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women_fightingPaul does something unusual in Philippains 4, he specifically names at least two leaders in the congregation have some problem hindering the church. Specifically, Euodia and Syntyche need to demonstrate unity. For Paul to specifically name people is very unusual since the letter would have been read publically to the whole congregation. He treats them equally by repeating the verb twice (“I encourage Euodia, I encourage Syntyche”).

We know nothing about these two women, although there have been a few Christian writers who denied they were women, perhaps because Paul called them co-laborers, and a few who have wondered if they were actual people! But the pronouns throughout the three verses are feminine, so very few (if any) modern scholars deny Paul is talking about two women who worked with him in Philippi.

  • Syntyche is a feminine name in Philippians, but it appears in inscriptions as a masculine. The early Christian writer and bishop of Antioch Theodore of Mopsuestia (ca. 350 – 428) therefore tried to argue this refers to a man rather than a woman. He went as far as to identify Syntyche as the Philippian jailer from Acts 16!
  • Euodia is also a common name in the Greco-Roman world (BDAG cites Greek grave inscriptions on Cyprus); the name means “prosperous” or “successful,” sometimes in the context of a journey. Like Syntyche, the name has a masculine and feminine form.
  • The Tübingen School interpreted Euodia and Syntyche as symbols for Jewish and Gentile Christians (for a summary, see Gillman, “Euodia (Person),” ABD 2:670). If this was the case, the Syzygus is the one who unifies the two opposing sides of the early Christian church.

The motivation for making Syntyche into a man is to avoid the implication that an early church like Philippi had women leaders on a level with Paul.  These women are not opponents of Paul nor are they false teachers: their names are “written in the book of life.” This is a common way of describing someone who have suffered for their faith yet remained faithful (Dan 12:1, Rev 3:5). This may therefore be a hint the church has suffered for their faith and these two women were instrumental in guiding the congregation through that difficult time.

Verse three asks someone in the congregation to help the women to work through their dispute. The Greek word (σύζυγος) has sometimes been interpreted as a name (Syzygus), a name which would mean “yoke-fellow” if it is a name at all. The name does appear in Greek literature as a description of a wife (T.Rub 4:1, for example), so sometimes Syzygus was thought to be Paul’s wife! (She is Paul’s loyal wife, left behind in Philippi, perhaps Lydia herself.) Paul also calls on Clement and the “rest of my fellow workers” to help the women to reconcile.  We know nothing of Clement. Although it is the same name as a bishop of Rome in the late 90s, it is unlikely to be the same man.

eudoiaandsyntychePaul clearly loves and respects these fellow-workers (v. 1), but he does strongly encourage them to set aside these difference.  He uses a strong word for his affection for the church: he earnestly desires to see them (ἐπιπόθητος). The church is Paul’s “joy and crown.” This is similar to saying “pride and joy” today, the church is something Paul can boast about and on the day he stands before the Lord he can consider the church a victor’s crown.

In summary, Paul deeply cares for the church at Philippi and wants them to endure in the trails they will face. Because he loves them so deeply, he needs to call out two people who are causing disunity. But the whole church needs to have the same sort of unity as well; everyone is to “think similarly.”

 

As is typical of Paul’s letters, he begins by expressing his thanks for the church in prayer.  Most letters in the Greco-Roman world began with some sort of thanksgiving section in order to set the tone for the letter. Here Paul recalls his time with the church, probably going all the way back to his first visit to the city in Acts 16. He likely had other contacts with the church over the years.

The reason for his thanksgiving is the church’s partnership in the Gospel. A “partnership” (κοινωνία) is a close association of individuals, a fellowship. While contemporary English uses the word with the sense of a business friendship, or sometimes as a verb for a ministry asking for money (they want you to “partner” with them by giving money), the use of this word in the first century was more complex.  It can be used, for example, to describe the marriage relationship (3 Macc 4:6) although this is not found in the New Testament.  It is often used for close participation Phil 3:10, we “participate” in the suffering of Jesus; 1 Cor 10:16 the believer “participates” in the blood of Jesus; in 2 Cor 8:4 the readers are asked to “participate” in sending famine relief. The Philippian church has participated in Paul’s ministry by sending him financial support via Epaphroditus, a servant from their church.

Paul is confident God will bring their work to completion “at the day of Jesus Christ.” When the gospel was preached in Philippi God began to do something good, and Paul is absolutely confident that God will finish the good work he began.  Having been persuaded, this is a perfect participle; Paul was persuaded that the members of the church. It is not the case that Paul was unconvinced until the church sent him some money!

The Szkieletor

The Szkieletor

Modern Christians might reading something like “good work” as a reference to ministry, maybe a mission goal, etc. But a “good work” in a Greco-Roman context would refer to doing some sort of civic project for the good of a community. Imagine someone donating a great deal of money and material to begin the building of a new public building for the good of the community, a museum or library. If the money ran out before the building was finished, this would be a shameful thing for the one who began the project.

There is a tower in Poland intended to be the new regional office of the Main Technical Organization in 1975. Work was stopped in 1981 due to civil unrest, but nothing has been done since to the 92 meter tall structure since. The building known as “Skelator” is too expensive to re-purpose or demolish. This unfinished project is an embarrassment to those who originally planned it.

In the case of the Philippian church, God began the project of building up the church and he will bring the project to a glorious completion on the Day of Jesus Christ. Paul is confident there will be no shame or embarrassment from a half-completed project in the case of this church since God himself is the builder and he cannot fail.

Paul therefore opens his letter with a look back at how the Philippian have already participated in his presentation of the Gospel but also forward to the completion of that partnership when those who are in Christ meet him in glory. Paul can feel this level of confidence because he knows the church also participates in God’s grace.

There are other examples of “participation” in Philippians. How can this way of thinking about ministry change the way we “do church”?

 

When Paul arrived in Philippi in late A.D. 49 the city was one of the most important cities in Eastern Macedonia. Luke refers to Philippi as a “first city” in the region (Acts 16:12). The old Greek city of Philippi was founded in 350 B.C. By Philip II. The Greek city was conquered by the Romans in 86 B.C. and by 42 B.C. it could be described as a “small settlement” (ECM 1151).

Marc Anthony began to settle retired veterans from the 23rd Legion in 42 B.C. after he defeated Cassius and Brutus. After the battle of Actium, Augustus re-founded the city in 31 B.C. as Colonia Iuilia Augusta Philippiensis. There were at least 1000 colonists settled in the city. The city was originally populated by “veterans of Antony’s praetorian guard who had lost their claims to land in Italy” (ABD 5:314).

As a colony, Philippi was considered an extension of Rome. The citizens enjoyed Roman citizenship and ius Italicum, a legal status which permitted self-government and tax-exemption to its citizens. Thessalonica was a free city, but Philippi had a higher status as a colony.

The total population of Philippi at the time of time of Paul’s visit was nearly 10,000 with slaves making up about 20% of the population (Verhoef, Philippi, 9, 12). Verhoef suggests the eleven named individuals associated with Philippi implies there were as few as 33 adult members in a city of 10,000.

Religious life in first century Philippi was similar to most Greco-Roman cities. Although it was not as ancient as many Greek cities, Philippi was “rich with pagan connections” (Keener, Acts, 3:2381). On the Acropolis above the city there are “more than 90 sculptures represent Diana, goddess of the hunt” (Verhoef, Philippi). These 90 or so figurines represent around 50 per cent of the total number of pictures and inscriptions that have been found at the acropolis. Consequently Diana must have been incredibly important in the life of the Philippians” (62).

Lynn Cohick suggests several factors which make Philippians fertile ground for Empire studies (“Philippians” in Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not). First, inscriptional evidence indicates that the imperial cult was present in first century Philippi (169). Second, there is a great deal of citizenship language in Philippians as well as the usual “Jesus is Lord.” Third, there are studies on Philippians that describe Paul as “colonialist and imperialist” as well as those who see Paul as critiquing the Empire. Cohick concludes that if Paul is anti-imperial, it is part of his Jewish context. Certainly there is a challenge to the power of Rome, but that is not very different than any Jew living in the middle of the first century. There were two temples dedicated to Imperial Cult, although it is difficult to know how influential the imperial cult was in first century Philippi.

In the mid first century, the city was populated with “relatively privileged core of Roman veterans and their descendants” as well as Greeks descended from the original inhabitants of the region (ABD 5:315). The Roman veterans owned agricultural estates worked by slaves.

At the time of Paul’s visit to the city, Philippi was a moderately sized Greek city with a strong Roman influence.

In the previous post I pointed out a few historical details which indicate Philippi was more or less Roman city in the mid-first century. How does this background effect our reading of the letter? There are quite a few things in the letter which are illuminated by this background, let me suggest just three.

First, Paul the Slave vs. Paul the Citizen (Phil 1:1). Paul identifies himself as a slave in the first verse of the letter. The superscription to the letter is unique in that Paul identifies himself solely as a slave and his readers as “overseers and deacons” in the church. Often this is explained either as a reflection of the close personal relationship Paul had with the church (O’Brien) or as a part of the literary genre of “friendship letter” (Fee).

Joe Hellerman sees the titles as a part of Paul’s reconstruction program.  “Paul has a legitimate right to proclaim his apostolic status, but chose instead to refer to himself as a lowly δοῦλος” (Reconstructing Honor, 120).  Paul does not mention his citizenship in Philippians, even though his experience in the city involved his illegal arrest and imprisonment as a citizen. “Citizens who have a citizenship in heaven should live according to the Gospel of Christ. In my opinion, in this verse and in 3:20, Paul contrasts the very desirable Roman citizenship with the citizenship that is connected with heaven” (Verhoef, Philippi, 33).

Second, The Pursuit of Honor (Phil 2:5-11). Jesus considered his equality with God as not “a thing to be grasped.” A “thing to be grasped” (ἁρπαγμός) refers to asserting a title or putting forth a claim for something, or something to be exploited. Think of someone who “makes a claim” for a legal settlement, they think they are entitled to compensation so the “make a claim.” The King James Version had “did not think it robbery,” reflecting the idea of grabbing at something.

In the Roman world, a Citizen of high standing might wear a toga indicating his rank, and expect that others notice it and give him proper deference. Jesus did not consider his rank as God was something he always needed to claim. Paul describes Jesus in this verse as occupying the very highest rank imaginable by anyone in the ancient world, he was in fact God. Yet that position and rank was not something he insisted upon, as the Romans would have done. He set aside that rank in order to humble himself.

The Roman world was based on extreme social stratification. There was a rigid social order in the Roman world, from the extreme minority elites who had virtually all the power to the majority slaves who had absolutely no power. In fact, Roman life can be described as a “Quest for Honor” (cursus honorum).  Hellerman shows the lengths to which a Roman might go in order to gain honor. For example, on the tombstone of C. Luccius (A.D. 134), all of the honors achieved by the man are listed. In contrast to this, Paul offers his own list of honors in Phil 3:5-6, which he considers “rubbish.”

While members of Roman culture were motivated by self-promotion, members of Paul’s churches were to seek the honor of others and to think of others more highly than themselves. This flies in the face of the Roman world, and as Hellerman points out, it flies in the face of power relations within the church (p. 99).

Third, Setting Aside Marks of Honor. In Phil 2:7-8, Jesus emptied himself of his honor and prestige. The meaning of “emptied” is important here. The verb (κενόω) refers to setting the status described in verse 6 in order to be obedient.  There is a great deal of theological weight placed on this word, but the phrase is better understood in terms Roman status, especially in the practice of wearing the toga by Roman elite.

The toga was a sign of elite status in the Roman world. Hellerman makes the point that this would be equivalent to a Roman senator setting aside his toga (his mark of status) and taking on the rags of a slave (also a mark of status). Because of that humble obedience, Jesus is exalted to the highest status imaginable, even above the emperor of Rome! That Jesus is called Lord is counter to a Roman world where Caesar is Lord and worshiped as a god (p. 167). So when he “he emptied himself.” Jesus “divested himself of his prestige or privileges” (BDAG). It is as if he voluntarily set aside his toga, the sign he was the highest ranking Lord in the universe.

Rather than divesting himself of divine attributes, the idea Paul has in mind the humility Jesus had in the incarnation, so much so that the God of the universe could set aside that status in order to serve others.

Rather than having the form of God, Jesus took on the form of a servant. The ESV translates this as servant, but it is the same word as “slave,” the lowest possible social class in the Roman world. Jesus therefore set aside the toga, and picked up the rags of a slave. Think of the Roman emperor stripping himself of the finest clothing available to a Roman citizen and putting on the stained and flea-infested rags of the lowliest slave.

Just as the status of a Roman citizen was evident by what they wore, so too the clothing of a slave signal his status. Even a slave with some social standing would not dress in a toga! The social status of a servant was always viewed negatively in the Roman world.

In modern western culture, a person at a store might say something like “I am at your service” in order to indicate their willingness to help someone. In the Roman world, this would be a shameful expression, a servant was.

Although Jesus was by nature God, he voluntarily took on the nature of a human. In doing so Jesus is the model of humility for the honor-conscious members of the Philippian church.

humble-sign

In order to define how we ought to think of one another, Paul redefines how we related to one another. First, he says we ought to think with humility. The ESV “more highly than we ought” is a translation of a single Greek word (ὑπερφρονέω). It used only here in the New Testament. Although it can be used in a positive sense of “excel in intelligence” it is usually negative, “to be haughty” (BDAG).

Second, we ought to consider one another with sober judgment. The noun (σωφρονέω) has the sense of reasonable, sensible action. Paul uses this same word in 2 Cor 5:13 with the sense of “be in my right mind.” Grammatically this phrase is an articular infinitive expressing purpose (εἰς τὸ σωφρονεῖν), modifying another infinitive. We are to think of others first because it is the right way to think. To put ourselves first would be non-sensible thinking, something to be avoided.

In Rom 1:18–32 Paul argued humans have lost some of their rationality when they reject the clear revelation of God existence and attributes. No he is able to say to those who are “in Christ” that they can think reasonably and sensibly, but the outcome of that sensible thinking his service to others.

Third, Paul uses the phrase “according to the measure of faith given to us.” This can be taken several ways in the context of spiritual gifts. The verb (μερίζω) refers to dividing something up and allotting or distributing it to a group. For example in Mark 6:41 Jesus divides the fish and bread amongst the disciples to distribute to the crowd.  With this in mind, some have argued God has given varying levels of spiritual gifts to individuals so that some have more (and are held more responsible) and some have less (and are therefore less responsible) for how they use that gift.

The problem is some individuals will appear to have more faith than others. This would naturally lead to an inequality in the body of Christ. In addition it implies that someone with less faith is somehow less able to serve God. But that is not the way faith works in the Pauline letters. In 1 Cor 10:13 the word is used to describe God assigning an “area of influence” for believers, so that the believer exercises their gifts in the area to which God has called them to work. In this view, all are given the same thing (the Holy Spirit and his enablement to do ministry), but the area of that influence varies.

It is better to understand the word measure as the standard by which each individual this judge. In this view, a person is the judge by the measure of faith they have been giving rather than the measure of faith another person has been given.  “Paul defines ‘sober-mindedness’ as the refusal to impose the standard of one’s own relationship with God onto others” (Jewett, 742).

This is radically different than the way the Greco-Roman world thought. Jewett cites Aristotle, who thought humans “should make themselves immortal through the exercise of reason” (Jewett, 741). Sober mindedness is a kind of “divine element in humankind.” But for Paul, our ability to think rationally is part of the image of God and is corrupted by sin.

Humans often think rationally, but it is inconsistent, twisted and (to use Paul’s metaphor), less-than-sober. What is an example of applying “humble thinking” to how the children of God relate to their world? If Jewett is right and humble-mindedness is “impose the standard of one’s own relationship with God onto others” – how does that work in an evangelical community where the preaching of the Gospel is a key value?

 

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.

confusing-street-signThe 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?

 

In order to be a living sacrifice, the believer must completely change the way they think about everything. There are two parts to this change of thinking.

obedienceFirst, Paul says the believer is to “not be conformed” to the image of this world. The verb συσχηματίζω refers to being molded into another form, or guided by something else (BDAG). This is a compound word with σχῆμα “The term σχῆμα denotes the outward structure or form that may be known by the senses” (TDNT 7:954-58).

The “pattern of this world” is the way a culture thinks, the Greco-Roman worldview. This would include how a Gentile thinks about the gods, how daily life is regulated by placate the gods, relying on magic or divination when making decisions, etc. The average Roman would think about the Roman empire and the claims made by the emperor quite differently than a Christian view of empires based on the Hebrew Bible. The pursuit of honor in the Roman culture effects how and why a person decides to act in any given situation.

Second, the believer must be “transformed by the renewal of our minds.” The verb μεταμορφόω refer to both outward physical changes (such as the transfiguration, Matthew 17:2) and inward spiritual changes (BDAG). It is used of the change of the physical body in glory (2 Corinthians 3:18). In Romans 12:2 the word refers to an inward spiritual change of the believer by the power of the Spirit. The verb is a passive imperative, suggesting that it is God who does the actual transforming of our minds so that we begin to think differently (Kruse, Romans, 464).

The key to this metamorphosis is the “renewing” of our minds. Paul may have coined the word ἀνακαίνωσις, both the noun and the verb (2 Cor 4:16; Col 3:10) do not appear outside of Christian literature (Jewett, Romans, 733). The word combines the more common καινόω, “to make new” with ἀνα to form a word which means to make something new again, to return it to a pristine state prior to it becoming “unnew.” In Ephesians 4:21-24 Paul describes this process as putting off the old man and putting on the new (Cf. Col 3).

Paul argued in Romans 1 that Gentiles are futile in their thinking and ignorant of the way things really are. But the one who is in Christ has been enlightened, renewed so that they can “think about how they think,” renewing their minds in Christ Jesus.

For example, they would have fully accepted gods had some control over their life, they may have made sacrifices or performed rituals to ensure good luck on a journey, they may have believed people could curse them, or even purchased magical amulets to protect themselves from such curses.

Paul is describing a change in the way we think about everything in life! For example: this new way of thinking includes how people relate to one another. Instead of trying to use people to get ahead in the pursuit of honor and shame, people ought to serve one another in sincerity of love. Instead of seeking revenge, we ought to pray for our enemies.

Those who are in Christ have been set free from the Law of sin and Death (8:1-4). Condemnation refers to a “the punishment following sentence” (BDAG). This is a rare word, only used in the New Testament here and Romans 5:16 and 5:18. In Romans 5, condemnation was the result of the first Adam’s rebellion against God. In that case, God acts as judge, finds Adam guilty and gives him the appropriate punishment for his rebellion, death.

In Wisdom literature, this word can have the sense of people getting what they deserve. For example, in Wisdom 4:16, “The righteous who have died will condemn (κατακρίνω) the ungodly who are living, and youth that is quickly perfected will condemn (κατακρίνω) the prolonged old age of the unrighteous” (NRSV). Someone who persecutes the righteous will “get their comeuppance” and be persecuted themselves in the final judgment.

But Paul’s use here does not have the idea of recompense “but rather the principle of correspondence of deed and condition” (EDNT 2:260). The result of Adam’s sin was death because that was the natural result of his rebellion. In fact, God promised Adam that he would die if he ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Those who were under the law were also under the condemnation of the Law. The point of Romans 7 is all those under the law fell short of the righteous requirements of the law and were therefore condemned by it.

God accomplished what the law could not by sending his son. Law may refer to the Mosaic Law, keeping to the context of Romans 7:1-12 or as a “principle” as in 7:21 (the “sin principle”). James Dunn and N. T. Wright argue Paul is consistently contrasting the Mosaic Law (or at least the boundary markers of the Law) in Romans 7 and it makes sense he should continue to contrast the written code (7:6) and the law of the Spirit. Although the Law promised life to those who kept it perfectly, it was powerless to deal with the real problem facing humanity, the problem of sin.

Colin Kruse argues the second view is preferable since it makes Romans 8:1 a continuation of 7:21-25. There is a principle at work in the people who desire to do what is good, but find themselves doing what they know to be wrong. The person who is in Christ is freed from the sin principle (7:25) and is not able to be punished for that sin principle because it has been fulfilled by Christ.

God dealt with the problem of sin by sending his Son. That God could send his son Jesus into the world implies the pre-existence of Jesus. There are other texts in the Pauline literature which describe Jesus as sent by God (Phil 2:5-11, Gal 4:4). Although this is not yet the detailed Christology in John, there is evidence that Paul considered Jesus to have existed before his incarnation.

The son was sent into the world in the “likeness of sinful flesh.” This very careful statement, since Paul does not say Jesus came in the same sort of flesh human have, since that flesh is corrupted by sin. Jesus was real human, but not a fallen human.

This incarnation was necessary in order to fulfill the righteous requirement (δικαίωμα) of the law. If the law is the Mosaic Law, the Jesus kept the Law perfectly. This does not mean Jesus did ever break the cleanliness laws, but that when he naturally encountered uncleanliness he would have followed the Law’s directions for treating that breach. There is a difference between choosing to break the Sabbath and inadvertently coming into contact with a person who was unclean.

If the law is the ‘sin principle,” then Jesus was able to live a human life without succumbing to temptation. As the second Adam, Jesus was tempted and did not rebel against God. These are not mutually exclusive, since breaking the Law means succumbing to the sin principle (as Adam did).

If we who are in Christ are no longer under the condemnation of the Law, what are the ramifications for our relationship with God? How do we live not that we are no longer under the threat of the “wrath of God” (Romans 1:18)?

In the first five chapters of Romans, Paul has shown that no one is able to merit salvation by their good works. Even Abraham failed to merit salvation, so God credited him with righteousness” (Romans 4:3). In Romans 5:12-21 Paul makes the case that God has declared righteous those who have believed in Jesus,

In Romans 6:1–4 Paul describes the believer as united with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection. If it is true grace increases where sin abounds, should we sin so that grace will about all the more? (6:1-2). Paul asks this rhetorical question to expose a potential problem with his view of grace and justification. As he did earlier in the book, he answers his question with a strong negative, “by no means!”

The question concerns remaining or abiding in sin (a present subjunctive, ἐπιμένω). It is possible Paul is not talking about sin in general, but a specific sin in which the Christian continues to commit despite their understanding it as a sin. For example, a Roman man might decide that because they are saved by God’s grace through faith, going to a prostitute at a pagan temple does not “count” as a sin. Since that is a conscious choice and a regular practice, the person is choosing to remain in a sin. The question is not, “should we ever sin?” but should be persistently sin.

Where there people actually sinning so that grace might abound? It is always possible Paul is raising a hypothetical objection to his argument up through chapter 5. “Someone might say” may mean Paul could imagine this objection, so he answers it before it arises.

However, there seem to have been at least some early Christians who did in fact “sin that grace may abound.” In Jude 4, for example, there were people who used the grace of God as a license to sin. Revelation 2:20 implies some Christians in Thyatira were teaching people they could participate in banquets at pagan temples (cf. Rev 2:14-15). Certainly the congregation in Corinth struggled with how Christianity affects how the believer lives in a Gentile world.

With respect to the modern church, it seems strange someone might think they could consciously break a clear principle of God and think they were not offending God with their rebellion. It is possible the issue is breaking the Jewish boundary markers. A Gentile Christian could break Sabbath or food laws without any fear of it being a sin before God.

But there are some behaviors which clearly offend the general revelation of God so that no one, Jew or Gentile, could do them and not consider them sin!

  • As an extreme example, someone could not say, “the Law says do not murder, I am not under the Law, so I am going to kill people for fun.” No one in the Jewish or Greek world think murder is ever permissible.
  • A less absurd example is adultery. The Law does forbid adultery, but a Gentile might not consider than command applicable to going to a prostitute or using a slave for sexual pleasure.
  • More troublesome would be eating meat sacrificed to idols. This may not be expressly forbidden in the Law, but it was certainly Jewish practice in the first century. Could a Gentile eat meat purchased from the temples, with the full knowledge this meat was sacrificed to a God and not have that “count” as sin?

Whether this is a real or potential objection, Paul’s response is one of the most important elements of Pauline theology: our total identification with Jesus the death, burial and resurrection has serious ethical implications. If we are in Christ, we are no longer what we were. If that is true, can no longer live the same way because everything has changed in Christ.

Paul deals with a potential objection from his dialogue partner, a Jewish person who has tried to keep the Law but now discovers he is just as guilty as the Gentile. If the Jews have spectacularly failed to keep the Law and are enslaved to the “power of sin” in the same way the Gentiles are, what advantage is there to being a Jew?

If it is the case that God chose Israel as his people and gave to them the Law, then their failure may appear to make God’s plan in the Old Testament out to be a failure. This is a problem some readers will have when they read the Old Testament, Israel spectacularly fails in their calling to be the light to the Gentiles; they cannot even “save themselves.”

Image result for Jewish scriptureFor Paul, being Jewish is still of great advantage, Paul will return to this in Romans 9:4-5 in much more detail, here he only gives a short answer.

Paul says first, the Jewish people were entrusted with the “oracles of God” (τὰ λόγια τοῦ θεοῦ). The word translated “first” (πρῶτος) can mean first in a sequence. The ESV translates this as “to begin with…” implying the first of a series. There is no “second” item in the list, so commentators think Paul started the list, dropped it until chapter 9. But the word can also mean “of first importance.” In this view, the oracles of God are the most important advantage the Jewish people were given.

The oracles are sayings, but Acts 7:38 uses the same word for the law that was given to Moses (living oracles, λόγια ζῶντα). In Hebrews 5:12 the writer chides his readers for not having understood the “the basic principles of the oracles of God” yet. The phrase is used in 1 Peter 4:11 for words given through the Holy Spirit. In each example the logia of God are the “very words of God” given in the Law and Prophets (Kruse, Romans, 160).

Does Jewish unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness? If the Jews were given the “very words of God” and failed to respond properly to them, perhaps God is not obligated to be faithful toward them.

By way of analogy, if someone acts rude and offensively toward you, sometimes it is socially acceptable to be rude back to them. Since they have broken politeness, you are no longer obligated to be polite. (Someone might react to a spouse who cheats by cheating themselves, since one covenant partner has been unfaithful, the other is released from their own commitment to faithfulness). (If you get pranked, the proper response to prank back?)

Paul’s response to this question is no, God is not released from his covenant with Israel because Israel was unfaithful. To use an analogy from Hosea and the marriage metaphor, Israel was an unfaithful partner who behaved abominably toward God’s loving kindness. Yet God has not divorced his unfaithful spouse, but is in the process of wooing them back to the relationship they had at the beginning in the wilderness.

Even though Israel was an unfaithful covenant partner, God is the ideal example of a faithful covenant partner and will fulfill his side of the covenant regardless of the rebellion of his partner.

In this verse he says only some Jews were unfaithful. Although Romans 9-11 indicates that Israel as a whole failed, there was always a righteous remnant that was faithful to the covenant. Yet even the righteous remnant failed to wholly keep the Law! Therefore Paul can conclude there is no one who can please God (Law-Keeping Jews or righteous Gentiles).

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Christian Theology

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