The Problem of Sacred Days and Clean Foods – Romans 14:5-9

In Romans 14 Paul is trying to guide congregations to preserve the unity of the body of Christ despite having a wide variety of views on some practices. He mentions two in particular, considering some days sacred and eating some types of foods.

Esteeming one day over another may refer to when the Roman congregations chose to gather. The natural assumption is Jewish Christian congregations continued to worship on the Sabbath. Primarily Gentile congregations met whenever they could, apparently settling on Sunday, the day Jesus rose from the dead.

Image result for bacon wrapped cheeseburgerEating and abstaining may refer to Jewish food taboos. Again, when a primarily Jewish congregation shared a meal, the food would have been purchased and prepared with attention to cleanliness (i.e., not meat sacrificed to idols, nothing forbidden in Leviticus), etc. Primarily Gentile congregations may not have adopted Jewish food laws, accepting all foods as clean after one gives things for the Lord for the food. However, it is likely some Gentiles did choose to avoid food sacrificed to idols.

What matters for Paul is living one’s life “for the Lord” and not for ourselves. This means the one who is in Christ (a living sacrifice, one who is living in a way that promotes unity in the body of Christ), ought to voluntarily set aside preferences in deference to others.

Voluntarily setting something aside is the key to understanding the principle Paul wants to establish here. Like Jesus, who set aside certain rights he had as a member of the Godhead in order to become human (Phil 2:5-6), so to the member of the body of Christ in the present age must set aside their privileges the may legitimately be owed in order to preserve the unity of the Body of Christ.

Paul is not discussion sinful practices, but what are often called preferences. He is not talking about Gentiles visiting a prostitute (as he is in 1 Corinthians 6), since that is a practice incompatible with being a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. This is the nature of the strong/weak in this passage: the person with weak faith considers eating food to be a mark of spirituality and therefore breaking those convictions would be a sin.

Does this only work one direction? A person who does not eat unclean food cannot “give up” their preferences and eat unclean food to make a Gentile feel comfortable? For example, if a person today is a vegetarian, can they “give up their conviction” and share meat with someone who eats meat? If I were to share a meal with a Seventh-Day Adventist, for example, I would have no problem eating any food they served. But they may have a serious problem eating something I serve. If I have a meal in an Israeli hotel, it is far easier for me to eat kosher than to insist on my rights and have the kitchen make me a bacon-wrapped cheeseburger.

It is far easier for the meat-eater to give up their conviction and eat only vegetables. This is certainly true on a physical level. But more importantly, with respect to convictions, the meat-eater is not violating a principle of their faith, but the vegetarian would be “sinning” with respect to their own world view.

There is a clear application of this principle for the modern church. I think there are some easy examples: If a member of congregation prefers one style of music for worship, they ought to be able to set that preference aside in order to reach people for Jesus Christ.

But I can imagine other situations which would make some Christians more uncomfortable. Could a pastor drink a beer with someone in order to not make a beer drinking member of their congregation comfortable? What about a pastor trying to reach a person in the south who is offered a wad of chewing tobacco. Could they accept the offer without violating their conscience? It is critically important to observe Paul is talking about practices which are not important for salvation in the present age nor is he talking about sinful practices (even if the weaker brother thinks they might be).

Both the weak and the strong are believers, and both are welcome in Christian worship and fellowship. For Paul, these are not matters to divide churches or break fellowship over. What are some problems you have encountered trying to find the right balance between preferences in local congregations?

Who are the Weak and Strong in Romans 14?

strong-and-weakAlthough it is possible Paul includes this section as a general commentary on how Jews and Gentiles ought to get along in mixed congregations, it is likely he has heard something about a specific conflict in the house churches in Rome. He describes some of the believers as weak and others as strong and admonishes the strong to not pass judgment on the weak.

Who are the “strong and weak” in this passage?

Most commonly, the “weak” are legalists and the “strong” are those that are not trying to “earn” status by their good works. This view has been eroded by the New Perspective on Paul, since it may not be the case that Jews in the first century say themselves as earning their salvation.

After surveying several options, Cranfield concludes the weak are those who desire to continue to observe the ceremonial law of the Old Testament. If this is the case, it is a similar situation to the Gentiles in Galatia who are being encouraged to fully convert to Judaism in order to follow Jesus.

It is possible this weak/strong discussion is an extension of the “meat sacrificed to idols” problem in 1 Corinthians, as suggested by Mark Reasoner. If so, then the weak might be the Jew, and the strong the Gentile. This suggestion has some merit since Paul wrote Romans from Corinth after the period of conflict had come to a close (after 2 Corinthians). It is possible his experience with the Corinthian believers colors his comments to the Romans who may be struggling with similar issues.

Paul Jewett draws attention to a brief exchanged in Horace in which one character does not wish to speak on the Sabbath because he is “a small man of weakness, one of many” (Jewett, Romans, 834; Horace Sat. 1.9.67–72). Reasoner used this line to argue “the person excessively observant in a foreign religion who matched the ‘weak’ caricature was known to Horace’s audience.” (Reasoner, 54).

What has always impressed me about this passage is that Paul never really says the weak are Jewish and the Gentiles are the strong. That may be what Paul is saying, but our post-Reformation reading of the text tends to obscure Paul’s subtle rhetoric. It is possible a Jewish Christian might hear “we who are strong ought to bear the failings of the weak” (Rom 15:1) as meaning, “we Jews who are strong and keep the law properly ought not to look down on the weak Gentiles who have not fully understood the Gospel yet.” But it is also possible a Gentile would hear Paul saying “We strong Gentiles who fully understand the grace of God should not look down on these weak Jews who insist on Old Covenant practices.”

Regardless of the practices of the weak, their faith is sufficient for Paul to consider them to be Christians. He does not tell the Roman congregations to expel them from the church like the young man in 1 Corinthians 5, nor does he admonish them like he the wealthy in 1 Corinthians 11:17-22. Both the weak and the strong are Christians and equally a part of the Christian community. Both are equally welcome at a communal meal where the Lord’s Table is being celebrated.

This issue has important ramifications for Christian fellowship in the present church. Churches often draw lines where they should not, or fail to draw lines when they should. Are there people who are often excluded from fellowship because of some practice (or non-practice)?

Bibliography: Mark Reasoner, The Strong and the Weak: Romans 14:1-15:13 in Context (SNTSMS 103; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Romans 12:1 and the Scapegoat

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.

scapegoatNobuyoshi 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.

What is the Righteous Remnant? Romans 11:1-10

In 11:1-10, Paul picks up on a common theme in the Hebrew Bible: there always a remnant of righteous within the unbelieving Israel. At the time of Elijah there was a remnant of faithful Jews who refused to worship Baal. When Isaiah is called to announce the coming exile he was told there will always be a “root in the stump of Jesse” which remains faithful. This remnant does not deserve to be preserved since they are as guilty of rejection as the rest of Israel, but they receive God’s grace nevertheless.

Paul says something like this on Cyprus, in Acts 13, when he blinds the Jewish sorcerer Elymas (blindness lasts for a short time). The belief that there is a righteous remnant within Israel must have been an encouragement for Paul to continue his preaching to the Jews even until Acts 28.

Very old Olive TreeIsrael’s stumbling is salvation for the Gentiles (Romans 11:11-24). Salvation came to the Gentiles in order to make Israel jealous and their sin makes possible riches for the Gentiles. The Gentiles therefore have no right to boast to the Jews because they are like branches grafted into a tree. If God did not spare the natural branches (Israel) he will certainly not spare the grafted-in branches (the Gentiles).

The falling away of Israel and the subsequent offer of salvation to the Gentiles demonstrates two attributes of God that might be thought of as contradictory, justice and mercy. By judging his people he has made room for the Gentiles, who by the mercy of God are allowed to participate in God’s grace through faith.

But Paul also indicates Israel will yet be saved in the future (11:25-32). Paul calls this future restoration of Israel a “mystery,” something not previously revealed. The specific content of the mystery is that Israel is experiencing hardening until the full number of Gentiles has come in. (11:25-27). How this salvation happens is a dividing point between premillenialists, who anticipate some kind of real restoration of Israel, and amillenialists, who would see the restoration only through the Church.

The reason for this restoration is that God’s promise to them is irrevocable (11:28-32).  The Promise made to Abraham was unconditional, God was going to make a people for himself, and no amount of unfaithfulness on the part of the nation of Israel would prevent that plan from happening.

The main point of all of this for Paul is God’s glory. (11:33-36). Paul say God will receive all the praise and glory for restoring his people Israel, despite their rejection of the Covenant and the Messiah.

Stumbling in the Pursuit of Righteousness – Romans 9:30-33

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).

sprinters

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.

Is God Faithful to His Promise to the Jews? – Romans 9-11

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.

AbrahamPaul’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 do 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 was chosen 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?

What Advantage Has The Jew? Romans 9:4-5

Golden Star of DavidBefore 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?