Romans is a favorite epistle from which to pick and choose verses in order to prove one’s doctrine of choice. Sadly, doing this almost always obscures the meaning of any work of literature. In order to find out what the heck Paul was trying to tell the Romans to whom he sent this l-o-n-g piece of correspondence, it’s imperative to read the letter as a whole.
Problem is, it’s SUCH a long letter. If you’re like me, by the time you get to the middle of the letter, you’re wandering along the trail, looking at rocks and birds. “Where did I start out from? Not on my radar. Isn’t the sky an interesting color of blue today? Where am I going? Going? Huh? Oh–up the trail, I guess. I wonder what’s around that next bend?”
That’s all very well in the moment, but eventually it would be nice to have an understanding of the journey as a whole. Perhaps a trail guide is in order. I like the following for any writings of significance:
- Who wrote this, and to whom was it written?
- What is it about? What genre? In what language was it written?
- Where was it written?
- When was it written and under what conditions?
- Why did the writer want to produce this work?
- In the case of the Bible, “What is the Spirit saying to me through these writings?”
I’ll go through these questions with regard to the epistle as a whole in this post. Some of those answers will remain the same no matter which passage in Romans we’re reading at the time. Others will need to be asked again and again.
Scholars believe that Paul is the actual writer of Romans. His intended audience was (guess what?) NOT the church of the 21st century in the USA. Romans is still a wonderful resource for today. That said, we must remember that we are reading someone else’s mail when we read Romans.
Let’s say you find in your late aunt’s attic a packet of antique letters written from a soldier of the Civil war to his wife and family at home. The letters are almost certainly worth reading, containing information that may be useful or at least interesting to you. That said, they were never intended for you. The soldier is not telling you how much he misses you, nor is he asking you to send him his second best pair of boots by the next available courier. He is not beseeching you to read his letter to his parents and siblings–except for certain personal endearments meant for your ears only. This is a letter written to another person who lived long, long ago.
Romans is also such a letter,. It is specific to the needs of the Christian brothers and sisters to whom it was written. Understanding this is vital to gleaning all the benefit we can receive from our reading of Paul’s epistle to the church in Rome.
The church Paul writes to is comprised of both Gentile and Jewish believers. These believers were suffering persecution from traditional Jews in the city, who objected to what they considered an heretical and blasphemous offshoot of Judaism. The continual violence and unrest that resulted from this conflict got the attention of Emperor Claudius, who twice commanded that all Jews be expelled from the city. There was unrest within the church as well, and it is this unrest and its remedy that Paul takes as the central theme of his letter.
Basically there was a squabble in the Roman church between the Jews and the Gentiles. It was complicated; it was nuanced; and it was tearing them apart.
The Gentiles (not being themselves Jews) felt no need to keep the Jewish laws. They had received the message of grace and wanted nothing to do with legalism. In fact, they felt the Jews were silly for even thinking about keeping these very inconvenient and sometimes embarrassing edicts. The Gentiles are presented as feeling somewhat superior to the poor, superstitious Jews who “clearly” did not understand the ways of grace.
This made things hard for the Jews. Not only did they feel, in their heart of hearts, that it was the law that made them Jewish and that to turn their backs on it would be very wrong, but they also would like to have avoided conflict with their more traditional acquaintances, friends and family members. The offense of the cross might have been softened if only they could be seen to be obeying the more popular laws–and keeping company with only those Gentiles who at least pretended to also keep said laws. Beyond this, from the context of Paul’s letter, it would appear that the Jews saw themselves as superior to the Gentiles by the simple fact that they were the children of Abraham and had been given, yes, the Law.
Romans is one of the earlier books in the New Testament, written by Paul in the city of Corinth during the winter of 57-58 AD. Like most if not all of the New Testament, it is written in Greek–not the sort of Greek spoken in the modern-day nation of Greece, however. Biblical Greek is an ancient, “dead” language which had to be reconstructed from ancient documents painstakingly decoded, their words cataloged, their customary usage studied diligently. The body of knowledge of Biblical Greek has increased greatly since the days of King James, who authorized that famous translation of scriptures first released in the Year of our Lord 1611. At that time, many words had to simply be guessed at. It is imperative to make certain you are using the best translation you can find. Even then you should know that any translation contains an element of guessing and yes, an element of commentary. If any passages seem strange or out of sync to you, it’s always a good idea to investigate further.
Paul wrote Romans in an effort to unify the church of Rome. He speaks of Jews and Gentiles being unified in Christ to form “one new man” with Jesus Christ as the head. It speaks sublimely to us today as well, though we need to apply the principles Paul puts forth to our own circumstances, which are different from the circumstances faced by the Christians in Rome. Part of that can be done by simple reasoning, but we will never receive the full benefit of the wisdom of Paul, imparted by the Holy Spirit, unless we submit our own understanding to the guidance of that same Spirit in our lives.
What I’ve said here can be applied to the study of any book worth studying. If you try it, I think you’ll be amazed at how much richness you will find in the scriptures. Next post will discuss Romans 1, or some part thereof. If you plan to follow along, consider taking the time to read that chapter and jot down any notes you might be inspired to share in the comment section.