TWO LETTERS ABOUT JEWS, GENTILES, AND CHRISTIAN IDENTITY
To be a Christian in earliest Christianity was to be a certain kind of Jew. Jesus was Jewish and so were his family and disciples. The religious movement which emerged from Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was seen by Jesus’ first followers and the rest of the ancient world as a new movement within Judaism. To have a new religious development within Judaism was not unique. The vitality of Judaism in the first century was demonstrated by a diverse flowering of Jewish religious groups. We know of the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots in Palestine. We are aware of thriving Jewish populations in Rome, Alexandria and other great cities of the ancient world.
The earliest followers of the risen Christ took their place within this complex Jewish mix. They proclaimed the Good News in continuity with Jewish history and faith. They believed in the same loving God who spoke to Moses and formed a people. They continued to read the Hebrew scriptures as the word of God. They announced Jesus as the fulfillment of the ancient Jewish prophets, as the Messiah whom God had sent. It was presumed from the start that Jews who believed in the message of these earliest Christians would continue in their practice of Judaism even as they claimed its fullest glory in Christ.
Things would have remained simple had that presumption gone unchallenged. However, quite early in the spread of the gospel, an important decision had to be faced by Christ’s followers. This decision shook early Christianity to its core. Gentiles (those who were not Jewish) were attracted to the gospel of Christ in large numbers. The Christian Jews who spread the gospel had to decide what was required of these Gentiles to become a part of the Christian movement. The most straightforward choice was to initiate the Gentile seekers into the same normative belief and practice of Judaism which the Christian Jewish missionaries themselves followed. This option was certainly taken by a large number of early Christian missionaries. It was an appropriate choice in Palestine and in other locations where there was a sizable Christian Jewish community into which the Gentile converts could be integrated.
However, other Christian Jewish missionaries began to preach the gospel in places where the Jewish presence was less prominent or in locations in which the Jewish population was largely unresponsive. When Gentiles accepted the gospel in such places, should they still be initiated into full Jewish belief and practice? Many Christian Jewish missionaries answered this question in the affirmative and included in their requirements for Christian membership the complete acceptance of the Jewish lifestyle. Other missionaries came to the conclusion that in these circumstances Gentiles could accept the gospel without following all of the expectations of normative Jewish life. The New Testament indicates that the practices from which Gentiles were often exempted were circumcision and the adherence to Jewish food regulations.
These exemptions might seem to us rather minor deviations in religious tradition. However, they were practices widely followed among Jews and customs which identified individuals as part of the Jewish people. Therefore, to say that someone could be a follower of Jesus without accepting such practices would challenge the continuity between the Christian movement and it Jewish roots. This was a move with profound theological implications, for it could seem to indicate a denial of Jewish heritage which few members of the earliest Christian movement would wish to espouse.
The disagreement over the requirements for Gentile converts initiated a major division in the early Church, a division which required many years to resolve. By the end of the first century the rapid growth of the Gentile communities who did not follow circumcision or the food laws resolved the debate in their favor by the force of sheer numbers. Jewish Christian communities following the full Mosaic law became small and marginalized. But in the first generation of Christians, this debate tore at the very fiber of the church. Its prominence and intensity forms the backdrop to the two letters of Paul upon which we will reflect this month.
At least three different positions on the requirements for Gentiles to enter the early Christian movement can be identified: (1) those who believed that Gentiles should be fully bound by Jewish belief and practice, (2) those who would be willing to exempt them from certain practices such as circumcision or the dietary laws, (3) those who ascribed no abiding significance to the Jewish heritage. The apostle Paul, who is the author of both Galatians and Romans, held the second position. Although he continued to insist upon the value of the Jewish heritage and expected his converts to follow the high moral prescriptions of Judaism, Paul did not believe that his Gentile converts were required to be circumcised or abide by Jewish dietary directives. This put him at odds with certain missionaries and communities within the Christian movement. Galatians and Romans testify to the intensity of this debate.
The Background to Paul’s Letter to Galatia
Galatia was a Roman province in what is now the country of Turkey. Paul founded a Christian community there in the late forties or early fifties of the first century. The community was primarily Gentile. Paul instructed them in the gospel of Christ and its connection to Judaism. He imposed on them the moral teachings of Israel. However, following his usual practice, he did not include circumcision or dietary restrictions as requirements for the Galatians. Once the Galatian community was established, Paul moved on to establish Christian communities elsewhere.
Sometime afterwards, possibly during Paul’s stay in Ephesus (52-55 C.E.), Paul received news that other missionaries had visited his Galatian community and taught that circumcision was necessary if they were to be truly in Christ (Gal 6:11). The foundation which Paul as an apostle had laid in Galatia was being altered. Paul was incensed. He wrote the Letter to the Galatians in this state of turmoil, arguing that it was wrong for the Galatians to change the contours of their conversion to Christ. It was an offense to God and to Paul himself, the apostle God had sent to them.
In chapters one and two of the letter, Paul defends his apostleship, thereby arguing that the terms upon which he founded the Galatian church were authentic and unchangeable. In chapters three and four Paul uses many arguments from both scripture and experience to refute the need of the Galatians to accept circumcision in order to be children of God in Christ. In chapters five and six Paul exhorts the Galatians to live by the freedom that has already come to them from the Spirit rather than attempting to please God through additional requirements that others would impose on them.
Background to Paul’s Letter to the Romans
The Letter to the Romans addresses tensions which were common in early Christian communities comprised of both Gentiles and Jews. Jews were living in Rome from at least 139 B.C.E. Early Christian missionaries convinced some of these Jews to believe in the gospel. Gentile converts were also made, resulting in a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles believing in Christ. In 49 C.E. the emperor, Claudius, expelled Jews from the city. They were allowed to return in 54 C.E. However, during the five-year exile, it was likely that the Gentile members of the Christian community who were allowed to remain in the city consolidated their control over the Roman church. When the Jewish Christians returned to Rome, they found a community controlled by a Gentile-Christian majority which tended to relativize the importance of their Jewish heritage. This led to tensions within the Roman church, tensions which flowed from the debate over the proper relationship between Jewish and Gentile believers.
It is likely that Paul heard of this tension and saw it as an opportunity. Paul had never visited the Christian community in Rome, but he knew of its prestige and influence. Paul was planning a visit to Jerusalem to present a collection he had taken up from his churches for the poor (Rom 15:26). He feared, however, that opponents would attack him there and undermine his efforts (Rom 15:31-32). He believed that if he could be instrumental in resolving the tensions in the Roman community, its prayers would support him in his trip to Jerusalem. Therefore, in the Letter to the Romans Paul expresses his belief that contact between himself and the Romans would be “mutually encouraging” (Rom 1:12). He hopes that the letter he sends will benefit both himself and the Roman Christians. He will receive their support in his trip to Jerusalem. They will find in his experience of the gospel a way to resolve the tensions within their community.
What vision of the gospel does Paul present to the Roman church? He asserts a priority in the midst of an equality. Paul believes that through faith in Jesus Christ all (both Jew and Gentile) are equal in God’s love. At the same time, because of the special role which God has given them in the plan of salvation, Paul recognizes a priority of respect which must be given to Jews. Paul states this theme clearly at the very beginning of the letter: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16). Note how in this sentence Paul begins with the equality that comes to “everyone who has faith.” Then he asserts within that equality a priority: “the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
At first glance such a statement might seem a contradiction. However, many examples from real life can support it. Allow me to share one from my own. I am a pastor of a parish founded in 1980. The parish is young enough that we still can boast of members who were present at the beginning, before the church building was erected, when Sunday Eucharist was celebrated in the basement of the city hall. The parish has grown from 400 to 1600 households. Much has been gained; some things have been lost. The founding parishioners mourn the loss of the small and personal nature of the original community. The new parishioners who never knew that intimacy have difficulty understanding why the original members are not as enthusiastic as they are about ongoing growth. Tensions result.
What do you say in the midst of those tensions? Something very similar to Paul’s position in Romans. You begin by declaring our equality. Is one member of the community better than another? Of course not. Whether we were here from the beginning or just arrived, the only thing that matters is our faith in Jesus Christ and our commitment to our community. However, once that equality is asserted, you go on to say that those who were present from the beginning deserve a certain respect. Without their original faith and commitment the community would not exist. In other words, there is a priority in the midst of an equality.
Paul believes that the justification of all by faith and the election of the Jewish people are not contradictory. There can be a priority in the midst of an equality. In asserting this belief Paul marshals a variety of complex arguments and exhortations, the intricacies of which are beyond this reading guide. However, I believe that if the reader keeps in mind this basic claim of the letter and its effort to assist in resolving the tensions between Christian Jews and Gentiles in Rome, the logic of the entire letter emerges.
After the preliminaries in the letter, Paul addresses the equality of all believers in faith. Chapters 1-3 expound on God’s wrath towards all of humanity (Jew and Gentile alike) who have failed to find right relationship with God. Beginning in 3:21, Paul uses various arguments to assert that God is granting justification to all now through faith in Christ. Chapter 4 centers on the example of Abraham. Chapter 5 places Christ at the head of a new creation as a second Adam. Chapters 6-7 deal with varying questions on the relationship between the Law and grace. Chapter 8 presents a climax to Paul’s first assertion that all of the cosmos is being redeemed through the power of Christ.
If chapters 1-8 deal with the equality of all in Christ, chapters 9-11 address the priority of Israel. In these chapters Paul affirms the glories of the Jewish heritage and struggles with the reality that many Jews have not as yet accepted the gospel.
Chapters 12-16 conclude the letter, applying Paul’s formula to the situation in Rome. Paul exhorts the Roman community to be united according to his gospel, appeals for their support of him in Jerusalem, expresses his desire to visit them, and concludes with sending many greetings to those he knows in Rome.
Have you ever entered a room when someone was speaking on the phone? As you wait for the person to disconnect, you are often able to catch the tone and piece together the topic of the conversation. Key words may indicate that the interchange is about business or leisure. The tone can betray whether the interchange is friendly or tense, emotional or indifferent. If you know the person who you can hear speaking and something about his or her life, you may even be able to guess who the person on the other end of the conversation is — a parent, a child or someone in a doctor’s office. However, unless the right words are spoken, you can often remain largely in the dark as to the full import of the conversation. This is because you are only hearing half of it.
Real letters can be similar to hearing someone speak on the phone. They are a written form of one half of a conversation. If the letter is addressed to you, then the communication is complete, because you are aware of the information and situation which is presumed in the letter. On some earlier occasion your experience and communication with the writer of the letter set the stage for the written words now before you. Thus a short phrase such as “when we were together in Cleveland” or “you remember Tom” can call forth a rich context of information which need not be repeated in the letter. You are aware of what the letter presumes because your previous experience fills in what is missing in the written correspondence.
However, if you are not the addressee of the letter, the message is incomplete. You will have to guess at the issues and experiences which the letter presumes you understand. You may have been to Cleveland, but you are unaware of what the author and the addressee of the letter experienced there together. You might be able to determine who “Tom” is, but what the author and addressee of the letter remember about Tom will remain largely unclear. Similar to the experience of listening to someone else speak on the phone, the full meaning of the conversation will often elude you.
The two letters which we will study this month are real letters which were written by the apostle Paul to two different Christian communities in the first century. Even though both letters are a part of our bible, they retain the characteristic of every true letter: they presume that the reader already knows certain information about people and experiences which the writer and reader have shared together. This information is not necessarily apparent to other readers (such as us) who pick the letter up. We find ourselves in a situation where we are reading someone else’s mail. Therefore, in order to make the letters intelligible, we must try to reconstruct the information which the letters assume we already know. Our ability to understand Galatians and Romans correctly is contingent upon discovering the information which the letters presume we already possess.
Moreover, there is a dual contingency in every letter. For each letter is dependent upon two realities which are distinct from the letter itself. First, the letter is contingent upon a specific situation which occasioned the letter. What are the issues, the events, the beliefs to which the letter is reacting? Second, the letter is contingent upon the relationship between the writer and the original readers. Is it personal or professional, healthy or troubled? Both the letter’s situation and the relationship between writer and original readers will have a profound bearing upon what the letter is truly meant to say. Therefore we will need to establish what was the situation in Galatia and in Rome and what was Paul’s relationship to each of those communities in order to understand what the letters we are studying this month have to say to us.
Assessing the Contingencies of the Letter: An Example
The difficulty in addressing the contingencies of letters can be easily underestimated. So allow me to use a simple example which I have employed elsewhere [New Theology Review, 9:3, August 1996, pp.75-78]. Suppose you came across the following letter :
I hope you are well. It was really wonderful getting together and sharing again the important things that we believe and that bind us as one. What I neglected to share with you, however, is how essential it is that you stop using the white cartons for our shipments. The metal boxes are secure and more compatible with our intentions. I know that Mr. Big will insist that there is no difference and that cost is a factor, but just look at how much we have lost already through using those white cartons. I wish that Mr. Big could see beyond his pocketbook. Too much is at stake here. We started with metal and not without good reason. I am convinced that the white cartons will lead only to disaster. We must stop using them! We can talk about this further when I visit.
You are not Sylvia. This letter is not addressed to you. Therefore a complete understanding of the letter is contingent upon determining what is the relationship between these two women and what is the situation which occasions this correspondence. The relationship seems warm and friendly throughout the letter. Yet these two friends also seem to be carrying on some kind of business, and it is a decision regarding this business which forms the contingent situation of the letter. What is this situation? We must attempt to reconstruct it from clues in the letter.
There is at least one point which is perfectly clear from this letter: Thelma is against the use of white cartons and wants to use metal boxes instead. All the comments in the letter support this position on Thelma’s part. However, many other aspects of the letter are unclear. They are contingent upon information known to Sylvia and Thelma but not to us. What exactly are their “shipments”? Who is “Mr. Big”? Why is Thelma so against the “white cartons”? What does Thelma mean when she says they have “lost” much already?
Since the letter is contingent upon this information we must attempt to provide it in order to make the letter understandable. However, the context we reconstruct will dramatically influence the meaning of the letter. For example, Sylvia and Thelma’s “shipments” could be interpreted either as cookies or as illegal drugs. “Mr. Big” could be a term of endearment for one of their husbands or just as possibly a code name for an underground drug kingpin. Thelma could be opposed to the white cartons because they are made of Styrofoam and she is an environmentalist, or simply because she believes that they are less secure. When she says that they have “lost” much already by using them, she may be referring to the fact that they have been polluting the environment or that previous shipments have been detected by the authorities.
When we choose from these options, two very different situations can be provided by which to understand the letter. In one, the letter voices Thelma’s environmentalist determination to avoid the use of Styrofoam in the shipment of her cookies over the objections of her frugal husband. In the other, Thelma argues that because the white cartons have been previously intercepted by the authorities, the more secure metal boxes must be used in the shipment of drugs–even though their underground leader finds them too expensive.
Both Galatians and Romans, of course, are much longer letters than this simple example. They therefore give us many more clues by which to establish workable solutions for the contingencies of these letters. In the introduction to Galatians and Romans above, I have briefly outlined the understanding of the contingencies of these letters which we will employ in this reading guide. Galatians is occasioned by Paul’s objections to the Gentiles in the community undergoing circumcision which he interprets as a rejection of the gospel which he preached to them. The letter’s tone is shock and anger, because Paul is personally hurt that this community has strayed from his message. Paul will use all kinds of arguments to support his belief. But what will guide all of those assertions is his fundamental disgust that the way he founded the community, asserting that circumcision was unnecessary for Gentiles, was now being set aside.
Romans is a very different letter. The tone is much more reserved and polite. Paul is addressing a community he did not found and had never visited. Our understanding of the contingent context is that Paul felt his advice to this community could help both them and himself as well. The Roman church was experiencing tension between its Jewish and Gentile members. Because Paul possessed extensive experience as a Jew dealing with Gentile Christians, he felt his understanding of the gospel could help the Roman community achieve a deeper unity. He also believed that their support of him could be valuable in his upcoming visit to Jerusalem where he anticipated some attacks against his missionary approach.
These are the two contingent contexts which will be used in this reading guide as we study Galatians and Romans. I have chosen them because I believe they are well grounded in the text and well supported by many who devote their lives to the study of these letters. Nevertheless, the reader should understand that these contingent contexts have been assembled from statements within the letters and certain clues which allow us to link those statements together. They are, in other words, hypotheses. In this reading guide we will limit ourselves to one responsible context for each letter. It must be admitted, however, that other reconstructions of the contingent contexts are possible and can result in significantly different understandings of what Paul believes and intends to say.
It may prove frustrating to the reader to realize that our understanding of these influential letters are dependent upon fragile reconstructions of what remains unsaid in the text. But such judgements and suppositions cannot be avoided. They are required whenever we read someone else’s mail.
In both Galatians and Romans Paul engages in lengthy discussions concerning the law. For anyone picking up either letter, it becomes rather clear that Paul’s basic stance towards the law is complex. Statements such as “But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied” (Rom 5:20) and “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions” (Gal 3:19) associate the law with sin. When Paul says, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Rom 6:14), he seems to indicate that the law is no longer in force. These assertions and many more place the law in an unfavorable light. But to conclude that Paul is resolutely against the law is too simplistic. For we can find in these same letters indications that the law is both positive and still in effect: “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law,” (Rom 3:31).
The confusion generated by these discrepancies is compounded when we realize that Paul never stops to define what he means when he uses the term “law.” Usually it seems to refer to the Jewish law or Torah, the law of Moses. However, there are places in Paul’s letters where law seems to refer to a governing principle of some kind. In Rom 7:21-23 this principle appears to be interior to the individual: “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” In Rom 8:2 this principle emerges as something exterior to the person, a part of the cosmos: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”
How can we explain this lack of clarity in the letters of Paul? Let’s begin by remembering what we have discussed above concerning the nature of letters. Paul did not need to define what he meant by “law” because he presumed that his original readers already possessed that understanding. Paul could sometimes speak negatively about the law and other times positively because there were different contexts in which those respective evaluations made sense. Those differing contexts were connected to the contingent situation of the letter and the contingent relationship Paul shared with his addressees. Since his original readers were aware of the dual contingencies of his letters, they were able to find the consistency in Paul’s thought. Statements which appear contradictory to us were most likely much clearer to them.
As twenty-first century readers, however, the original contingencies upon which the understanding of the letters depend are not clear to us. We must therefore reconstruct what was the situation of the letter and the relationship with the addressees which allowed the text of the letter to be correctly understood.
In reconstructing these contingencies, Paul’s positive statements on the law can be easily explained. Paul was a Jew. The law for a Jew was a gift from God and a blessing. There are many passages in the Psalms which sing the law’s praises:
“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple (19:7); Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long (119:97).” There are indications throughout Paul’s letters that he maintained a respect and connection to his Jewish heritage. Therefore, whenever we hear Paul casting the law in a positive light, we can be relatively sure that his Jewish background and inclination have come to the fore.
What is much more difficult to reconstruct is the reason for Paul’s objections to the law. What was there in the contingencies of the letter which drew Paul time and again to disparage the law? Interpreters of both Galatians and Romans have scoured these letters to find clues which might indicate the precise reason for Paul’s opposition. Several explanations have been suggested and many of these continue to be used today. I would like to present three of them to you in this article. Two of them have been used extensively in both teaching and preaching. However, by the best information available to us today, both of them should be judged as inadequate and misleading. The third explanation may be less known, but it is gaining in acceptance and will be the understanding we will use in this reading guide.
The Law as a Means to Earn Salvation
The first and perhaps most popular explanation of what Paul found objectionable with the law is that Paul believed that the law was a means of earning salvation. In passages such as Gal 2:16 Paul opposes “works of the law” with “faith in Jesus Christ: “we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” Drawing their emphasis from the verbs in these passages, many interpreters will argue that what Paul is opposed to is “doing” rather than “believing.” In other words what Paul is against is connecting salvation to our human efforts rather than to God’s grace. In this understanding the law becomes the means through which people earn God’s favor. Paul is against this because he believes that salvation comes as a free gift from God in Jesus Christ.
This approach makes the law a basis for human pride. It easily explains what Paul would find wrong with the law. The law is seen as the basis for human boasting rather than humble submission to God’s grace. Paul argues against the law and in favor of faith because the only way to God is a stance of complete dependence upon the free gift of salvation.
You have probably been exposed to this understanding of Paul through preaching and catechesis. However, I would join with many other interpreters of Paul in arguing that this explanation of Paul’s opposition to the law is faulty. There can be no doubt that Paul would be opposed to any effort to earn salvation. What is difficult to believe is that Paul would see the law as a means of doing that. As stated above, one of our certainties about Paul was that he was Jewish. There is no historical evidence upon which to argue that Jews of Paul’s time would associate their doing of the law with earning salvation. God was seen as a loving savior who freely chose Israel. Any effort to manipulate God or to imagine that human efforts could force God’s hand would have been recognized as ludicrous. God’s favor could not be earned but only accepted. The law was a gift given by God to allow Israel to testify to that acceptance. Far from influencing God to save the doer, the law was a means of demonstrating a connection to the people God had already freely saved.
It seems likely that the connection between the law and earning salvation was a creation of Christian interpreters who lacked an accurate understanding of Judaism. Because human pride and achievement could easily explain why Paul was against the law, it was supposed that such human striving was what the law was meant to promote. This approach was very useful in preaching and teaching because all of Paul’s statements against the law could then be utilized as the warrant for our humble acceptance of God’s grace. However, it also generated in the mind of many Christians a false understanding of Judaism. Through the distortion fostered by this approach, Judaism emerged as a legalistic religion, asking its adherents to follow scrupulously the minutiae of the law rather than to trust in God. Because of this view, thousands of Christians have concluded that Jews were nitpicking legalists rather than believers in God’s grace. Examine your own understanding of Judaism. It is likely that you will find some residue of this interpretation of the Jewish law lurking there. It is time to assert that such an understanding cannot be supported historically and should no longer be used as a means to explain Paul’s opposition to the law. We will not use it in this reading guide.
The Law as Impossible to Fulfill
The second explanation frequently suggested for Paul’s problem with the law was that Paul found the law impossible to fulfill. There are a number of texts within Paul’s letters which are often used to support this understanding. In Gal 3:10, Paul quotes Deut 27:26, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.” In Gal 5:3 he argues, “Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law.” By placing their focus upon the words I have italicized in these two verses, some interpreters have argued that Paul was frustrated because keeping the law was so complex that it proved impossible. In this perspective, following Christ was seen by Paul as a liberation from a set of commands which were excessive and impractical.
If the law were impossible to fulfill it would indeed provide a convincing reason why Paul was opposed to the law. However, this understanding falls short in much the same way as the previous explanation was found deficient. It is difficult to substantiate historically. Judaism was a thriving religion at the time of Paul. If the law was in fact too demanding, it would be difficult to explain why so many found following it desirable. To be sure Jews (as is the case with all religious people) did at times fall short of the requirements of the law. But when this occurred there was within Judaism an appointed means of forgiveness which would allow faithful believers to repent and begin over again. When it is proposed that the Jewish law was impossible to follow, one must either believe that Judaism was an inflexible religion allowing for no personal failures or that Paul was an apostle expecting unrealistic perfection. The first is historically unsupportable; the second is unlikely. It is better to conclude that Paul believed that the law could be reasonably followed and to reject this explanation as a means of understanding Paul’s problem with the law.
The Law and God’s New Action in Christ
A final explanation of Paul’s problem with the law does not derive from any flaw in the law itself. It suggests that Paul’s opposition to the law was a result of his acceptance of Christ. With that acceptance Paul recognized a new intention on the part of God. In the past God chose to save the Jewish people and gave them the law to testify to their status as God’s own. Now in Christ it became clear that God also intended to save Gentiles and would not require them to follow the prescriptions of the Jewish law. There was nothing wrong with the law. It was just that God was now doing a new thing. That new thing was Christ. It was Paul’s exclusive dogmatic claim that Christ was the new means of salvation which explains Paul’s negative evaluation of the law.
It should also be remembered that most of the addressees of Paul’s letters were Gentiles. Therefore, when we remember the contingent nature of his writings, Paul may not be objecting not to the law in itself, but to the law as a requirement for Gentiles. Many of his strong statements against the law may not be stated as general principles but only as convictions expressed within a letter addressed to a specific audience. Paul does not need to state in the letter that his objections only apply to Gentiles because the contingent nature of the letter already directs those objections to his Gentile readers. We who read his letters apart from their contingent situations tend to read Paul’s objections universally. But in doing this we are overlooking the specific addressees to which each letter is directed.
Therefore, the most convincing explanation for Paul’s problem with the law is that Christ, and not the law, is now the means of salvation. There was no inherent flaw in the law before Christ, and even after Christ the law may well serve Jews as the sign of their covenant with God. But after his death and resurrection, Christ is the way to God. Any attempt, therefore, to impose the law upon Gentiles who wish to follow Christ is strenuously opposed by Paul. When this approach is used to explain Paul’s problem with the law, his objections to the law make sense. The law is dethroned because Christ is Lord. Furthermore, this understanding does not lead us to historically untenable positions. We are not forced to believe that Judaism was a legalistic religion of works-righteousness nor need we suppose that it demanded an unrealistic perfectionism. The law has been relativize because God has done a new thing in Christ. No other reasons are necessary to explain Paul’s problem with the law. Armed with this understanding of the contingencies of Paul’s writing, we can now proceed to interpret the message of Galatians and Romans.
Paul was an effective apostle. He was not the clearest debater. What he lacked in intelligibility, he made up for in conviction. There is little doubt in Paul’s letters what he wants to convey to his readers, and he frequently states it. What causes problems, however, is that Paul desires to buttress his position with arguments. Unfortunately, these arguments are often dense and convoluted. The reader who picks up a Pauline letter for the first time will likely become lost within the first chapter. This is further complicated by Paul’s use of rabbinic argumentation which draws upon unexpressed scriptural passages and catch words, making verbal connections but not (by our standards) logical ones.
What is a reader to do? The best advice is, “Go with what is clear.” This is more than patronizing guidance to beginning readers. Those who have made Paul their life study must follow it as well. Paul jumps about so frequently in his argumentation that it is only by returning to his most obvious statements that his overall point can be discerned.
A good example of this can be found in chapter three of Galatians. Paul believes and wants to argue that his Gentile converts in Galatia have through their faith in Christ already been incorporated into the line of Abraham and therefore do not have to be circumcised. He states his conviction clearly in 3:7, “ so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham.” But Paul wants to support his belief with argumentation. So he lurches into an array of points, jumping from one to the next without warning and with little consistency. He begins with an argument based upon the word “curse” from a passage in Deuteronomy, continues with the promise to Abraham in Gen 12, adds the claim that the law was given by angels and that it functioned as a disciplinarian, throwing in an ancient Christian baptismal formula for good measure. How all these arguments work together (if they do) is far from clear. Paul, however, ends as he began, asserting his fundamental belief: “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
Do not be discouraged, therefore, if you become confused by Paul’s argumentation. Watch for what is clear. Watch for how he begins and concludes. Being attentive to that, you may become lost, but you will finally arrive at the correct destination.
Galatians 1:1-10 “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you.”
Any letter must somehow identify who is writing and who is being addressed. Modern letters place the addressee first (“Dear John”) and end by signing the author’s name (“Sincerely, Sally”). Ancient letters placed all of this information at the beginning in the form author-to-addressee (“Sally to John”). Often, however, titles or characteristics of the author are added after his or her name. What is added is quite revealing, for frequently it already points to the issues ahead.
This happens at the beginning of Galatians where, after giving his name, Paul adds that he is an apostle and commissioned so independently of any human authority (1:1). Paul is already buttressing his argument that his gospel stands independently of any other apostles.
In verses 3-5, Paul gives an expected greeting. After the greeting it is Paul’s custom to give thanks for the congregation to which he writes. This thanksgiving section occurs in all of the genuine letters of Paul — all except Galatians. Here in verse 6 instead of saying “I give thanks for you,” Paul exclaims “I am astonished at you.” The thanksgiving is replaced with a rebuke.
As we will see throughout this letter, Paul is not afraid to express what he believes and feels. His honesty emerges in the first few verses. The Galatians have made a foolish choice and he intends to let them know of his displeasure. It may be true that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar, but vinegar can also clear the sinuses and head. Paul is not reluctant to use this harsher style. His gospel is at stake. With honesty and bluntness he throws his dissatisfaction out into the open, hoping to seize the attention of the Galatians and lead them to consider the arguments that will follow.
For reflection: How often do I hold back from expressing what I believe out of fear or human respect? What do I value so highly that I would risk all to protect?
Prayer starter: Bountiful God, with every blessing, you give me the responsibility to develop what I have been given. Grant me the courage to say and do what is necessary to nurture and share your gifts.
Galatians 1:11 to 2:10 “God set me apart before I was born and called me.”
Each one of us can identify events in our lives that change everything. We come to realizations or make decisions so profound that their influence shapes all that follows. In Gal 1:15, Paul identifies such an experience in his life. The moment was when Paul realized that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God, and that God was calling Paul to proclaim this message to the Gentiles. Paul does not give us the particulars of how he came to this insight, but he tells us that his revelation came from God. By saying that he was set apart before he was born, Paul uses the language which the bible associates with the call of a prophet. Paul’s revelation was not by chance. God intended to call Paul as God’s spokesman from the beginning.
Paul uses this divine call to authorize the gospel which he preached to the Galatians. In this section, which is the most biographical passage in all the Pauline letters, Paul recounts how his calling was initiated by God and accepted by the leaders in Jerusalem. Therefore, the Galatians should realize that those who are trying to alter Paul’s gospel are moving contrary to God’s plan.
What is clear in this biographical section is how an initial call unfolds into a life story. The call (1:5-16) led to a mission in Arabia, work in Damascus, a visit with Cephas in Jerusalem, preaching in Syria and Cilicia, and then a meeting in Jerusalem which established that Paul’s work was not run in vain (2:2). The work of all those years was initiated by that original call. The true significance of God’s call and our acceptance can only be appreciated when we can look back and realize how much life it has made possible.
For reflection: What experiences and decisions have changed my life? Look back to those important moments. How can I see God guiding me to assure that my call will make a difference in my life and the lives of others?
Prayer starter: Loving God, before I was born, you called me to serve you in a particular way. As I stand before the mystery of how my life has unfolded, hush my doubts and allow me to trust in you.
Galatians 2:11-21 “I opposed Cephas to his face.”
Paul now relates a particular incident which occurred in Antioch. It was a confrontation between Paul and Cephas (Peter). For the first time in the letter the issues which motivated Paul’s writing come to the surface.
As mentioned in the introduction, various positions existed in the early church regarding how much Gentile converts to Christ had to follow the Jewish tradition. Paul believed that his Gentile converts did not need to be circumcised nor follow the Jewish food regulations. Galatians 2:12 indicates that it was Paul’s practice not to follow the food laws when Jewish and Gentile Christians were together. Peter, when he visited Antioch, seems to have agreed with this position.
Then some people associated with James who held authority in the Jerusalem church arrived in Antioch. Their presence caused Peter to withdraw from sharing food with the Gentile Christians. Paul saw Peter’s action as a betrayal, a betrayal of the position which Paul supported. Because Paul’s position on circumcision and food laws was tied directly to his call as an apostle, Paul believed that those who oppose his position were opposing the God who called him. This was no small issue. The authority of Paul’s apostleship and the gospel he preached were at stake.
We, of course, only have Paul’s point of view. The opinions of those who came from Jerusalem and of Peter are not expressed in Galatians. Yet the scene of the two great apostles, Peter and Paul, disagreeing over a matter as serious as the gospel should give us pause. To imagine that the early church was unified on all the central issues of faith would be to ignore this and other passages of the New Testament. Disputes and confrontations have been a part of our tradition from the start.
For reflection: When have disagreements and confrontations disturbed my faith in knowing God’s will? Has struggling through such turmoil ever strengthened or clarified my convictions?
Prayer starter: Lord Jesus, you know that I desire peace and harmony in my life. Therefore, in times of disagreement make me hopeful that your love will bring good out of friction.
Galatians 3:1-18 “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by believing?”
Having recounted Peter’s betrayal, Paul now turns to the betrayal of his readers: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (3:1). In this section Paul consistently contrasts “works of the law” with “faith in Christ.” Paul is opposed to “works of the law.” However, the “works” he has in mind should not be equated with “all the works of the law.” In the contingent situation of this letter, the “works” which Paul opposes are works of circumcision for Gentiles. The missionaries who came to Galatia preached that being circumcised was necessary to be incorporated into Christ. Paul violently disagrees and sets out to prove his case.
Paul uses many arguments in these verses, but his primary argument is the one with which he begins. It is an argument from experience. In verse 3:2 he asks the Galatians directly, “How did you receive the Spirit? Was it through “works of the law” (circumcision) or through “believing” (in my preaching)? Paul argues that they must trust their own history. If they were granted powerful signs and “miracles” without circumcision (3:5), how could they possibly think that they need to be circumcised now?
In verses 6 to 9 Paul turns to the scriptures to support his claim. He argues that Abraham was justified by believing. In verses 10 to 18 he cites scripture passages linked by the words “cursed” and “seed.” These dense and inventive scriptural arguments, however, only support the argument based on experience. Other teachers could well have used these same scriptural passages to reach different conclusions. But no one could argue that God waited for the Galatians to be circumcised before granting them the Spirit. That was not their experience. That could never be denied.
For reflection: To what experiences in my own life do I keep returning in order to renew my own faith? How does remembering those experiences change me as the years unfold?
Prayer starter: Faithful God, there are times in my life when I doubt your presence, when your promises seem like a naive dream. Allow me then to remember the times when you were tangible and real, and take comfort in your love.
Galatians 3:19 to 4:7 “You are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
Paul is not into burning bridges. He believes that Jesus is the Messiah who God has sent. He believes that in light of Christ’s appearance his Gentile converts no longer need to be circumcised. But he insists that the promises which God made to Abraham and to the Jewish people are still in effect. Indeed they have found their fulfillment in Christ.
The circumcising missionaries who came to Galatia seem to have argued that circumcision was necessary if the Galatians were to be children of Abraham. One could imagine a response that, in light of Christ, it was no longer important to be a child of Abraham. But Paul could not have made that argument. He too highly valued the Jewish tradition and the promises made to his ancestors. Far from separating Christ from that tradition, it was Paul’s belief that Christ was its glory.
Twice in this section (3:29; 4:7) Paul concludes his argument by insisting that those who believe in Christ are heirs to the promises made to Abraham. Paul does not see division but continuity. Therefore, if the Galatians have Christ through Paul’s preaching, they are complete. For Christ is not one thing and Abraham another. Christ is the answer to the promise made to Abraham. Those who live in Christ are included in Abraham’s inheritance.
What is at stake in Paul’s argument is the veracity of God. God cannot be seen to have said one thing and then given another. Even in a time when many changes and disputes occur (and the early church lived in such a time), God must be consistent and God’s words must be trustworthy. Our God is not a God of mood swings and mistakes. Our God is faithful.
For reflection: How many burnt bridges and abrupt transitions characterize my life? Can I recognize God’s consistent faithfulness drawing my divided life together?
Prayer starter: Father, I know you have a plan for my life. Teach me that you see continuity where I see opposition, that you link together the fractured pieces of my life.
Galatians 4:8-31 “Friends, become as I am because I also have become as you are.”
In this section Paul strikes a softer tone. In the introduction we saw how every letter has a dual contingency. It depends upon a specific situation which occasions the writing and upon a particular relationship which unites the writer and the addressees. The situation in Galatia is the fear that the Galatians would change the basis upon which Paul founded the community and assume aspects of the Jewish law. Paul now uses his relationship with the Galatians in an attempt to persuade them that such a move would be wrong.
Paul reviews the beginning of their relationship. They welcomed him “as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus” (4:14). If their relationship in the past was so strong, how can they pull away from him now?
Far from the angry tone which opened the letter, Paul now pleads with them as his “little children” and reminds them that even now he worries about them until he is sure that “Christ is formed in you” (4:19). As a caring parent he is sure that if they could only be together again, their misunderstanding could be resolved. His desire to “change my tone” is perhaps better translated “change my voice.” It should be understood as a complaint that he would prefer to be with them in person and use his real voice rather than the “voice” of the letter.
Paul’s argument here is not scriptural or theological. It could, however, be one of the most effective passages in the letter. For Paul is calling the Galatians to remember who they are for each other, what they have experienced together, and how God has acted through them. He is convinced that if they remember their relationship, they will choose not to pull away from his person and his teaching.
For reflection: How often does the past history of a relationship move me to reconciliation and perseverance in a friendship? Are there old relationships in my life worth retrieving?
Prayer starter: God of reconciliation, every friendship is a mixture of blessings and challenges. Allow me to use the good things I have experienced with others to drive out those things which would keep us apart.
Galatians 5:1-12 “Whoever is confusing you will pay the penalty.”
Having tried the meek and pleading tone of friendship, it does not take Paul long to resume his angry stance. In some of his strongest language in the letter, Paul states that if the Galatians allow themselves to be circumcised, “Christ will be of no benefit to you” (5:2). He adds that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision not uncircumcision counts for anything” (5:6).
Again, it must be remembered that these statements function within the contingency of the letter. It would be a mistake to conclude that Paul sees no value to circumcision in other circumstances. Although Christ is now the means of salvation for all, Paul could certainly see value for circumcision as a sign of fidelity among Jews who believe in Christ. Paul is adamant, however, that the Galatians reject circumcision. For they are Gentiles not Jews. Furthermore, the foundation which Paul laid in Galatia did not include circumcision. That foundation must be preserved.
Turning his attention to those missionaries who seek to change the foundation which he had laid, Paul lets his anger loose. Frankly, he goes too far. Not content with objecting to his adversaries’ arguments, Paul wishes them physical harm. Although verse 12 takes the form of a bloody joke, its intentions are clear. Paul wishes that those who take out the knife in order to circumcise the Galatians should use it instead to castrate themselves. A few verses before, Paul said that what matters is “faith working through love” (5:6). In verse 12, love is conspicuously absent from his intentions towards his adversaries.
Sometimes our desire to promote the truth blinds us to the responsibilities of love and the value of our opponent. The flaw is a common one, one to which even an apostle can succumb.
For reflection: When have my convictions led me to offend the demands of love? Is there someone in my life who waits for a humble and sincere apology from me?
Prayer starter: God of truth, strengthen me to proclaim the gift of your gospel. God of love, restrain me from trampling my brothers and sisters in the process.
Galatians 5:13-26 “The summary of the whole law is: Love your neighbor as yourself.”
As is his usual custom at the end of his letters, Paul now begins to exhort his readers to live in accordance with the gospel. In these verses he builds his theme around love. “Through love” the Galatians are to become servants to each other (5:13). Then Paul returns again to the subject of law. He claims that the love of neighbor sums up the entire law.
For a letter so full of negative statements concerning the law, this is a very positive and surprising way to conclude. The command to love your neighbor as yourself is a quotation from the Jewish Torah (Lev 19:18). To use this passage from Leviticus to sum up the law was not only the practice of Jesus (Mark 12:31) but also of the Rabbi Hillel. Therefore, Paul is adopting a positive evaluation of the Jewish law and commending it to the Galatians. This section is a problem for those who wish to argue that Paul has completely rejected the value of the law. It strongly supports the position that Paul is opposed to imposing certain requirements of the law upon his Gentile converts, but does not have an intrinsic problem with the law itself. When it comes to exhorting his churches on how to live and what God expects in their relationships with each other, Paul turns to the Torah.
Paul concludes this section by giving us a catalogue of vices (5:19-21) and virtues (5:22-23). Such lists were probably used by the church in the preparation for baptism. The presence of vices indicated that bad choices were being made. Virtues were a sign that a person was on the right road. Consistent with his assertions throughout this entire section, the first virtue which Paul lifts up is love.
For reflection: Who are the people in my life who have loved me? In what ways has their care and affirmation led me to understand the love of God?
Prayer starter: God of love, it is your will to call all people into union and life with you. Help me to understand that if I wish to respond to your call, I must strive to love my brothers and sisters.
Galatians 6 “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything.”
Beginning in verse 15 Paul writes in his own hand. This indicates that Paul’s usual practice was to dictate his letters to a scribe. But in these final verses Paul takes up the pen and writes the conclusion of the letter. This is yet another step by which Paul plays on the personal relationship which unites him to the Galatians. Here there is no longer a scribe acting as a mediator. These final verses, therefore, carry a particular impact for the original readers.
After again stating his adversaries want only to boast in an unspiritual manner (in the flesh), Paul insists that his only desire is to boast in the cross of Jesus Christ (6:14). By turning to the cross, Paul emphasizes the importance of that great event which has changed everything. Christ has been crucified and raised up. God has acted towards humanity in a new way. There is a new creation!
Because Paul believes that the mystery of Jesus’ dying and rising have inaugurated the establishment of God’s kingdom, every other act of God must be interpreted in this new light. It was in that new light that Paul became convinced that Gentiles need not undergo circumcision when they accepted Christ as the Messiah. He founded the Galatian church with that understanding. The purpose of the entire letter is to assure the Galatians that the gospel he preached to them was not in error.
His last reminder to the Galatians is that they are already a part of the new creation. Therefore they need not worry of circumcision or uncircumcision. God through Paul has brought them into a new relationship in Christ. Paul wants no more trouble from those who would challenge his missionary practice (6:17). God has acted. The case is closed.
For reflection: How has the death and resurrection of Jesus influenced my life? What in my life would be impossible, if Christ had not been raised up as Lord?
Prayer starter: Risen Lord, each day I follow my schedule largely unaware of your presence. Lead me to recognize your transforming power in my life.
Romans 1:1-15“I am longing to see you. . . so that we may be mutually encouraged.”
From its first verses we can sense a difference between Romans and Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In introducing himself to the Galatians Paul only needed one verse in which he restated his apostolic credentials against those who would challenge them. At the beginning of his letter to Rome, to a church which Paul did not found and had never visited, it takes him six verses (1:1-6) to introduce himself. In those six verses we already sense the direction of what will follow.
Because the Roman church is a mixed community of Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ, Paul begins by associating himself with each of them. He admits that the gospel concerns Jesus who descended from David according to the flesh (1:4) and thereby claims the respect which must be given to the heritage of the Jews. By presenting himself as the apostle to the Gentiles (1:5), Paul claims his connection to those in Rome who are not of a Jewish background. Paul is positioning himself in such a way that he will have influence upon both factions in the Roman church, so that his gospel might heighten their unity.
Paul believes that his gospel will help the Roman church. He does not, however, only plan to give. He also expects to receive. He longs to visit Rome (1:11, 13) because he feels that such as visit will be “mutually” encouraging to them both (1:12). What does Paul expect from the Romans? That will become clear towards the end of the letter. Paul, however, is already laying the foundation for the request he will make of them. But the first step is for Paul to do his part, to share the gospel given to him to preach. That preaching will take up the next eleven chapters.
For reflection: How often do I reflect that giving and receiving are mutually beneficial? Can I think of instances when I received in the process of giving?
Prayer starter: Father, you love us all. Help me both to give and receive from others, because it is in this mutual support that we identify ourselves as your children.
Romans 1:16 to 2:16 “The power of God for salvation. . .to the Jew first and also the Greek.”
Paul begins his preaching to the Romans by stating a refrain that will emerge frequently in his message: to the Jew first and also the Greek (1:16). As explained in the introduction, Paul asserts a priority in the midst of equality. The priority of the Jews will be left until later in the letter. Paul begins by emphasizing the equality.
Christ is the Messiah of God, the savior of both Jew and Gentile alike. But Paul does not begin with this positive message. He starts not with Christ but with a vivid description of the problem Christ came to solve. Paul’s implicit logic is that if the saving action of Christ is universal, so must be the problem from which all are saved.
His initial focus is on the Gentile world. Even though Gentiles were not given the guidance of the Jewish law, they were able to recognize the presence of God through the works of creation (1:20). But even with this insight, they did not do what was good but turned to evil ways. Paul spends a great deal of time cataloguing the vices which are prevalent within humanity (1:22-32).
Over and over again Paul insists there is no excuse (1:20; 2:1). Everyone has sinned. Anguish and distress are therefore the heritage for everyone, “to the Jew first and also the Greek” (2:9).
In the midst of this argument Paul makes a particularly powerful point. Whenever we judge others because of their failure to do good, we are actually undermining our own position (2:2-3). For since no one is without sin, our judgment of others only compounds our own guilt. We should strive not to judge others faults but to turn away from our own sinfulness (2:4).
For reflection: Whom have I judged lately? Even if I am sure that my judgement was warranted, am I conscious of how many times I have fallen short of my own calling?
Prayer starter: God of mercy, there are many times when I am hurt by or disappointed by others. Before I criticize those around me, remind me of the occasions when others are hurt by or disappointed by me.
Romans 2:17 to 3:8 “Real circumcision is a matter of the heart.”
Having addressed the need of the Gentiles for a Savior, Paul now turns to the Jews. Paul is Jewish and retains a high respect for the Jewish tradition. He needs, however, to find a way to show that, now that Christ has come, the Jewish tradition is not complete. To do this he borrows an approach from within the Jewish tradition itself: Israel has not always been faithful to the law of God.
This is no new insight. The great Jewish prophets Amos and Jeremiah frequently chastised the Jewish people for their shortcomings. Ezra (9:6) complains that “our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens.” Jews were not afraid to criticize their own sinfulness. Like every religion, there were times when they fell short of their own ideals.
Paul uses this criticism, well established within Judaism, to undercut those Jews in Rome who were placing excessive pride in their tradition. Paul’s point is that the respect for religious tradition must be connected to an interior attitude of faithfulness. To follow the Jewish law, to undergo circumcision and not to follow the moral demands of God is to invalidate the very thing those religious practices were intended to support. Who could argue with that?
It is clear that Paul sees circumcision and the revelations to the Jewish people as real advantages (3:1-2). But Paul firmly believes that such advantages need not be imposed upon the Gentiles nor used to emphasize their inferiority. Using the gap between the demands of the law and the practice of it, Paul undercuts a basis for Jewish pride within the Roman church and emphasizes the Jewish need for a Savior.
For reflection: In what ways do I recognize a gap in my own life between what I profess and how I live? How can the realization of my own failings make me more tolerant of others.
Prayer starter: God of Holiness, you call me to love and service, but so often I live in prejudice and selfishness. Send me your healing Spirit to reduce the distance between what I say and what I do.
Romans 3:9-30 “The righteousness of God has been disclosed.”
Paul begins these verses by summarizing his negative argument. Neither Gentiles or Jews have escaped sin (3:9). In verse 21, Paul turns to his positive argument: God has acted. God has raised up Jesus as Lord. This is the new and cosmic revelation which is at the heart of Paul’s gospel.
In the first two chapters of Romans Paul has argued that all are under sin. The emphasis was on human failure. Now Paul moves his focus from what we have failed to do to what God has accomplished. The emphasis is on God’s action. Paul talks of the “righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:22). The phrase “faith in Jesus Christ” can also be translated “faith of Jesus Christ.” This translation reveals Paul’s thought more clearly. It is not our faith in Jesus Christ which is primary. It is the faith of Jesus Christ which has been used by God to change the world. Yes, this faith is “for all who believe,” so our acceptance of Jesus is important. But it is the action of God and the faith of Jesus that have now made all things different for us.
Notice that throughout these forceful verses Paul is using the gospel to stress unity between Jews and Gentiles. Several times he states that “all” have sinned (3:9, 23) and now “all” can experience the righteousness of God (3:22). Boasting is excluded (3:27). God is God of both Jews and Gentiles (3:29). The divisions within the Roman church are clearly on Paul’s mind. He is using the universal scope of sin and of salvation to insist that Jews and Gentiles are equal in Christ.
For reflection: Can I remember a time in my life when it was clear that God had acted for my good? How can such an experience illustrate the primacy of God’s action over my own efforts to be faithful?
Prayer starter: God my Savior, faith is a relationship drawing me ever closer to you. Help me to remember amidst all my efforts to do good that it is your power and love that make our relationship possible.
Romans 4 “Abraham is the father of all of us.”
Having asserted that both Jew and Gentile are united in Christ, Paul now turns to a scriptural argument around the figure of Abraham. His aim, as in chapter 3, is to insist of the equality of all believers in Christ. This comes clearly into view in 4:9 when Paul asks, “Is this blessedness [promised to believers], then, pronounced only on the circumcised, or also on the uncircumcised?” Paul’s answer of course is that it is on both. Rather than using Abraham’s circumcision as a caused for division between Jews and Gentiles, Paul uses Abraham’s faith to demonstrate the unity between them.
Paul contrasts the law to faith arguing that the promise did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith (4:13-15). Many interpreters of Paul have said that Paul’s point is that following the law would be an attempt to earn salvation. But, as stated in the introduction, that approach runs counter to how a Jew would understand the purpose of the law. Paul has no problem with Jews following the law. He sees it as one of the gifts given to the Jewish people (Rom 3:1-2). Paul does not, however, want the law to be a cause for division between Jew and Gentile believers. This is why in these verses he carefully traces the source of the promise to something Jew and Gentile Christians share in common: their faith in Christ (4:24-25).
Paul insists that the testimony of the scripture was not simply for Abraham’s sake “but for ours also” (4:23). We should take his insight seriously. With a history which frequently pitted Jews and Christians against each other, the words of Paul remind us that we share a common heritage, that Abraham is our common father.
For reflection: As a Christian am I willing to recognize the ways in which Christian prejudice against Jews contributed to the violence directed towards them throughout our common history? Do I continue that prejudice in my own thoughts and actions?
Prayer starter: God of Abraham, you began a new history and a new people when you called Abraham to believe. Allow my faith in Christ to build upon the faith of Abraham, for his faith like mine is directed towards you.
Romans 5 “For while we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly.”
Paul believes that the gospel unites believers in one faith. In this chapter he enlarges on the wonder of what God has done. None of us, Jew or Greek, can point to anything to boast about. We are weak and sinful people. But this did not deter God from the gracious action of saving us in Christ. In our love for each other there is a reciprocity. Because others are good to us, we are good to them. But God’s love is greater than human love. “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (5:8). Even when there was little in our favor, God chose to love and save us in Christ.
This generous love is at the very heart of the gospel. The good news is not about our strengths and accomplishments. It is about God’s love for us in our poverty. In the whole plan of salvation, it is God’s love which is primary and transforming. God does not love us because we are good; we are good because God has loved us. As Paul states so beautifully, “the gift is not like the trespass” (5:15). Since the first human, Adam, our actions have always led to sin. Nevertheless, God did not choose to respond in light of what we deserved, but freely chose to gift us with love and salvation.
This action of God is so profound that Paul sees Christ as a new Adam, the beginning of a new creation (5:17-21). Through the one action of God in Christ, now the entire human race is freed from the bondage of sin and directed to life eternal.
For reflection: When has it been clear to me that, despite my failures and weaknesses, that God has chosen to love me? To know this gracious love and acceptance by God is the essential center of the gospel.
Prayer starter: Gracious Savior, I do my best to serve you, but only you know how many times I fail. Comfort me with the realization that it is not my goodness but yours which is my hope and my salvation.
Romans 6 “Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God.”
In this chapter Paul continues to expand upon the positive message of his gospel. But now he begins to emphasize our response to what God has done. Always the pastor, Paul may be correcting an unbalanced interpretation of his gospel. If (as he has insisted) God’s action in Christ is primary, some might claim that it is irrelevant whether we avoid sin or not. His forceful “By no means!” (6:2) rejects such an implication. Paul sees in the pattern of Jesus’ death and resurrection a model for our own lives. We are called to die to sin and rise to new life (6:3-4).
Sin and the new life in Christ are direct opposites, two exclusive realms of reality. No compromise is possible between them. Either we are the slave of sin or the slave of obedience (6:15). Our actions do matter. It is for this reason that Paul offers the Romans a choice: they should no longer present themselves to sin as instruments of wickedness but to God as instruments of righteousness (6:13).
But even as he makes this plea to his readers, Paul refuses to present the gospel as a message of human self-perfection. Even though our actions are important, they are not primary. Our response is only possible because God has first chosen us. Our efforts to avoid sin and do good have merit only because God has first acted in Jesus. Throughout this section Paul keeps grounding his admonitions in what has already been accomplished. Note the verbs in the past tense. The Romans have become obedient (6:17), have been set free from sin (6:18), have been enslaved to God (6:22). God’s action has already save them. Now they must live out that grace in their lives.
For reflection: Does my life reflect the balanced view that Paul promotes in this chapter? Do I recognize that my decisions are important and at the same time know that it is God’s love which is primary?
Prayer starter: Dear Lord, let me know my place. You are my God and Savior. Allow me accept the salvation you offer me and reflect it in what I say and do.
Romans 7 “When I want to do good, evil lies close at hand.”
This is one of the most difficult and debated chapters in all of Paul’s writings. Issues of sin, law, and the struggle between them swirl about in arguments which are at times obscure. Without trying to resolve all of the problems, certain points are clear. Paul sees a relationship between the law and sin, but he is certain that the law cannot be identified with sin (7:7). In fact he insists that the law is holy, just and good (7:12). The law seems to be connected to sin by informing us about what is evil (7:7).
In 7:14 Paul suddenly begins to speak in the first person. This only complicates our ability to understand him. Is he speaking autobiographically? Is he giving us dialogue which should be ascribed to Adam? Is he presenting the figure of a young Jewish boy confronted with the law? Is his “I” a rhetorical device meant to stand for all humanity? All of these interpretations have been suggested.
Without choosing from among them, we can nevertheless recognize the turmoil that his words describe within the human person. Christ has been raised up and we have been promised a like resurrection. But that resurrection is not yet here. In this section of Romans Paul recognizes that we all share a humanity in which the power of sin still has influence. Even though God has saved us, sin is still enticing us to evil (7:23). This creates a war within us between the good we want to do and the evil which leads us astray (7:19). Redeemed as we are, it is still a struggle to be faithful.
For reflection: When have I struggled to do what I knew was right? Why is it that even knowing God’s love for me, I still am attracted to sin?
Prayer starter: Powerful God, I know my weakness and my inclination to sin. What hope do I have? To whom can I turn? Only to you and your love for me in Christ!
Romans 8:1-17 “You have received a spirit of adoption.”
Having expressed the wretched state of one who must struggle to do what is right, and having admitted that only God in Christ could rescue us (7:25), Paul begins chapter eight by emphasizing again the positive message of what God has in fact done. God has set us free (8:2). The Spirit of God dwells in us (8:9). The Spirit is our hope. For we did not receive a spirit of slavery but a spirit of adoption (8:15).
The Romans were accustomed, as all Christians, to address God as Abba (Father) in prayer. The beginning of the Lord’s Prayer is a good example. Therefore, when Paul refers to the cry “Abba! Father!” (8:15), he accomplishes two things in his argument. Both of them are reasons for hope. First, the term “Abba” was used by Jesus to address God in his moment of deepest need, when he struggled over his death in the garden of Gethsemane (Mk 14:36). Therefore, Paul reminds the Romans that such an address identifies them with Christ whose prayer was answered in the glory of the resurrection. Second, Paul adds to this truth by stating that it is only because we have been given the Spirit of God that we can pray to God this way. Therefore, our very prayer points to the gift that gives us hope. If we have the Spirit of God, the same Spirit which dwelt in Jesus, then we share in the same relationship which Jesus has with God.
We are not slaves but children, and if children heirs. Therefore, even if we struggle with the inclination to sin, we do not have to wonder whether God will save us. God has already saved us, and our very ability to call God Abba points to the new life within us.
For reflection: Do I have the courage to believe that God sees me as a daughter or son? Can I claim that status even at times when I know I am weak or sinful?
Prayer starter: Father, to call you by this name would be presumptuous were it my idea. But through Jesus you have invited me into an awesome intimacy. Each time I call you Father I must own the truth that we belong to each other.
Romans 8:18-27 “The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.”
Having proclaimed that God has chosen us as heirs to glory, Paul now recognizes that God’s glory is not yet fully present. He speaks of the “sufferings of this present time” (8:18), insisting that such sufferings are but a prelude to the good things which are to come. What emerges in these verses is an understanding of Paul’s view of history. With Christ’s death and resurrection, a definitive blow was struck against the power of evil. Yet evil continues to affect us until Christ returns in glory. At that triumphal return God’s kingdom will be fully established, evil will be destroyed, and we who have believed in Christ will be glorified.
Note that Paul sees Jesus’ saving action on a cosmic scale. It is not just men and women who are affected but all of creation (8:19). Paul’s thought borrows much from Jewish apocalyptic writers who believed that God would intervene into history, destroy all evil, and thus establish the Kingdom of God. All of creation will be changed and conformed to the will of God.
But not yet. Creation and we as a part of creation are in labor pains. A new creation is being born, but the process is not yet complete. Paul uses this pattern of history as a reason for hope. Because Christ has been raised we know that God’s kingdom will be established, but it is not yet apparent. Therefore, even though evil and suffering press in around us, we believe in what we do not see. We know that victory is at hand. The Spirit of God is with us, praying to God for us (8:26), supporting us as we await the glory which is to come.
For reflection: Where does evil or pain touch my life? Can I believe that the sufferings of the present cannot be compared to the glory to come which God has promised us?
Prayer starter: Saving God, it is difficult to believe in your promise of life in the face of pain and death. Lead me to entrust myself to your Spirit, that I might know that it is not where I am but where I will be that is my ultimate joy.
Romans 8:28-39 “If God is for us, who is against us?”
For the last eight chapters Paul has been laying out his gospel, emphasizing that it is universal in scope, that it is “salvation to everyone who has faith” (Rom 1:16). In these verses he draws his presentation to a powerful conclusion. As you would expect, he ends giving priority to the action of God.
Are we under stress? Yes. Does evil still affect us? There can be no doubt. But God has a plan, and God will make all things work together for good (8:28). God has made it abundantly clear in Christ that we have been freed, saved, and adopted as daughters and sons.
For Paul that is all we need to know. In what is one of the most effective rhetorical flourishes of the New Testament, Paul links together a series of questions, all driving home the same point. “If God is for us, who is against us?” (8:31). God is for us! Paul believes this with all his strength. God gave us the son (8:32). God justified us (8:33). Christ died and rose and intercedes for us (8:34). What more proof could be gathered to make the case? Our God is on our side.
Moving then from a description of God’s actions to the reason behind them, Paul ends this section of Romans with a paean to the love of God. He provides a long catalogue of evils and powers which we might imagine could remove us from God’s love. Paul insists that none of them will succeed. God is for us. God’s love is so strong that Paul can end with an exultant cry: nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39).
For reflection: In times of trial it does little good to dwell upon the evils which beset us. Like Paul we must instead focus on what God has done, how we have been blessed, why we have reason to hope.
Prayer starter: God who saves me, I believe you are for me. I can recount the many ways I have felt your presence and rejoiced in your blessings. May these gifts allow me to trust in your love.
Romans 9 “It is not as though the word of God had failed.”
Having demonstrated the equal call of salvation to all, Paul begins in this chapter to examine the priority which he expressed in 1:16, “to the Jew first and also the Greek.” As Paul reads God’s plan of salvation, it is clear to him that Jews hold a priority. God spoke to them first and formed a covenant with them. Now that Christ has come, Jews who believe in Christ should have a priority in the community. For they had a prior relationship to God.
However, the minute that Paul brings up the Jewish people, he must face an incontrovertible fact. Most Jews did not accept the gospel. Although most of the early followers of Christ were Jewish, most Jews did not chose to become followers. Paul is perplexed and devastated. His pain is clear. He would be willing to lose himself if it could lead more of his Jewish brothers and sisters to accept Christ (9:3). As a Jew Paul knows and values the gifts that God gave to Israel : the adoption as God’s own, the covenants, the glory, the law, the worship, the promises, the patriarchs, and yes, even the Messiah, Jesus, himself a Jew (9:4-5). Paul accepts all of these gifts of God as valuable and continuing. Why then have so many in Israel refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah?
This is no small question for Paul. The veracity of God is at stake. Paul simply cannot accept that God would so choose a nation as Israel and then abandon them. He cannot give up his claim for the necessity of faith in Jesus. Neither can he accept that the majority of the people God has chosen will be cut off from God. It is a dilemma which Paul will spend three chapters trying to resolve.
For reflection: Are there aspects of my life or the life of the world which seem contradictory or unfair to me? How can I reconcile the promise and presence of a good and faithful God with the difficulties and pain of my own experience?
Prayer starter: O Lord, I do not always understand your ways. I know your love and compassion for the world. Allow me to trust in that, even when I do not perceive your purposes.
Romans 10 “For everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Paul spends this whole chapter scouring the Hebrew Bible for support in order to demonstrate the necessity of Christ. He wants to make it clear that even though the Jewish people have a zeal for God, if they have not accepted Christ, they are not “enlightened” (10:2).
Although Paul treasures the law, he insists that the law without Christ is not enough. According to God’s plan “Christ is the end of the law” (10:4). The Greek word for “end” in this verse can mean both “termination” and “goal.” It is likely Paul is using it here in the latter sense. In Christ, the law reaches its goal or fulfillment. Now because of what God has done, the law is incomplete without Christ. This, of course, is the source of Paul’s misery. Most of his own people are not calling on the name of Christ.
It is beyond our scope to trace all the scripture passages Paul employs to prove his point. It is better to embrace the truth in our own lives which is reflected in this chapter. We have believed. We do confess with out lips and believe in our hearts what God has done for us in Christ (10:9). Through the power of Jesus’ resurrection, we have the faith to recognize the love of God in Christ. Many good people around us are unable to accept this tremendous gift.
There is a mystery to our believing. It has come about through specific people who have shared Christ with us. Paul is aware that faith cannot come without someone to proclaim it (10:14). We should remember thankfully those who proclaimed Christ to us.
For reflection: Who are the people in your life who have given you your faith in Christ? Recall their faces and their influence. Each one is a special gift from God.
Prayer starter: Gracious God, I could not believe in your Son without the word and example of others to show me the way. Allow me to share the faith which I have received through their lives with those who have yet to believe.
Romans 11:1-24 “It is not you that support the root, but the root which supports you.”
Paul continues to deal with the failure of Israel to accept Christ. Only a small portion, “a remnant” (10:5), of the Jews have accepted Jesus. Yet Paul is determined not to see this failure as a reason for Gentiles to feel superior. He turns again to emphasize the priority of the Jewish people.
Clearly addressing the Gentiles in the Roman church (11:13), Paul applies all that he has been saying to them. Even though they might have the upper hand in the Roman church at this time, the strength of their faith should not be a cause for boasting. It is likely that in the struggle within the Roman church, Gentile believers were using the failure of most Jews to believe in Christ as a reason to exalt their own status over that of the Jewish believers in the community.
Paul will have none of that. He uses the image of an olive tree. Yes, many Jews may have been cut off from the tree because of their rejection of Christ, and some Gentiles have been grafted onto the tree in their place. But the root of the tree through which life now flows into Gentile hearts is a Jewish root. “It is not you that support the root, but the root which supports you” (11:18). For this reason Gentiles should not become proud but stand in awe (11:20). Using the image in a way unflattering to Gentiles, Paul states that Gentiles were “wild” branches (11:24). If God was successful in grafting them onto the “cultivated” Jewish olive tree, should we not expect that God will in time graft the cultivated Jewish people back onto their own tree? Even in failure, a priority exists for the Jewish people.
For reflection: What is my attitude towards Jews? Do I realize that as a believer in Christ I have been grafted as a wild branch onto a cultivated Jewish tree? Do I grant to Jews and Judaism a respect that their relationship to God demands?
Prayer starter: God of Abraham, although Christians and Jews disagree over the significance of Christ, we share together a history and common faith in you. Help us to hear and respect each other, as brothers and sisters in your love.
Romans 11:25-36 “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”
For three chapters Paul has been struggling with a contradiction. On one hand Paul cannot deny that the majority of Jews have rejected the good news of Christ. Such a failure has immense consequences, for Paul has just argued that Christ is indispensable for salvation. On the other hand Paul is convinced that God formed a genuine covenant with the Jewish people, choosing them as God’s own. How could God’s own people fail to accept God’s Messiah?
It would be possible to resolve this conflict by deciding that God’s plans had changed, that the covenant with Israel was valid in the past but voided now with the appearance of Christ. Paul, however, cannot accept that. It is unthinkable for Paul to imagine that once God’s word was given, it could ever change. With full confidence Paul insists that the gifts and calling of the Jewish people are “irrevocable” (11:29). Even Jews who have not accepted Christ are still beloved of God (11:28).
How then does Paul explain the conflict between Jewish election and their refusal to accept Christ? He doesn’t. Caught between rejecting Israel or rejecting Christ, Paul refuses to choose. He would rather live in the tension of the conflict than resolve it by rejecting one side or the other.
Paul asserts that there will come a time when “all of Israel will be saved” (11:26). But how that will come about, he does not know. That is why he ends his lengthy treatment of the issue of Israel not with an argument but with a hymn of humble praise. How inscrutable are God’s ways (11:33)! Even though we do not understand God’s actions, we trust in God’s irrevocable word and faithfulness.
For reflection: Where can I recognize contradictions and conflicts in my life? Where are God’s ways unclear to me? Can I believe that God’s word of love to me is irrevocable?
Prayer starter: Faithful God, your ways are beyond me, greater than my ability to understand. Yet I believe you are working even where I see stagnation and conflict. Allow me to admit my lack of insight, and trust in your goodness.
Romans 12 “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”
Paul usually focuses the main point of his letter in a sentence marked with a special request-form ( “I appeal to you . . .”). In Romans we find this appeal in 12:1. Its appearance signals the end of Paul’s exposition upon his gospel and moves us into a section of direct exhortation to the Roman church. The main point of the letter is found in the request that the Roman church present their bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is their spiritual worship. What does that mean?
Paul is drawing upon imagery used to describe Jewish worship. Animals were sacrificed in the temple as an offering to God. Paul is asking that the Roman church offer itself to God as a spiritual sacrifice. In what does this sacrifice consist? The sacrifice is that the members of the church place themselves at the disposition of one another. In short, Paul is asking for unity within the church. No one is to value himself or herself too highly (12:3). Instead all are to appreciate and use the particular gift God has given to them and use it for the good of the entire community. Each gift plays a part in the life of the one body (12:4-8).
Although Paul moves on to offer a number of admonitions to the Romans, his central concern is that they live as one, offering this spiritual worship to God. This is his purpose in writing the letter. For Paul hopes that the gospel which he preaches and which he has expounded upon through chapters 1-11 will benefit the Roman church by allowing the differences between its Jewish and Gentile members to be resolved. Only when they are united can they be an acceptable sacrifice to God.
For reflection: Do I sometimes imagine my holiness in isolation, apart from others? Who are the people with whom I need to be united in order to be acceptable to God?
Prayer starter: God of unity help me to see how deeply the divisions between people disrupt your plan of salvation. Never allow me to imagine that holiness can exist where prejudice and resentments are tolerated.
Romans 13 “Let every person be subject to governing authorities.”
Paul now turns to a question which would be of immediate interest to the Roman church. Living in the capital of the empire, under the eyes of the Caesars, it would be easy to ask what was the role of a Christian believer towards a pagan government. Paul takes a very conservative stance in his answer. Even though a government does not recognize the authority of Christ, if its power is legitimate, its authority should be respected.
Paul argues that all authority is from God and therefore any government which is governing for the common good should be seen as being established by God (13:1). Verse 3 makes it clear that Paul is speaking about a just government, one that uses its force against the bad not the good. Obviously Paul feels that the Roman imperial government, although pagan, still qualifies as a just government. Paul therefore urges the Romans to obey such a government and to see it as an agent of God. Moreover, he encourages them to give this obedience not only out of fear of punishment but also because of “conscience,” because they realize that obedience is the right thing to do. Paul does not wish the Christians in Rome to be disruptive of the social order. He gives a very high value to civil authority. He even urges the Romans to pay their taxes (13:6)!
It is worth noting that Paul’s positive view of civil government does not go unchallenged in the New Testament. The author of the Book of Revelation would disagree strenuously. Far from seeing Rome as a servant of God, he would decry her as the whore of Babylon (Rev 17:4-6).
For reflection: What is my stance towards civil government? Even when I recognize that its motives and actions are far from pure, can I still accept Paul’s advice to consider its authority as coming from God?
Prayer starter: Ruler of the universe, guide the leaders of our nation in the way of justice. Even though they may be swayed by power and influence, allow them to protect the poor and vulnerable among us.
Romans 14 “Pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”
Paul here again addresses the Roman situation directly. Again he appeals for unity. Although it is difficult for us to identify all of the specific issues under discussion, this much is clear. There is some dispute over eating habits. One group believes that any food is acceptable to eat. Paul terms these “the strong.” He agrees with them (14:14). Another group, who Paul calls “the weak,” have scruples about eating certain things and limit themselves to vegetables (14:2).
It is possible that “the weak” are certain Jewish members of the church who still choose to observe some aspects of the Jewish food regulations. Although the text does not make this association directly, if it were the case it would tie in well with Paul’s insistence throughout the letter of respect for the Jewish heritage.
However we identify the weak and the strong, Paul insists that the real issue is not what we eat or don’t eat but how we treat each other (14:17). Those who are strong and eat must not despise the weak. Those who are weak must not pass judgment upon those who eat (14:3). Paul believes that our common relationship with the Lord should overcome these small differences between us (14:7-8).
Out of love for each other members of the same community should overlook the differences in eating habits and adjust their own habits in such a way that the unity of the community is preserved. Otherwise the disputes over what we eat will disrupt the community. As Paul says, “If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love” (14:15); “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God” (14:20).
For reflection: Am I willing to adjust my own actions and beliefs in lesser matters for the sake of my family or community? What do I achieve by pushing my own positions when that action divides people from each other?
Prayer starter: God of Wisdom, I often want my own way. I can believe in things very deeply, even when they are not that important. Make me flexible for the sake of love.
Romans 15:1-13 “Welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed you.”
Paul concludes his appeal for unity in the Roman church which he began in 12:1 by turning to the example of Christ. As he works out this example, the Jewish-Gentile divisions within the Roman church again come fully into view. In 15:8 Paul reminds the Jewish members of the church that Christ became a “servant of the circumcised” in order to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs. Therefore it should be clear that Christ as welcomed them into the church and into salvation. But that is only part of the mystery. In 15:9 Paul reminds the Gentile members of the Roman church that it was through this same action [one connected to the promises of Israel] that they were led to glorify God for mercy. Through a string of quotations from the scriptures (15:9-12) Paul reminds the Gentiles that they too have been welcomed into the church and into salvation. If Christ has welcomed both the Jews and the Gentiles, then is it not appropriate that they welcome one another (15:7)?
This admonition places the final touches on Paul’s overall theme: salvation for all; to the Jew first and also the Greek. Paul has preached it to the Roman church through the letter which he sent to them. He has asked them to follow it. For if they can, even with the differences between them, stand united in their common salvation, then Paul’s preaching to them will have succeeded. Then, united, they will be able to “live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Jesus Christ, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:6).
For reflection: When I have difficulty dealing with others who disagree with me, how often do I reflect on our common indebtedness to Christ? If I really understand what it means to be saved in Christ, can I refuse to accept another who Christ has saved?
Prayer starter: Savior of the World, you care and redeem all people. You exclude no one because of age, sex, race, nationality, or disposition. Allow your acceptance to stretch my own. Conform my love to yours.
Romans 15:14-33 “Join me in earnest prayer to God on my behalf.”
Two things happen in this section of Romans. Paul shares his travel plans and then makes a second appeal to the Roman church.
Although Paul’s missionary work has been keeping him more than occupied, he informs the Romans that he wants to stop and visit them on his way to Spain (15:23-25). But before he can do this he must first travel to Jerusalem. From indications in this and other letters of Paul we know why this trip is so important. Paul has been taking up a collection from his Gentile churches in Macedonia and Achaia to support the poor in Jerusalem (15:26). This collection means more to Paul than simply helping the poor. It is connected to the acceptance of his apostleship by the church in Jerusalem.
In his letter to the Galatians (2:10) Paul writes that his apostleship to the Gentiles was accepted by the leaders in Jerusalem with only one request: that he remember the poor. Now, by taking this collection to Jerusalem, he is doing just that. But those who opposed Paul’s missionary strategy might well take this occasion to attack the work that he had done and attempt to distance themselves from his Gentile churches. Paul dearly hopes this will not be the case.
This leads to Paul’s second appeal. The first appeal was for the sake of the Roman church, that they might be united in their common faith. The second appeal is for Paul’s sake. In 15:30 he asks the Romans to pray that his trip to Jerusalem will be successful. The two appeals in Romans indicate the double purpose for Paul’s writing: that the Romans might be united in faith (12:1) and that Paul might be supported by their prayers (15:30-32).
For reflection: How important has it been in my life to receive the prayers and support of others? Remember the names and faces of those who have blessed you by their support.
Prayer starter: Father, we are all your children and you call us to assist each other. Bless those who have blessed me with their prayers in my time of need.
Romans 16 “Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus.”
Although Paul has never visited Rome, he sends greetings to twenty-five people who are now a part of the community there (twenty-three of them by name). This demonstrates what a mobile society the Roman empire was a the time of Paul. The Roman peace and good roads made travel possible. There can be no doubt that such ease in travel was a significant factor in the spread of Christianity.
The names which Paul gives us also provide some interesting insights into the composition of the early church. The way in which Paul greets these friends clearly shows the interdependence among them. Preaching the gospel was a community effort. Then as now, many voices and gifts are required to spread the good news.
It is also notable how many women are greeted by Paul. The very first greeting goes to Prisca who is mentioned before her husband Aquila (16:3). This missionary couple (who are also mentioned in 1 Cor. 16:19; Acts 18:1-3, 18-27) are certainly seen by Paul as co-workers in ministry. Phoebe is recognized as a deacon (16:1) and Junia together with her husband Andronicus are not only called apostles by Paul but recognized as prominent among the apostles (16:7). It is clear from this list that women played important roles in the earliest days of our faith.
Finally we gain an insight into how the early church gathered. Certain families would be willing to open their houses for church meetings. Paul sends greetings to the church which meets in the house of Prisca and Aquila (16:5). Even today the church is not a building. It is a group of men and women who gather in the name of the Lord.
For reflection: If I am a believer, I am part of the church. But the church needs my gifts to be the vehicle of God’s good news. What am I contributing or what could I contribute to its mission?