “church” words repeated over and over and over.
It’s much easier to just dip in and grab what you need from here and there, rather than trying to comprehend the whole.
But that’s what we are going to try to do.
Let’s start by understanding why Paul wrote this letter.
We are nearing the end of Paul’s ministry. At this point, he is in Corinth, visiting them in the aftermath of his letters of Tears and Reconciliation. His work in the Aegean peninsula is done for the most part; the churches there are well-established and thriving.
So now, he is about to set off for Jerusalem, to make good on his promise from a decade earlier, to deliver the tithes and offerings for the Jerusalem church from the communities he planted.
Remember his promise to Peter to “remember this poor”? This is that.
Before he sets off, he writes this letter to a church he has never visited, and who apparently has made it known that they are confused as to why he never has come to them. Since Paul plans to set sail for Spain after he finishes in Jerusalem for some more good church planting, he knows he needs to establish a rapport and relationship with Christians in Rome. This serves two purposes:
1) He’s gonna need to stop there on the way, because Jerusalem-to-Spain is a long journey,
2) He knows he is gonna need financial support from Rome for his work in Spain.
So he figures he better lay that ground work now.
Now, the church at Rome is an interesting community. Rome is the center of universe, as far as first century humanity is concerned.
New York City.
All rolled into one super-metropolis. That’s kind of the role Rome played in the ancient world.
The church there had been through some turmoil. Made up of a combination of Jews and Gentiles, they had been expelled from the city around 50 CE due to some conflict with the rest of the Roman Jewish community. Let back in after the death of the Emperor Claudius in 54, they were now experiencing some conflict between the Jewish and Gentile elements in the church.
Keep that mind. That serves as the backdrop of Paul’s writing here.
So, that density I mentioned earlier. It’s very much evident in these first three chapters.
These chapters make up one sustained theological argument. Let’s try to take it point by point here.
Verses 16 and 17 of chapter 1 are commonly held to be a summary of the ensuing argument Paul will make over the rest of the letter. Here it is:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”
Dense as a rock, I know.
Paul begins his argument by giving us a short, “cliff notes” version of human history. Basically, he says, God made humans, and gave us the earth and everything in it, and asked us to be faithful to God, and then we decided to worship other things instead. We became idolaters.
This is so key. If we are thinking about the big picture of Romans, we need to keep “idolatry” in mind. That’s the key behind everything for Paul. Paul has synthesized and centralized his view on sin to a central focus on idolatry.
In his view, all the subsequent sins of humanity –
inventors of evil,
rebellious towards parents,
– all is a result of idolatry.
Side bar: This section of Romans is one commonly used to condemn homosexuality. To do so is to miss the point Paul is making here, not to mention to disregard two thousand years of subsequent human development, scientific understanding, and psychological study. Paul is speaking of idolatry as the prime sin of humanity; it’s clear he views homosexuality in the first century context as a product of excessive lust, and thus on the idolatry of human sexuality. His views on homosexuality were a product of his times, and aren’t consistent with our modern understanding of homosexuality and committed, monogamous relationships.
And it certainly isn’t a commentary on gay marriage.
We all are guilty of the sin of idolatry in some way or form. And yet, Paul says, we are so quick to cast judgment elsewhere. We ignore our own sins, our own shortcomings, and focus on others, pointing fingers at the deficiencies all around us, like we know so well right and wrong.
This is undermining God, and is another form of idolatry, Paul writes. So now, not only have we rejected God, embraced idolatry, spawned numerous other sins as a result, but then we turn around and want to blame everyone else.
Yikes. We kind of suck.
So God acted. He gave us The Law.
Specifically, he gave the Jews the law.
This is where Paul starts trying to bridging some of the gaps in the Roman church. Remember I said there was a split forming between the Jews and the Gentiles in Rome? Well, this was mostly centered around opposite interpretations of the Gospel message.
Jewish Christians argued that, as Jews, they had received God’s revelation first, that they were first and foremost God’s people, that Jesus had taught and lived among them, and thus this privileged them within the early church.
Gentile Christians argued that the coming of Jesus heralded in a new covenant, that all old distinctions and barriers were no more, and thus being a Jewish Christian afforded no more privilege than anyone else got.
Paul is seeing a dangerous divide upon up in the universal church he loves, and he writing here to desperately try to bring everyone together under the banner of One God, One Church.
First, he reminds them that the chief focus isn’t on the Law anymore, but on acting in a way consistent with the Kingdom. He tells them circumcision (that is, Jewishness) is of no use to anyone, if they don’t live right.
“Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart – it is spiritual and not literal.”
But, he says at the beginning of chapter 3, there is some specialness in being a Jew. Jews received the Law first. They were “entrusted with the oracles of God.” It was Jews who were first made aware of the righteousness of God. There is a cultural memory and heritage there, and that is definitely something to always be proud of. But, it doesn’t make them “better” than anyone else.
This brings us to the final part of Paul’s initial argument. We know God is righteous because of our own inadequacies, made know through the Law. Some would argue then that our shortfallings actually work to the glory of God, and thus we should fall short more often, in order to raise God up some more!
It seems some enterprising folk have found a loophole in Paul’s teachings, and Paul is fully ready to address that.
By no means, he says. God’s righteousness is attested to through our own need for a Law, yes, but it is also attested to by the life of Christ. In fact, because Christ lived and we have faith, the need for a Law has been nullified. Instead of the old Law, Paul writes, now we live by the “Law of Faith.”
This is an evolution of Paul’s thought from Galatians. People have exploited loopholes and weaknesses in his teachings, and Paul has worked to shore up the message he is preaching. He no longer completely rejects the role of the Law, but instead, as he says in the last verse of chapter 3, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no mean! On the contrary, we uphold the law.”
There we go. We made it through three chapters of Romans. Let’s recap.
God created us.
God made the law.
We failed under the law.
Jesus came and lived a righteous life.
We have faith.
By our faith, we uphold the law.
Finally, we have found righteousness.
In writing to the church at Rome, and addressing their growing schism, Paul is making the argument that although, yes, once God was made known exclusively to the Jews through the Law, now all people are reconciled to God through faith, because we have seen a new way of living in Christ. As he writes,
“For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
See! Not so hard.
Three down, thirteen to go. You can do this. We can do this together. We are going to understand and appreciate Romans in an all new way. Let’s just keep building from here.
Next: Romans 4-6