ROMANS 9-16: With the mysterious and controversial chapters 9-11, we get into the heart and purpose of this world-changing letter. It all comes to its climax, in purpose and spirit with the doxology in 11: 33-36: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”
But the intent of the letter, as far as Paul’s mission, and the church’s life and ethics are concerned, come just before, in 11:13-25, where Paul says he is explicitly addressing the Gentiles (as he addressed the Jews directly in chapter 2: 17ff), “So do not become proud, but fear,” and “lest you become wise in your own sight.” In other words, lest the Roman Gentile Christians rupture the church and thwart the mission of God in the world through anti-semitism, Paul reviews the sovereign work and nature of God in the world, and reminds the Gentile believers that they are johnny-come-latelies, wild olive branches grafted into the original tree of Israel, as foreseen by Israel’s own prophets. All the talk in these chapters about God’s sovereign choice, down to the hardening of Pharoah’s heart (like Caesar’s?) is about God’s work on the grand canvas of history, beginning with his choice of a people, and his use of even their worst enemies toward his sovereign purposes. We still have a role in our individual stories of salvation, depending upon whether our response is that of humble, dependent faith, or proud, willful self-reliance, “by works.” But God has chosen to have a people, a new Israel, of both Jewish and Gentile believers, and he will accomplish that as much through Israel’s resistance to the new work of God as he did through the hardness and resistance of Pharoah. But the Gentile Christians are told in no uncertain terms: God has not abandoned Israel.
This sets the stage for the advice for life together, as the new Israel, beginning with chapter 12 through 15, culminating with 15: 7, “Receive one another as Christ has received you,” that is, with all your diversity of background, whether Jew or Gentile, or whatever kind of Gentile, receive and welcome each other. In light of the unifying work of God in a new humanity, a new Israel, Paul’s other discussions about food (ch. 14), the observance of special days, the suspension of judgment over questionable matters of preference and custom make sense, culminating in a new focus not on getting one’s own rights and honor, but on each other’s welfare, that we might “each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up (15:2).” A society in which each member competes to give honor, rather than to get it (12: 10) is a revolutionary sign of God’s kingdom breaking into the world, another sign that says “Under New Management.” This is all based on the “transformed world” of 12: 2, which is based on the sovereign work of God described in chs. 9-11. The best translation of that verse would be, “Be not conformed to this world, but to the transformed [one] by the renewing of your mind.” That is wholesale, the rest, from chs. 12-15 is retail.
PAUL AND GOVERNMENT in Romans 13:1-7 is a subject of controversy, more for its misuse in history rather than its actual meaning. German Christians during the Third Reich heard a terrible distortion of it, to the effect that whoever ruled at any given time must have been installed by God. Therefore, whatever the ruler demanded or commanded was the demand and command of God. To disobey the ruler was to disobey God, allegedly.
But while Paul calls for “subjection” or “submission” to the rulers, which he fleshes out as taxes, abiding by the rule of law, and showing respect. But the rulers of the time (and many since) called for worship, or at least blind obedience, which neither Jesus nor Paul ever gave. Yet Jesus and Paul displayed submission to the authorities by treating the persons respectfully and truthfully, and by submitting themselves to the rule of law. If there was something required by government that they could not give (worship or silencing the gospel), they still submitted to the consequences of their disobedience (crucifixion, or prison). The things which government does, such as punishing evil doers, serve a function within God’s government of the world. But they are not things that Paul commands Christians to do. If they obey the laws of God, they have nothing to fear from government, not even should the government persecute them for it.
CHAPTER 16 gives us a glimpse into the multi-cultural nature of the Roman churches, as well as their structure as house churches, meeting in the homes of those named. Some of them are women, pointing us toward the likelihood that women led and hosted house churches and did other gospel work from the first generation of believers.
Just as the main themes of the letter were revealed in the opening greeting of the letter (1: 1-7), so are they reprised in the warning (16: 17-20) and the final doxology (16: 25-27).
I CORINTHIANS 1 introduces us to the themes and conflicts that made this letter necessary. Acts 18 tells us how the church began in Corinth, fresh on the heels of Paul’s ministry in Athens. He arrived there, he will say, in Chapter 2, “in fear and trembling,” resolved to preach “nothing but Christ, and him crucified.” In contrast to his previous effort to speak to the Athenians in terms of their own wisdom, Paul evidently confronted the worldly, cosmopolitan wisdom, the class and status system, and all conventional notions of power current in Corinth with the shocking and humbling preaching of the cross, for it symbolizes the true wisdom and power of God. Throughout the letter we will see how the cross is a recurrent theme for dealing with divisions and schisms, mistreatment of the weak and less powerful, immorality, and controversies over food and holidays. The cross, as a reflection of the wisdom and power of God, is an inverse mirror to the mentalities and structures of power, privilege, status and wisdom in the world.
The Corinthian Christians would need such a shocking confrontation, because of the way in which their worldly pride, power (economic and political) and wisdom had generated schisms and controversies. Situated on the isthmus between the lower and upper Greek peninsula, Corinth was the crossroads for shipping traffic going east and west, and for land traffic going north and south. This likely made Corinth and its citizens very diverse and cosmopolitan. It also would have lent to a feeling of power, superiority and indispensability. They were “progressive,” “with it,” and “abreast of the times.” Except for the ones among them who weren’t, who they could treat like dirt. In this first chapter, Paul wastes no time in introducing the themes, naming the conflict, and presenting the remedy: the cross of Jesus, and a proper orientation toward it.
PSALM 116 is one of the Hallelujah psalms, ending as it does with that Hebrew phrase that means, “Praise the Lord.” It reflects the ancient Israelite practice of fulfilling vows to God of sacrifice and worship upon God’s fulfillment of the petitioner’s prayers.
PSALM 117, for as short as it is, still encapsulates the missional destiny of Israel, to be a light to the nations, that they too might join Israel in the praise and worship of YHWH God.
PSALM 118 contains elements of liturgy, perhaps to celebrate the king’s return, victorious, from battle. Some of the responsive, liturgical elements include the phrase, “His love endures forever” (vv. 1-3; also in other psalms) and the dialog between verses 19 and 20. This psalm also figures strongly in the New Testament. Jesus is “the stone which the builders rejected,” which “became the cornerstone.” (Mt. 21:42). When he entered Jerusalem in what we now call “The Triumphal Entry,” Jesus was greeted with the words of verse 26. That crowd understood him to be a conquering king, returning to Zion from battle.