This is one of an inaugural series of “Biblical postings” for this renewed Nurturing Justice web-site. I am placing here some of my “readings” of what Paul conveys in his letter to the Romans, Chapters 9 to 12. I have developed an interpretation that has radical significance for how we understand our lives in the light of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Israel’s Messiah, Jesus Christ. Paul’s letter has everything to do with loving our neighbour with public justice, and this is from the heart of Jesus’ teaching not, as some assert, completely different from it. The idea that “Religion and politics do not belong together—as Jesus himself taught” is not just partially wrong; it is to completely misunderstand (for further explanation see the discussion of Romans 10:1-21 “Provoked into service by the Lord’s Jealousy”), and it simply confirms a “western” inability to understand that following Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel, in political life is not actually about some abstracted “winning” condition.
Romans 12:14-21 is Paul’s encouragement to his readers to see themselves as the Messiah’s own people, the Person proclaimed by the prophets so that all the princes of the earth, and all the people with them, may live within the prevailing sovereign mercy of God. The Saviour of the world, the Son of Man as we find Jesus teaching in the Gospels makes a new humanity. How then are these “new people” to live? How are they to view themselves in relation to what has gone before His coming? Just how are they to “love their neighbours”?
Paul’s account of how he has been conquered – the term he uses if “mercified” – by this Gospel is of decisive importance for those who believe this “good news”, not only for how they understand their past, whether it be “Christian” or “pagan” but it also has to do with how they are to “do politics”. Cannot Paul’s good news also help us to see ourselves in a fresh way and to shed many of the traditionally-endorsed Christian presumptions that hinder Christian political service?
Readers who might wish to read the complete commentary on Romans are invited to download Paul’s Letter and Curriculum for the Church at Rome here.
Let me ask: has God abandoned His people? No way! For even I am an Israelite, of Abraham’s descent, of Benjamin’s tribe. God has not abandoned His own people whom He has always intended [to nurture and be His own]. Perhaps you have not appreciated what the scripture tells us of Elijah’s petition to God against Israel. “Lord they have executed your own prophets; they have demolished your own commemorative shrines, and I alone remain and [now] they seek [to end] my life.” But what did the [Lord’s] oracle have to say to him? “I have set aside seven-thousand persons for my own special purpose those who have by no means bent the knee to Baal.” And likewise in this present time, there is indeed a gracious selection of [such] a remnant, and if it were other than [a matter of God’s] gracious provision then it would no longer be a gift.
What does this suggest? Israel has not procured what he sough but those selected have procured it, the rest being hardened. As it stands written [by Moses and Isaiah]: “To this day God gave them [instead] a spiritual hang-over, with eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear.” Also David says: “Let their table become a snare for them, their net, their obstacle and their own retribution.” So that their eyes are darkened so that they cannot see, their gait perpetually crooked.
So, have they tripped up, thereby suffering a complete demise? No way! But by their offence salvation is [now poured out] for the Gentiles, in order to provoke them to covetousness. So now if their offence has meant that riches for the [entire] cosmos [are poured out], and their defection riches for the nations, how much more will it be when they are fully embraced.
But to you Gentiles, let me explain, that inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I find myself taking great pride in my service to you, which is to provoke those of my own flesh to profound covetousness and thereby rescue some of them. And indeed if their cutting loose [from Christ] has meant a cosmos reconciled, what will their reception be but life from the grave? For when the initial batch is holy so is the entire crop. If the root is holy so are the branches. So then, if some of the branches were broken off, while you, from a wild olive was grafted in, right among the branches to partake of the root with all the juices of the olive-tree, be on your guard not to elevate yourself against the [other] branches; and in taking great pride [in your new growth] keep in mind that you do not sustain the root, but the root sustains you.
So you might want to say “The breaking off of the branches has allowed me [a Gentile] to be grafted into the vine.” True enough. But it was from a lack of faith that they were broken off and it is by faith that you now have your place. So don’t go developing a superior perspective; instead stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you.
Take careful note then of the kindness and the severity of God. On the one hand, His severity toward those who have fallen away; on the other hand His kindness toward you; so stay within that kindness or you too will find yourself cut off. And they too [these other pruned branches], if they no longer persist in unbelief, will [indeed] be grafted [back] in. For [of course] God has the power to graft them in again. And if you having been cut off from what, by nature, is a wild olive tree and contrary to your nature grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will those of the same nature be grafted into their own olive-tree.
For brothers and sisters I do not want you, by focusing upon yourselves, to be ignorant of this mystery: this [is about] callous resistance arising from a portion of Israel until the complete ranks of all the nations are included. And that is when all Israel will be rescued, according to what has been written: “From out of Zion the Deliverer will come and He will rid Jacob of all presumptive defiance, and so my covenant will be fulfilled with them when I strike out their sins.” So, on the one hand, they are the gospel’s enemies because of you, and yet, on the other hand, because of their fathers they are [indeed] the belovéd chosen. For God’s free gifts and appeal are not taken back. For you would still be living just as you always have been, were it not for their [Israel’s] disobedience, so now, having received mercy, live in order that those living in disobedience may be mercified in your mercy [to them]. For God has incarcerated all to [the prison-house of] disobedience in order that he may show mercy to all alike.
Oh, what depth of riches, wisdom and knowledge there is in God. How beyond our ability to assess Him! However far we go we still will never catch up with Him! For who can know the Lord’s thoughts? Who could ever be consultant to Him? Who has ever tendered a gift to Him so to have Him in their debt? Because it is from Him and through Him and to Him that everything exists. To Him may profound worshipful respect be given always and henceforth. AMEN.
In this “reading” or “commentary” of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, I provide my own translation. Perhaps in places it is more like a transliteration. It has been produced after working with and pondering over the Koine Greek text. Clearly, Paul has “big issues” to discuss with his readers. He isn’t only affirming his Jewish ancestry, emphasizing his apostolic credentials to fellow Israelites. He is also compelled to explain how he stands with the Gentiles, those who have heard and believed the Good News about Jesus of Nazareth.
It goes like this: within Israel, God’s own chosen family from all the families of the earth, there remains treachery, treachery at the heart that is willing to align with the powers of darkness and evil, those idolatrous forces ruling the Gentiles, in order to rid Israel of Israel’s Saviour. But in raising Israel’s crucified Messiah from the grave, God has not only presented Israel with their Lord and Prince (“Israel, behold your God!” Isaiah 40:9), He has raised Him to His Right Hand to be the Prince of all the peoples of the earth!
And it is even more complex than that. Paul is compelled to explain to the readers if this exposition (Gentile and Jewish readers and listeners alike) how he, a convert to Jesus after being Jesus’ arch-persecutor, relates to his Jewish brethren as he takes his stand with Gentile believers in the Christ, the One who has brought salvation according to God’s covenant revealed to Israel.
I have suggested that the bulk of this “letter” may have been written as the formal statement of a teaching syllabus, and in that sense we should also note the possibility that he wrote it to provide a basic resource for himself whenever asked to speak. This is how he would want to explain himself to those desiring to understand this “herald’s” message. He emphatically claims that it was Jesus Himself who sent him. And so he wants to comprehensively cover all that needs to be said. I think that, with profit, we can read this as his own seminar notes, his extended “crib sheet” helping him to cover his topic whenever called upon to explain his Good News. This is to say that it makes sense to read Paul in this passage, and in this letter in its entirety, to be anticipating questions about how he became such a mercified postman of the Good News, when formerly he had been its persistent persecutor.
The consequences of this gospel are beyond measure. Paul’s paean of praise, his thanksgiving and sheer wonder, contrasts with the darker than dark mystery [MUSTERION v.25] about the still active process he sees in which a callous hardening (in fact a preparation for future judgement) is at work within the human race, which is also very much at work among those to whom grace has been shown. God has now dispensed with the disobedience Israel displayed by rejecting their Messiah by raising Him from the dead. And hence Paul can say that, from our baptism, we are risen with Christ (6:3; Colossians 2:12; 3:1). Who now is there, apart from Jesus Himself, to condemn? (8:34).
One cannot even begin to calculate the evil of sin, and that evil is not overcome by one’s birth, one’s blood, one’s circumcision, one’s ethnicity, one’s social status, and certainly not by immersion in the mystery of evil itself. The Lord God had nurtured belief and hope in His specially chosen people by the prophets, from generation to generation. He did this so that they would welcome God’s Son, the Messiah of Israel, when he came. But what did they do? They hardened themselves by turning their backs on Him when He came. And the Good News story does not fudge the fact that Jesus’ own handpicked disciples failed Him at the time of His greatest need. Peter and the belovéd John had wimped off. They failed shamefully. And here Paul, the former leader of a terrorist militia, explains to Gentile readers these important background factors that have now facilitated their own embrace of Israel’s Messiah. He is not pointing a finger at Gamaliel, or the Sanhedrin, but indicating how it was that by Jewish unbelief – including his own disobedience that sent many fleeing for safety into Gentile lands – that they, as Gentiles, had now received news of the mercy extended to them by Israel’s Messiah. And now they are called by God to demonstrate Christian mercy, as Gentiles, so that Jewish people might be provoked to allow this Good News to reunite themselves with their God and with God’s chosen extended family.
Paul writes as one who has received mercy, softened by the hand of the Lord. He had been healed by the One referring to Himself as “the light of the world” (John 8:12). Before the Lord’s intervention, Paul was “breathing murderous threats”, hardening himself against Jesus. He was bent crooked on the arrest, imprisonment and execution of those confessing Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, believing in the One who would deliver them from their sins?
He had been intent on fomenting terror and persecution among believers in Christ. When Christ met him he was turned around and commissioned to go preach to the nations, even to follow the paths of those who had fled his campaign… and so he travelled throughout the Roman world.
And so Paul, a prime example of Israel’s hardening, had been sent on another path altogether. The grace of God had gezumped the callousness that had been Paul’s own “spiritual hangover” (11:8). And all that was left for Paul to do was to live on the mercy of His Lord. Paul’s entire life was radically re-oriented to showing mercy just as God has been merciful to him. Did the Lord retaliate by disowning His people because they had presumptively defied Him? No. They might have disowned Him but, says Paul, this Lord does not retract His promises. He doesn’t storm off in a huff. He is not subject to His people’s folly. No. He doesn’t nurse regrets about the gifts He bestows. He is not about to revoke the surname He gives to those He adopts. Instead He simply provokes the children of Israel by extending His mercy to Gentiles. It will also be by the mercy of Gentiles to the Jews that Jewish unbelievers will now find mercy!
This stupendous message may well cause intense bitterness among those of Paul’s own flesh, those who are murderously jealous as he had been of the uncircumcised outsiders who profess faith in Israel’s Messiah. But this is all about the Crucified and Resurrected One; the One who has ascended to God’s right hand, the son of David as foretold by the prophets, the One appointed by God to rule the Princes of the Earth (1:1-7). In this One’s cultivated olive tree, Gentiles – branches from a wild and uncultivated plant – have been ingrafted. And their task now, having been grafted by God’s tender handiwork, is to flourish on the sap of God’s mercy. That is what these Gentiles, these “new branches” are called to display to those that have been cast off and in sore need of being regrafted into the living root.
For you would still be living just as you always have been, were it not for Israel’s disobedience , so now, having received mercy live in order that those living in disobedience may be mercified by your mercy [to them].
Paul expresses his conviction that Jesus’ commission to take the Gospel to the Gentiles and to their kings has everything to do with the Gospel doing its work softening the hearts of the children of Israel (Acts 9:15). Gentiles are clearly part of the Gospel’s work with God’s own people. There may well be suffering that comes along when one heeds the Gospel, but the belovéd children of Israel are by no means abandoned.
Paul concludes with his psalm, a doxology that sums up the praise he has for the Lord, his amazement at just how the Lord’s bounty extends. It goes much further than any ability we may have to map it all out.