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Posts Tagged ‘Romans’

A Christian reading of the book called Isaiah should not occasion constant surprise. And yet it does.

Jesus is remembered quite famously as having told a Samaritan woman that ‘salvation is of the Jews’.

You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews (ε͗κ τῶν Ἰουδαίων).

John 4:22 (NRSV, emphasis and inserted Greek text added)

In context, the deep impression Jesus leaves upon this Samaritan woman’s neighbors belies the idea that non-Jews are excluded from the salvation in question. Yet the origins of this ’salvation’—humanly speaking—are hardly in doubt for the writer of the Fourth Gospel.

This assertion of a salvific sequence worth careful consideration is hardly an outlier. The New Testament’s most famous apostle, in the midst of one of his recurring wrestlings with the interrelationship of Jews and Gentiles in the economy of Jacob’s God, deploys a phrase that he will find useful more than once.

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 (Ἰουδαίῳ τε πρῶτον καὶ Ἕλληνι).

Romans 1:16 (NRSV, emphasis and Greek text added)

Here the collective singular stands in twice for masses of people. Likely, this signals the apostle’s confidence that this is an ingrained way of things independent of human manipulation that plays itself out in individual cases over and over again.

It is all too easy to imagine that this soteriological sequencing somehow takes the place of a prior ingrained Jewish nationalism in early Christian proclamation, opening a door that had previously remained closed to non-Jews while assuring that the privilege of it not be understated. In fact, my students tell me all that the time that this is the way of things.

Yet this seems not to be the manner in which early Christian theologizers read their sources in the Hebrew Bible.

Rather, it seems that early Christian hermeneutics discovered this sequence—this anchoring of expansive salvation in Jewish particularity—in the massively influential book of Isaiah as well as in other Jewish texts. For example, Isaiah’s sixtieth chapter fixes its gaze and addresses its promise to the restored Zion that it imagines in some of the book’s most soaring and lyric poetry.

The turning of tables to Zion’s benefit is named late in the chapter:

The descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you, and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet; they shall call you the City of the LORD, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.

Whereas you have been forsaken and hated, with no one passing through, I will make you majestic forever, a joy from age to age.

You shall suck the milk of nations, you shall suck the breasts of kings; and you shall know that I, the LORD, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.

Isaiah 60:14-16 (NRSV)

Yet this stirring reversal ought not be read as a transformation that occurs to the detriment of those nations that now nourish Zion.

Rather, the chapter’s opening verses address Zion lit up and glorified in a manner that attracts the peoples in the manner of secondary promise and sequenced blessing. The second-person singular addressee is most certainly the restored city.

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Isaiah 60:1-3 (NRSV)

Passages like this steward the sequence and anchor the illumination of ‘the nations’ in a way that might easily have inspired, informed, and even shaped the New Testament proclamation of a Jesus movement that by appearances surprised itself at every turn by the response of non-Jews, then turned its hand to the hard work of how such ’new folks’ ought to be integrated into a family that began as a branch of Judaism.

Difficult times would come in that process which scholars often identify as ’the parting of the ways’. Yet it is both sobering and fascinating to observe the way in which early preachers and evangelists of the Jesus movement found themselves reading the Jewish Scriptures in a way that seems coherent even to (some) modern historians of the Way.

The stewards of those new wineskins that early Jewish followers of Jesus found necessary for the preservation of new wine did not, it turns out, imagine that everything had become something other than it had been. The vigor of their newfound regard for the risen Jesus led them back to old books like the one they called ‘Isaiah’, there to find the same sequencing of salvation, the very anchoring of light in YHWH’s disclosure to Israel itself that infused the teaching of their Lord and the writing of their apostles.

The notion that ‘salvation is from the Jews’ would be tested and often discarded in ensuing centuries, up to and including our own. Yet it seems difficult to this Christian reader of Isaiah to imagine that this sequence, this anchoring of ‘Jesus faith’ in Jewish experience can be discarded without inventing a new religion that is or will eventually become cast adrift from its moorings.

Dragons be there.

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You could call the apostle Paul mad, but you cannot call him soft.

Paul’s understanding of his life’s purpose prioritizes struggle. Not for Paul the vague notion that ‘I know that I am doing what God wants because I have peace.’ One wonders whether he would scoff at such palaver, roll his eyes, or simply move kindly and firmly to correct the person who speaks it. (more…)

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None of us is a viable candidate.

I recently heard a man with a track record for diligence and quiet composure dismissed as a candidate for promotion as ‘not a viable candidate’. His critic may or may not have been clear-eyed about his verdict, but the words have lingered in my soul.

It strikes me that, when evaluated as candidates for kudos in this world and the next, each of us could be summarily dismissed with that same condemning sentence: not a viable candidate. (more…)

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Having just finished rereading the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles, it strikes me that the apostle Paul was supremely ‘confident in the gospel’ of Jesus Christ. His own words, in another place, say so.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ (Romans 1:16–17 ESV)

It strikes me that there is not one way for a Christian to be ‘ashamed of the gospel’, but rather many. (more…)

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Paul is not pollyannish in the face of evil’s reality.

The apostle names opposition to God’s purposes with supple and varied vocabulary. There are ‘principalities and powers’, ‘rulers’, ‘dominions’, and ‘authorities’. Paul can discourse widely upon the power of sin and death. He lays hold of imagery of warfare, its weapons, and its equipment to paint the picture of the bellicose environment in which the follower of Jesus sooner or later discovers himself.

Yet in the twelfth chapter of his letter to the Romans, as he describes the confrontation of good with evil, Paul’s language is decidedly civilian.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21 NRSV)

Paul places his readers in the power position. They are not so much potential victims of evil as its conqueror. Yet the battle tactics are asymmetrical. They will not experience their conquest over evil as the result of employing evil’s own tools. (more…)

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The apostle Paul seems incapable of discerning the intentions of Israel’s God in straight lines and transparent mathematics. Something is always up. Something deeper than we know is in the mix.

When Paul traces mercy’s purpose, mystery—though neither confusion nor cluelessness—is axiomatic. (more…)

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When the apostle Paul’s discourse turns doxological, it frequently takes the shape of rhetorical questions hurled with gusto into the public arena that his letters create.

Yet Paul is confident enough of his own bearing in the story which fuels his letter-writing that he inserts himself and the answers that course through him into the mix. Paul who asks is Paul who must answer. Perhaps there is too much risk that rhetorical questions might be answered inaccurately by his correspondents. More likely, Paul’s passion seizes the day and declares into the very questions that he has forged.

What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?

As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.‘ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

These are the queries of a man who has known bitter experience that could plausibly be construed as abandonment by God. A man who has known both extra- and quasi-judicial condemnation, who has been anathematized by his social and religious kin groups would be a strange duck if he had never wondered whether some deep truth resides in their accusation.

(more…)

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The justification of the unrighteous produces passivity only among those who have recklessly misunderstood the thing.

The more closely the apostle Paul’s argument approaches the unmerited favor of God to his rebellious children, the more energetic becomes his summons to align our understanding with that which God has pronounced to be true about us.

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

The rhetorical questions, the imperatival tone, and the use of the verb λογίζομαι (to consider or reckon) that abound in Paul’s letter to the Romans conspire to urge the believer to an almost athletic feat of mental recalibration.

To be declared just in the light of the redemption that Jesus has won for us on the cross, we see in Paul’s prolonged and intense discussion, does not automatically lead to a changed self-awareness nor to the righteous life that ought to ensue.

Rather, we are called to align our thinking and our conduct with the new reality of sinners-cum-righteous.

Perhaps in no other context is freedom at once so free and so demanding.

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Paul, the quintessential Israelite, finds his vocation outside the boundaries of his land and people. He knows himself to have received a particular calling ‘to the nations’. There is no telling just to what degree—it is likely to be considerable—the apostle saw his destiny mirroring the Isaianic servant of the Lord, for whom it was a ‘small thing’ to restore Israel’s lost tribes. For that enigmatic figure, the properly proportioned calling consisted in taking light to the nations. (more…)

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The apostle Paul appears to have been sure of many things. If this certainty stands behind his willingness to suffer to the end for his cause, it doubtless also nourishes that softer strength that is evident in his encouragement to others to live in one way and not in another. People who are sure about lots of things make uncomfortable company. It was probably not easy to spend abundant time with Paul of Tarsus. (more…)

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