Studying Romans – Historical Background and Occassion

It is important to remember that Paul’s letters are occassional documents. That means they were written to address a particular set of circumstances among a particular group of people at a specific time in history. If you ignore this it is easy to miss much of what is being talked about within the letter. Anders Nygren’scommentary on Romans was one that pushed the idea that the letter to the Romans was not occassional at all and that an understanding of the historical happenings surrounding its writing are insignificant to the interpretation of the letter. That is exactly what we are trying to avoid. Here is what he had to say,

“If one seeks the key to the epistle in certain special conditions within the congregation at Rome, one thereby shows that the attention is directed away from that which is central. The characteristic and peculiar thing about Romans, differentiating it from the rest of Paul’s epistles, is just the fact that it was not, or was only in slight degree, aimed at circumstances within a certain congregation. Its purpose is not to correct maladjustments.” (Nygren, 4)

In this view, Romans becomes unique in all of Paul’s writing because all of Paul’s other letters were written to address specific issues and problems in congregations. Romans, in this theory, becomes more of a general outline of Paul’s theology (Jimmy Allen also takes this approach being influenced by Nygren). If all one had in front of them was the letter itself it would be easy to draw these conclusions. If you read Romans through this lens the first 8 chapters tend to make a lot of sense but as you get further into the letter things tend to break down a little around chapter 9 (HT: Allen Black for point that out in his Advanced NT Intro class).

There is a piece of history that ties the entire book together and gives continuity to the entire letter. One of the first people to bring this up was Wolfgang Weifel in a chapter entitle “The Jewish Community in Ancient Rome and the Origins of Roman Christianity,” (Karl Donfried, ed. The Romans Debate – Continued. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1977. pp.100-19.). Weifel began to pull some pieces of history together to make a coherent case for the background of Romans. In AD 49 Claudius issued a number of edicts. One of which was a prescription of Yew juice for snake bites but more importantly was the explusion of Jews from the city of Rome. Claudius was distrubed by some uprising due to a fellow named Chrestus as Suetonius records, “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.” (Suetoinus 25.4). Acts 18:1-2 also makes mention of this edict as to why Priscilla and Aquilla left Rome. To make a long story short, when Claudius died the edict was void and the Jews were able to return to Rome.

Think about the implications of this. When Christianity spread into a new community as best we can tell it was typically targeted toward the Jews in the region. This was probably due to the common background and respect for the scriptures. After that god-fearing Gentiles and Gentiles in general were reached out to. It could very easily have been the case that the church in Rome had a mostly Jewish-Christian leadership until AD 49 when they were expelled from Rome. So who steps in? The Gentile Christians. They become the elders, deacons, etc. Five years later when Claudius dies the Jews return and who do they find in their leadership roles? Gentile Christians. See the problem?

When you read Romans through this lens things start falling into place. For instance. Romans 1-3 can no longer be a general treatise on sin and the wrath of God. Romans 1-3 becomes a diatribe from Paul against quarreling groups of Jews and Gentiles in Rome. He goes against the Gentiles and calls them out for their sins. You can bet the Jewish Christians were really happy about that until 2:17 when Paul starts to call them out as well. Paul basically says “You Gentiles are unrighteous on your own and you Jews are no better.” It brings new light to Romans 3:23 – “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God…” Why say that? Because he is showing them that they are all a lot more alike than they think. They are all in need of God’s redemptive power. Paul is attempting to reconcile a very real situation with very real circumstances and problems among the Christians in Rome. It comes through loud and clear when you understand the backstory.


Studying Romans – Getting Started

Last night we began a study of Romans in our men’s class. We started off by talking about what we want to accomplish from the study. To me it breaks down into three areas: Receiving, Processing, and Applying – in that order. The ultimate goal of the class is to let God’s Word shape and mold us. It is to go inside of our hearts and minds and be received with a spirit of submission. But before we can apply it we make an effort to understand what it says – processing. This is more than isolated and individualized interpretation of small snippets or prooftexts. This is taking Romans, in context and in community, and wrestling with what Paul told the believers in Rome nearly 2000 years ago. Then taking the results of that wrestling match and applying the results to where we find ourselves today.

There are a few introductory issues that I think are helpful to get us on the right track as we begin this study. We have to hear Romans how Romans was meant to be heard. This is not an entirely possible task, as we are not first century Christians in the churches in Rome privy to all the insider issues that Paul is addressing in the letter but it is one that should be attempted. This means we take historical background (which we will deal with in the next post) and genre seriously.

Importance of Studying Romans as a letter
When you look at the New Testament as a whole you notice there are a variety of types of literature there. You find narrative in the Gospels and in Acts. You find letters/epistles in Romans through Jude. Last you find apocalyptic literature in Revelation. These are not all read with the same lenses. You don’t read a personal letter the same way you read a science book. Romans is a shining example of Greek letters in the first century. Just like we start with “Dear so and so” and end with “Sincerely, Matt” they had a particular pattern of how they wrote letters. Gordon Fee outlines this well in his book, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth. His example is from 1 Corinthians.

“The form consists of six parts:

  1. name of the writers (e.g., Paul)
  2. name of the recipient (e.g. to the church of God in Corinth)
  3. greeting (e.g. Grace and peace to you from God our Father…”
  4. prayer wish or thanksgiving (e.g., I always thank God for you…”
  5. body
  6. final greeting and farewell (e.g., the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you”

If you look at Romans it has all of these characteristics. To show how specifically this was layed out in Greek letter writing, here are some excerpts from an example of an ancient Greek letter from The New Testament Background by C.K. Barrett p.28,

Isias [1] to her brother Hephaestion [2] greeting [3]. If you are well and other things are going right, it would accord with the prayer [4] which I make continually to the gods. [the body of the letter [5] follows that is roughly the length of Philemon with this final greeting/farewell]…You will do me a favour by taking care of your bodily health. Goodbye [6].”

I include all that to make the point that Romans was received as a letter in the very form that they would have expected to receive letters in their day. It was not numbered with nice clean chapter breaks and verse numbers with concise headings to let us in on what is about to be said. Because of that I gave each member of our class a copy of chapter one as just straight out text with no divisions or numbers or clues. Romans has to be read as a letter in order to be understood properly.

Occasional Nature of Letters
The key here is that letters are always written for a particular occasion. When we send a letter there is always a reason and the same is true of each letter in the New Testament. If we read each letter flat with little regard for the occasion of why the letter was written by the author to the recipient we will go blindly through the letter and draw conclusions which were not meant to be drawn. This is where history often comes in to play, especially with Romans, to help us understand the circumstances in which the letter was written and the potential occasion (problems) that were being addressed.

As Gordon Fee later points out in his book (p.46), we are only hearing half the conversation when we read an epistle. We are reading the answers. So we have to make some informed assumptions about what occasion (problems) would have prompted the answers given. I will let Fee speak for himself as he says it much better than I can,

Most of our problems in interpreting the Epistles are due to this fact of their being occasional. We have the answers, but we do not always know what the questions or problems were, or even if there was a problem. It is much like listening to one end of a telephone conversation and trying to figure out who is on the other end and what that unseen party is saying. Yet in many cases it is especially important for us to try to hear ‘the other end,’ so that we know what our passage is an answer to. (Fee, 46).

In the next post we will talk about who is on the other end and how putting the pieces together of the other side of the conversation helps us in listening to Romans in its proper context and interpreting what Paul says with ears more closely identifyied with its original recipients.

Ripening Issues in the Church of Christ – Alienated Older People

This is the last of the Ripening Issues in the CofC series. This is one that I am most worried about because the other issues all load into this one. There is pretty close biblical parallel that can help us handle this issue. For many years people thought Paul wrote Romans as a general layout of his theology. That would make Romans pretty exceptional because most of Paul’s letters are written to address problems and issues (that is called being an occasional letter). A new theory has developed that links a very specific occasion to the writing of Romans. Roman emperor Claudius ruled Rome from 41 to 54 AD. During his reign he issued a number of edicts including a prescription of “Yew juice” for snake bite (Suetonius #16) but also, and most importantly, an edict in 49 that Suetonius records as follows, “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [probably a misunderstanding of Christ], he expelled them from Rome.” (Suetoinus 25.4). Acts 18:1-2 also makes mention of this edict as to why Priscilla and Aquilla left Rome. To make a long story short, when Claudius died the edict was void and the Jews were able to return to Rome.

There was one small problem. Jewish Christians would have presumably been Christians longer than Gentile Christians in Rome and had previously had more leadership experience in the church than the younger Gentile Christians. We presume that when the Christian Jews left Rome younger Gentile Christians stepped up into leadership roles and led these congregations/house churches for roughly 5 years until Claudius died and the Jews returned to Rome. When the Jewish Christians got back they may have expected church to be “life as usual” but instead found Gentile Christians occupying “their” places of leadership. [I really am going some place with this trust me]. Paul’s occasion for writing Romans (which is probably dated in 57 AD) was that 3 years after the churches were reunited with the returning Jews they were still fighting and quarreling amongst themselves.

Dealing with Cultural Differences:

Here is my point, Paul is writing to a church that is struggling with cultural issues and leadership issues that stem from disagreements between younger and older Christians who are from totally different worlds/backgrounds. I think that is a fairly good parallel between what is about to happen in our churches as the younger people, who as Rex pointed out, are coming at it from a totally different background and perspective engage the older Christians in dialogue about how the church is going to operate, what the worship should be like, how much we are serving our community, outreach, etc. If the older members stonewall we are going to have a tremendous backlash and an exodus from the church. If the younger people push forward with no concern or deference from the older members there is going to be a tremendous amount of alienation as the older people will no longer recognize the church the spent their whole lives supporting and being a part of.

Paul’s Advice:

What advice did Paul give the Roman churches? He gave them an equal lashing until he felt both sides realized that as different as they may seem they are actually more alike than they realized. It all boiled down to 3:21-24,27-31 “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ JesusWhere, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.” Old or young faith is the same. Old or young our need for forgiveness is the same because we are all alike in sin and all alike in righteousness. As a famous wrestler used to say, “And that’s the bottom line.” This culture or that culture, Jew or Gentile, modern or post modern he is the God of us all because through faith in Jesus Christ he brings justification to both.

An older member might say, “But Paul doesn’t that mean in doing so we might nullify the law?” = “Doesn’t that mean to give deference to these young upstarts mean we are throwing away everything we have lived for up to this point?” Paul’s answer is just the opposite – he says to live in one accord with them is to live more closely in line for everything you have ever lived for up to this point. To be in one accord between the older and the younger means we are being more fully who God made us to be – people who are mutual submissive to each other who understand we do have differences and are still willing to worship and commune with others even though we will never agree on everything.

As this issue looms larger and larger let’s begin by never forgetting who we and our similarities in Christ. When we start from that position it will make the dialogue that much easier because we realize that even though we may differ on some of the “how to’s” the mission and identity of both generations is really the saem.

Understanding God’s Will for Your Life

In Reggie McNeal’s book A Work of Heart he makes this statement about being called,

The call is a mystery. It begins and ends with God, but it loops through a very human individual. It is personal, yet bigger than the person. The call comes out of who we are as well as shaping who we are. It has both being and doing components. The call involves relationship at its core, not just function or task, though it carries clear task components. (p.95).

We run into major roadblocks if we are only concerned about either half of that equation. Those who are focused solely on being tend to end up in ivory towers and monastaries trying to sanitize themselves from society. Those who are solely focused on doing end up drained and empty as their cup pouring exercises do not come out of a solid foundation and relationship with God. How many times do we wonder when God will ever use us or how he will use us but are not very concerned about our “being” in the meantime? Our being is both utilized and refined by the call. When you look at several of God’s prophets you see this dynamic in action.

In Isaiah 6, we have that famous passage where Isaiah is confronted in the temple by God. I call this a confrontation because there is a real tension involved when Isaiah comes face to face with the Almighty. The first thing that jumps out is how holy God is. The angels say, “holy, holy, holy (Holy X 3) is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (6:3). The angels have three sets of wings and the third set reflects a respect for the holy presence of God. With that set of wings they cover their “feet.” This clearly has sexual connotations as the word for feet connotes anything between the waist and the feet. The message is clear that there is a proper and respectful to present yourself when in the presence of the Almighty God. The problem is, Isaiah doesn’t live up to those standards. Through this environment of perfect holiness Isaiah becomes keenly aware of his own sinfulness (a component of his being is out of line with respect to his relationship with God). Notice his response, “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” He acknowledges the fact that he is a sinful man and he knows the result of being sinful in the presence of the Lord almighty has certain consequences – presumably death. The reason these verses are confrontational is because Isaiah’s being is not lined up with God’s being – sinfulness does not match or mesh with holiness. Something has to change. Either Isaiah has to be changed or he has to die. Before he is given something to do there has to be a change in being.

Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar.With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” (6:6-7).

Only God can initiate the change in being. He forgives Isaiah’s sin and realigns Isaiah in respect to his relationship with God, thus readying him for the call and the task of doing what God had planned for his life. Once that has occurred Isaiah is ready for what God has to say next,

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”He said, “Go and tell this people: “‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “For how long, O Lord?” And he answered: “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until the LORD has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken. And though a tenth remains in the land, it will again be laid waste. But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.

The call comes to Isaiah. God lays out the task that is at hand but first there had to be a change in being before the doing component could be made known.

How does this play out in our lives? How do we become aware of the divine initiatives that God has for our lives? We find the answer in Romans 12:1-2. You have probably heard these two verses at least 100 times but try to hear them again fresh through the lens of being and doing. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Again, there comes a change in being before there can be an awareness of what it is God would have us do.

The change in being – Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, do not conform (because that would alter our being), instead be transformed (into who God wants you to be)
The change in doing – Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is

In other words, once you have devoted your life to Christ as a living sacrifice a change will take place that can only come from the divine initiative. Just like Isaiah couldn’t cleanse his own lips, we too must rely on the divine initiative in order for the change in being to take place. Once God has started that process in your life his will for you, what he wants for you to do, your purpose, the plan, your call will be clearer than ever.

What in your life is keeping you from understand God’s will for your life?

The Wall Comes Down

When I was 10 years old my family decided to take down the fence in our front yard. We had one of those old country fences that have the square wire holes. We took down all the wire but we left up the wooden posts for a week. There were some dogs that would run up and down the street that were not on the best of terms with our English shepherd. They always knew the fence had been there and like always they ran toward each other teeth barred and snarling. I knew I was about to see a fight. All of a sudden they stopped where the fence used to be and stood nose to nose with nothing between them at all! They put on their best show to show who was dominate and then they parted ways. I was shocked. They still thought the fence was where it had always been.

I wonder how many times we have been freed by Christ yet live like the chains of sin and death were still around our ankles. How many times have we been freed from sin and yet live as if the walls of that prison cell still surrounded us. Let us realize that the wall has come down and a new freedom has come that has set us free from sin and death and has released us to eternal life with Christ Jesus our Lord.

“But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in[b] Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Rom 6:22-23