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In the previous post, I argued that Paul commands obedience to the government. I pointed out that the Roman government at the time was as oppressive as any in history and permitted any number of practices that we modern American Christians would not put up with more a moment. Yet Paul said quite clearly that the Christian was to submit to the government because it was God’s appointed minister of justice!
The recent US election resulted in a bad person taking the office of president. I might have written this at any time in the last fifty years and made at least 50% of the US population happy. But in the days following this election the protests seemed louder and more bitter than the anti-Obama or anti-Bush protests. As an American, people have the freedom to protest within the limits of the law and there is nothing illegal about these kinds of protests. It is almost a traditional now to have a small segment of the population enter into a kind of apoplexy when their candidate loses.
Like the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years ago, many anti-Trump protesters are law-abiding and legal protests. Most of the time the people involved work with city officials, obtain permits, etc. The issue that they are raising is important as well: America is incredibly rich and ought to do more to care for the less-wealthy. There is no way anyone in America should be hungry, malnourished, uneducated, or lack access to health care. For most of these protesters, electing a billionaire who appoints other billionaires is not going to solve the problems American faces (unless you are a billionaire already).
Despite the fact Paul says to obey the government in Romans 13, I am not as happy with the solution offered by the Occupy Wall Street or any presidential candidate. They essentially argue the government is the solution to the real problems of America. The government needs to do something to “spread the wealth.” The highly charged rhetoric of the Trump campaign appealed to people by saying the government can “make America great again.” Trump got elected by saying he could save the country and make people prosperous gain.
For me, this is not a capitalist/socialist issue. It is a matter of responsibility. I do not think the government should be caring for the poor in a society, but rather the Church. As I read Romans 13, I see nothing about the government providing a social safety net. The government is ordained to enforce law and keep the peace. The church is to care for the poor and needy and do the job so well there are no poor and needy people. If we are looking to the government for our physical salvation or the president (emperor), are we really any different than the Romans who looked to Caesar as “lord and savior,” the one who makes the world peaceful and prosperous?
I hinted at the end of the last post that Paul did in fact have rather subversive plan to reverse the evils of the Empire. Like Jesus, Paul is interested in transforming people from death to life. These members of the new creation will then transform society. Paul was interested in caring for the poor and underclass, and the followers of Jesus modeled their meetings after the table fellowship of Jesus himself. All shared food and fellowship equally. That all are equal in the Body of Christ is amazingly subversive in a society which was predicated on social strata and inequality.
An example of the sort of subversive action which had an impact on poverty in the early church is found in 1 Clement 55. In this letter written at the end of the first century, Clement praises Gentile Christians who have risked plague in order to save fellow citizens, allowed themselves to be imprisoned to redeem others, and sold themselves into slavery in order to feed the poor. I cannot imagine anyone in the twenty-first century taking out a second mortgage and donating the money to a local inner city ministry that cares for the poor. Someone may have done this, but it is exceedingly rare.
I think the church does a good job on some social issues, but given the wealth flowing through most American churches, much more could be done. I am not necessarily talking about throwing money at the problem. There are many creative low-cost efforts to relieve the conditions which cause poverty.
What would happen if the Church dedicated itself to solving poverty in the inner cities of America instead of building big glass churches? What if a single mega-church dedicated their offerings to poverty relief rather than building improvements? What if we spent as much on helping African orphans as we do on the sound systems for our churches?
Remember that Paul is not talking only to modern America. Every Christian in the world had to work out what it means to “submit to the government” and impact their culture in order to present the gospel to their culture in a meaningful way. I would love to hear from some international readers on this issue, since I am sure my American eyes are not seeing things clearly.
The transformed life ought to effect one’s relationship with government. This is based on common idea from the Hebrew Bible that God ordains the rulers and the nations. Since Paul is speaking about the Roman empire, it must mean that the Christian ought to obey even an evil government. Paul uses the same verb here in Romans 13 as he did in 8:7, with reference to submitting to the will of God.
Paul therefore means the transformed believer must obey the government because it is God’s appointed authority. By extension, when you obey the government, you obey God.
But most people immediately ask: if that government abuses its power and rules unjustly, is it then appropriate for a Christian to rebel to change that government? Usually Christians will say they will obey the government insofar as the government commands that are not contrary to God’s commands.
What if the government restricts my personal freedom? What if the government wants to take my guns away? What if the government permits same-sex marriage, abortion, or the use of marijuana? What if the government were to be controlled by Islam and Sharia law is imposed on us? Should we rebel against the government then?
I think it is critically important to realize that in the first century, no member of Paul’s congregation would have ever asked this question. No one would have plotted the fall of the Roman empire, nor would a Roman Guy Fawkes attempt to blow up the Roman Senate. Rome really did bring peace to the world and Rome really did provide services which raised the social and economic fortunes of everyone. No one would have considered joining the “Occupy Appian Way” movement to protest the outrageous economic practices of the Roman Empire, nor (in the interest of being fair and balanced), would anyone dream of complaining about their taxes and joined the Tea Party.
Those categories simply do not exist in the first century, and if they did, Rome would have silenced them with extreme prejudice! It was impossible for members of Paul’s churches to protest their emperor or hold up “Impeach Nero” signs in public.
Consider what the Roman empire was like in the mid-first century. They did oppress people, the enslaved millions, they promoted the worship of every god imaginable, and they imposed their religious laws on everyone. Infanticide was practiced and homosexual relationships were permitted (although nothing like gay marriage really existed). Paul does not add any sort of condition to the command to obey the established government, despite the fact that the Roman government was one of the most oppressive regimes in history!
I do not read anything in Romans 13 or in Paul’s relationship with Rome that sounds anything like a protest against the government. Paul’s method for dealing with social ills was far more subtle than mass protests – and much more effective. He told the church to fix the problems themselves by caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan. There is nothing in Romans 13 which would support the overthrow of Rome, either in the first century or the twenty-first.
Paul says in Romans 12:1-2 that the one who is in Christ is to present themselves as a living sacrifice by renewing the way they think about the world. This is in contrast to conforming to the way the world answers the big questions about life.
The result of this changed thinking is knowledge “good and acceptable and perfect” will of God. If we do really renew our minds and change the way we think about things, then we can discern the will of God in new situations. The phrase εἰς τo δοκιμάζειν is an articular infinitive used to indicate the purpose of the renewing of our mind, it is for the purpose of discerning the will of God. In a given situation, transformed thinking may very well be radically different than the culturally accepted answer.
Early Christians encountered many ways in which their new found faith called into question the way the Greco-Roman world things. Although Paul will list many examples in Romans 12-15, there are many more issues which will come up as Christianity comes into contact with the world. It cannot be the case that Paul will cover ever potential issue which might arise as more Gentiles commit their lives to Christ. Some things may seem obvious to us. It seems remarkable someone might ask if a Christian is permitted go to a temple, share in a sacred meal and enjoy the company of prostitutes. The Greco-Roman worldview might not object to this behavior, but transforming the way one thinks about marriage and sexual unions will result in a different view.
But the good and perfect will of God may change in a given situation. For example: Should Christians serve in the Roman military? It may possible for someone to serve Rome without worshiping the gods of Rome (on the analogy of Daniel serving Babylon), but is service to the Roman military a proper career for the first century Christian? What about a soldier who converts Christianity, can he continue to serve?
This process of thinking about new ways in which God’s will applies to new situations is a function of the Spirit of God in every generation (one cold ask about serving in the army of a Christian king in the middle ages, or a Chinese Christian who must serve in the army by Chinese law, or an American Christian serving in the modern military. If killing is the issue, can a Christian serve as a police officer, or in an industry which supports the military industry?
Any number of medical ethical issues can be included here, since Christians in the twenty-first century are the first to think through beginning of life, quality of life and end of life issues in ways no other generation of the church needed to think.
These are all important questions which people with renewed minds much continually think through in any given context. When the believer is yielded to the Holy Spirit, the Spirit will continually renew our minds so that we think more clearly about important issues which go beyond the text of the Bible.
What are some other issues which perhaps have changed over the years for Christians with respect to God’s will?
Paul uses a metaphor for the Christian life in this verse: the “in Christ” people are to be like “living sacrifices” to God. This is a metaphor that a Roman, Greek, or Jew would fully understand. Typically a sacrifice is killed on the altar, but here Paul says that the sacrifice acceptable to God in the present age is to remain alive.
Nobuyoshi Kiuchi suggested that the background for this living sacrifice that is holy and acceptable to the Lord is the Hebrew Bible, specifically the Azazel-goat in Leviticus 16:10-22. As a part of the Day of Atonement ritual, two goats were selected. One would be sacrificed, the other was “presented alive.”
As the high Priest laid his hands on the goat he confessed the sins of the people and the goat was released “into the wilderness” or “for Azazel.” The Mishnah reports he would say to the goat: “Bear our sins and be gone!” (Yoma 6.4). As Kiuchi points out, this is the only sacrifice for sin in the Hebrew Bible that is a “living sacrifice.” The tradition that the goat was pushed over a cliff and killed comes from the Mishnah and is not found in Leviticus.
A potential problem for Kiuchi is that the Azazel-goat is never called a living sacrifice in Second Temple literature. In the Mishnah and other texts it is the “sent-away goat” since it represents the sin of the people being carried away into the wilderness. While Kiuchi suggests that Paul’s allusion to the Azazel-goat is intended to draw attention to Leviticus rather that contemporary practice (p. 259), it is hard to see how this is helpful for unpacking the metaphor since it is Jesus that bears away the sin of the believers. Jesus is the “living sacrifice” who solved the problem of sin and human estrangement from God. In this view of the metaphor, the sacrificed goat would be Jesus and the believer is the “living sacrifice.”
The solution is to see the sacrifice in Romans 12:1 as a reference to the new life of the believer in Christ. From a Gentile perspective, living a morally virtuous life is of more value than the worthless dead sacrifices happening in the temples. Even if the Jewish sacrifices are in mind, a life that is lived as a “spiritual form of worship” is better than the daily sacrifice in the Temple.
One aspect of this metaphor of a living sacrifice that is rarely mentioned is the fact that the early Church had virtually no ritual elements compared to other ancient religious movements. Christians did not go to a temple to sacrifice to their god like virtually everyone else in the world at that time. Paul says here that the acceptable sacrifices are not animals, but the worshipers themselves.
How would person living in the first generation of the Church actually go about being a “living sacrifice”?
How radical is this calling that Paul describes here?
Bibliography: Kiuchi, Nobuyoshi. “Living like the Azazel-goat in Romans 12:1B,” Tyndale Bulletin 57 (2006): 251-61.
After concluding Romans 8 with the great promise that nothing can separate those who have been declared righteous and adopted into the family of God from the love of God, a reader might object that God has in fact rejected his people Israel. God made promises to Israel which seem to remain unfulfilled because of Israel’s unfaithfulness. Chapter 9 argued God this is not a problem of God’s faithfulness. Like Ishmael, Esau or Pharaoh, Israel’s failure to respond to God is an opportunity for God to show mercy (or not) on whomever he wills. But this does not mean Israel was not responsible for their failure to obtain righteousness through the Law.
But God’s sovereign choice does not mean Israel bears no responsibility for their failure to obtain righteousness through the Law. This is true even though the Law was not able to produce righteousness in the first place.
For Paul, Israel did not pursue righteousness through faith, but rather by works. Does this implies righteousness could be obtained by the following law, but Israel pursued righteousness in the wrong way? Schreiner does not think this was Paul’s point at all (Schreiner, “Israel’s Failure,” 213). Earlier in Romans Paul has argued the Law could not make someone righteous since that was not the purpose of the law in the first place (Rom 7:4-6).
Israel failed to obtain righteousness assuming a right relationship with God depended on total obedience to the Law rather than God’s grace. For example, in is likely that the worship offered by the northern kingdom of Israel was properly performed, all sacrifices were made according to the Law, yet God says that this worship is a stench to him because the people are not acting justly (Amos 5:21-24).
The verb translated “reaching” in verse 31 (φθάνω) can refer to attaining a particular status or state. Schreiner detects a racing metaphor, citing the verb “pursue” in this verse and “to run” in 9:16. I would also add the idea of a “stumbling block” in 9:32 could be part of the metaphor of running a race.
The Jewish people pursued the law of righteousness yet did not attain the goal of the Law. Looking ahead to 10:4, Paul will conclude this paragraph by stating clearly that Christ is the goal of the Law.
The Law was the standard to which Israel held themselves, but they could never obtain that standard. They therefore failed because they were seeking the wrong goal from the beginning. It really did not matter how close they came, they were never able to reach the goal since it was the wrong goal for them in the first place.
To extend Paul’s metaphor of a foot race, imagine competing in 100 meter sprint. You wear the right shoes and get into the proper starting crouch, and make an excellent start when the gun sounds. You bear down and sprint the 100 meters, finishing well ahead of all the other runners, absolutely certain you have won the contest. But as it turns out, you were competing in a 26.2 mile marathon. Your excellent start, perfect performance and stellar finish do not count for anything, since the goal set before you is still 26 miles away.
By way of analogy, Israel pursued righteousness by pursuing the Law. Many kept the Law as well as they possibly could, yet found themselves falling short of the glory of God since they were pursuing as if the works of the matter rather than faith in the grace of God who has called them into a unique relationship with God.
Although this is aimed that Paul’s Jewish dialogue partners, I suspect this warning is important also for Christians. It is easy for us to think we are pursuing Christ well by doing the right things, or by having a vibrant (emotional) worship time, by reading the right blogs, by voting for the right candidates or supporting all the right causes. These are not the standards by which we were declared righteous in the first place, nor is it the standard by which we maintain our relationship with God.
Before dealing with the problem of God’s faithfulness, Paul lists many advantages the Jews have as God’s people. In Romans 3:1-2 Paul initially raised the question of the advantages the Jewish people have with respect to God. Historically, some Jews were wholly unfaithful to the covenant they were given and even those who were not unfaithful failed to keep the covenant fully. By Romans 7, Paul explained the reason for this failure was the purpose of the Law. But the failure of Israel still stands as a potential objection to God’s faithfulness to his promises. Paul proves his point that God’s present rejection of Israel is not inconsistent with His Promise by looking at the history of Israel
Sons of God by adoption. ἡ υἱοθεσία (“the sonship”) is never used in any Jewish literature including the Septuagint to describe Israel’s relationship to God. For Barrett (Romans, 166), Paul refers to a status of sonship “conferred upon Israel at the Exodus” (Exod 4:22; Isa 1:2; Hosea 11:1). In the previous chapter, Paul his describe the Christian as having the status of “Sonship” using the same word. It is possible that he begins his list of advantages with the status of adoption in order to create continuity between God’s people in the Old Testament and God’s people in the new age.
The sons of Israel were shown his glory, an allusion to the Exodus. Paul has in mind the pillars of cloud and fire at the crossing of the Red Sea (Exod 15:6, 11) and/or the theophany at Mount Sinai (Exod 24:16).
God made the covenants with Israel. There is a textual variant with a singular covenant, the mosaic covenant. But if this is plural, then possibly a reference to “the three covenants within the great covenant of the Exodus—a covenant at Horeb, a second in the plains of Moab, and a third at Mounts Gerizim and Ebal” (Barrett, 166). Perhaps it is not a problem, since the plural “covenants” appears in several documents in the Second Temple period.
Wisdom of Solomon 18:22 He conquered the wrath not by strength of body, not by force of arms, but by his word he subdued the avenger, appealing to the oaths and covenants given to our ancestors.
God gave the law and the temple worship and the promises. The noun “law” in this line is ἡ νομοθεσία, only found here in the New Testament. Jewett refers to a similar usage in 2 Macc 6:23, a reference to “the holy and God-given legislation” honored by Eleazar. The noun translates “temple worship” would evoke sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem, but to a Roman, the word λατρεία “would be understood by the Roman audience as referring to worship” (Jewett, Romans 564).
To Israel belongs “the fathers of the race.” Abraham is normally considered the father of the Israelites, but Isaac and Jacob are also “the fathers”. This anticipates the next section in which Isaac’s children Jacob and Esau will be featured.
Most importantly, from Israel springs the Christ himself. The phrase “according to the flesh” recalls help Paul begin the book of Romans, by declaring that Jesus Christ was in the line of David according to the flesh. It may also anticipate Paul’s argument in the next section. Those who are descended from Esau are “according to the flesh” as opposed to from the spirit.
It is therefore ironic that God’s people rejected Jesus as the messiah, but also that the rejected the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 as well as Paul’s preaching (for example, the synagogue sermon in Acts 13). To what extent would Roman believers (Jewish or Gentile) have understood the failure of Israel to respond to Jesus as Messiah? Were these advantages squandered?
Romans 9-11 deal with the “problem” of the Jewish people in the present age. If God has begun a new program to deal with all peoples equally without giving a special advantage to Israel, one might ask if Israel is completely cut off from God’s blessing. What about the promises that God made to Abraham and David? Would he fulfill those promises at some point in the future? Or has God completely cut off Israel’s special place in his plan due to their unfaithfulness.
Paul’s intention in Romans 9-11 is not to give a complete exposition of predestination and election, he restricts his comments to God’s choice of Israel as a favored nation, and within Israel those who believe, the true Israel (Dunn, Romans, 546). A few general comments about God’s choice of Israel as his people are possible.
The election of Israel was not based upon works. Paul makes this point by using the election of Jacob as an illustration in verse 12. Before the children were born and could do deeds of merit or sinful deeds, the choice was made. Even the choice of Isaac is made before he is born. Paul cites Genesis 18:10-14 to show Isaac was the son of promise, not Ishmael. It was not Sarah’s faith that was the basis of the choice since she laughed at the idea of having a child. One cannot even say it was through Abraham’s faith his son was chosen since the promise of a child was made in the initial promise in Genesis 12, before Abraham had believed.
In the first paragraph of Romans 9 Paul lists the advantages of Israel’s election, including their adoption as sons, the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship, the promises, and patriarchs. Even the Messiah is a blessing given to Israel. Yet the fact they have all of these things and preform the Works of the Law and Temple worship does not guarantee them salvation.
If the election of Israel is not based on works, on what is it based? The key phrase in this section is in verse 11: God’s electing purpose. The “purpose” of God is rooted in the Old Testament idea of an eternal God whose will transcends human will. Israel is God’s people because of God’s free decision. This decision not based upon any conditions. For Paul, there is not a need to explain the reasons for God’s choice, they are summed up by the phrase “electing purpose of God.”
Paul argues that because Israel has been elected by God to be his people, the nation still has advantages even in unbelief. In in 9:4-5 these advantages are outlined in very brief straightforward statements. These advantages are not in the past, but in language suggesting the benefits are Israel’s at the present time. Paul vividly describes his sadness of Israel’s rejection of Christ. But it also serves to show that the election of Israel has some meaning in the present time.
Paul is therefore arguing God is faithful to his promises despite the current state of Israel’s unbelief. Will God be faithful to the promise to Abraham and restore Israel in the future? Does their present state of unbelief mean they will not receive a promised restoration in the future?
Paul often contrasts living one’s life according to the flesh with living according to the Spirit. Galatians 5:16-25 a prime example, but there are others. This is an example of a “two ways” passage common in Judaism (Psalm 1) and early Christianity (Didache). On can either live out their life on the “road of righteousness” or the “road of wickedness.” This “two ways” thinking is ultimately based on the blessing and curses of the Law, which Moses called a “way of life” or a “way of death” (Deut 30:11-20).
Usually a writer would list a series of virtues and vices without any sort of description, as Paul does in the Galatians, the “deeds of the flesh” are listed in contrast to the “fruit of the Spirit.” Paul does not give a list of virtues or vices here since his purpose is simply to contrast the flesh and the Spirit.
In Greek philosophy, virtues were often the balance between two vices (bravery is the balance between cowardice and foolhardiness). Aristotle called virtue the “golden mean” between two vices. But for Paul, there is no middle ground: Paul is describing our spiritual lives as either dead to sin or alive in Christ, walking according to the flesh or walking according to the Spirit.
A person can “set the mind on the flesh” or “set the mind on the Spirit.” The contrast is between “mindset” (φρόνημα) only appears in Romans 8 in the New Testament, although the word-group is more common in the LXX. The word-group refers to a pattern of thinking, something like a worldview in contemporary English. Like worldview, this word can have both positive and negative connotations, depending on what makes up a person’s worldview. For example, φρόνησις for עָרְמָה in Job 5:13 for “presumptuous cleverness” (TDNT 9:224). Josephus used this word to describe the “tree of knowledge” (τὸ φυτὸν τῆς φρονήσεως, Ant., 1.37; LXX has τοῦ εἰδέναι). Josephus uses the same word when Solomon asks for wisdom (Ant. 8.23; TDNT 9:229).
If we imagine a worldview as a lens through which we look at reality, then a “mindset” in Romans 8 can either be flesh or Spirit. For any given issue, someone who does not have the Spirit of God may offer a solution radically different than those who walk by the Spirit. In the first century, for example, the value of a person who was a slave would be much different for a Christian than for an unsaved Roman. The same might be true for a person who was very ill; a Christian might risk their lives to help a sick person but a Roman might just let them die.
The most part this “Judeo-Christian ethic” has so permeated western culture even non-Christians see the value of most life (although there are notable exceptions). But there are many other ways a Christian will look at an ethical issue differently than a non-Christian. Let me offer two example, one bad example and one good.
First, the bad example: in the 1980s James Watt was secretary of the interior. He was a conservative Christian who genuinely believed Jesus was going to return very soon. Because of this he saw no value in caring for the environment, saying “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns, whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations.” For Watt, his particular theological views blinded him to the importance of caring for the environment embedded the creation mandate in Genesis 1.
Second, a good example: during the reign of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius plague broke out in Rome. The Emperor quickly left Rome, as did anyone with any means to do so. Compassion for the sick and dying was not a value in Roman culture. Christians, on the other hand, saw plague as an opportunity to care for people who were in desperate need, serving people who had no hope with love and compassion.
What are some other (positive) examples of a Christian worldview changing the way people think about an issue?
When Paul talks about the struggle to do what the Law requires in Romans 7, is he reflecting his own experience as a Jew? Alternatively, Paul may be speaking of his post-conversion struggle with sin. It is even possible that Paul speaking hypothetically, not using his own experience as a guide at all.
Cranfield (Romans 1:344) lists 7 possible interpretations of the “I” in chapter 7:14-25:
- That it is autobiographical, Paul is describing his own present Christian experience.
- That it is autobiographical, Paul is describing his own past Christian experience.
- That it is autobiographical, Paul is describing his own pre-conversion experience in the light of his current Christian faith.
- That it presents the experience of a non-Christian Jew, as seen by himself.
- That it presents the experience of a non-Christian Jew, as seen through Christian eyes.
- That it presents the experience of a Christian who is living at the level of the Christian life which can be left behind, who is trying to fight the battle on his own strength.
- That it presents the experience of a Christians generally, including the very best and mature.
Cranfield sets aside the second possibility as impossible in the light of Philippians 3:6b and Gal 1:14. The fourth possibility is rejected because it is contrary to the view of the Jewish “self-complacency” described in chapter 2. The use of the present tense tends to argue against the second and third option. The present tense to too sustained throughout the section for this to be an historical present for vividness. The order of the sentences argues against 2-6. If verse 24 is the cry of an unsaved man, then all of the preceding material ought to be before salvation as well.
There are problems with thinking that the “Wretched Man” is Paul’s pre-Christian experience based recent studies of Judaism by E. P. Sanders and others. This “New Perspective on Paul” argues that Judaism was not a “works for salvation” religion and that “rabbi Saul” would not obsessed about his lack of perfection in following the Law. I suppose it is possible that Paul was a particularly obsessive follower of the Law, but it is also popular scholarship reads Luther’s own struggle into the passage.
The problem, for Cranfield, in accepting either the first or seventh option is that they present a dark view of the Christian life, and one that seems to be incompatible with the concept of the believer’s liberation from sin as presented in 6:6, 14, 17, 22, and 8:2. But it is important to understand that the very fact that there is a struggle indicates that the Spirit of God is present in the writer’s life, for without the Spirit he will never realize that he is in sin and struggle to remove himself from that state. He notes that it is “relatively unimportant” that we choose between the first or seventh option since they are virtually the same thing. If it is autobiographical then Paul, as a very mature Christian struggled with sin. Is that possible? While we might think a mature Christian has risen above the wretched struggle, that is simply not the case.
What is the significance of this passage to the believer? We can learn from this passage, it is clear that if Paul himself struggled with sin, then we should realize that we too will struggle with sin. In fact, I think there is more danger in “not struggling” than being contented in your walk with God.
The sin of complacency is far more dangerous than we might think.