Audiences: Romans 2:1-29


Romans is one long, complex argument. In the first three chapters Paul is addressing two separate audiences.

Prayer

Psalm 95

“Lord God, show us that you have not abandoned your heritage, even if that means discipline.”

Scripture

Romans 2:1-29

Background

Romans is one long, complex argument that we have split into sixteen chapters and many verses. The problem is that when we focus on just one small verse or one passage, or even one chapter, we fail to recognize the role of that passage in the bigger picture. We change the meaning of what Paul wrote.

The climax of the argument is chapters nine through eleven. This is where Paul really hammers home that God can be trusted to keep God’s word. God has not abandoned Israel. Interestingly these are also the chapters that many Evangelicals are least likely to read because these chapters don’t fit with an Arminian, free-will, personal responsibility theology. We think of ourselves as a Bible-believing people—so long as the Bible supports our prior theology.

Not long before Paul wrote this letter the Roman emperor had expelled all the Jews from the city of Rome. It was natural for many people to interpret this as God’s doing. Perhaps God had abandoned the Jews? Perhaps God has replace Israel with the young Church as the chosen people?

We today tend to interpret events in a similar manner. When there is a time of crisis or upheaval we want to know if this is God’s doing.

Early on in Romans Paul is setting himself up to show that he can be persuasive in his analysis of two social orders: Judean and Roman. Both of these social orders prided themselves on being the embodiment of God’s justice.

In chapter one Paul is speaking to a Gentile, Roman audience. He doesn’t quote scripture at all because a Roman audience wouldn’t consider scripture to be authoritative. Instead Paul expects what he has said to be recognized and affirmed by any intelligent and reasonable pagan. You can find very similar claims to the ones Paul made in the writings of ancient Romans like the historian, Tacitus.

The point Paul is making is not that Rome is so awful. That wouldn’t be worth writing about. The point is that the Roman civilization—the one that prides itself on being the embodiment of divine justice—executed the Messiah. So when Rome accuses others of impiety or injustice they have to look at themselves when they make this judgment. They killed the one who is the justice of God.

So Paul is speaking to pagans in pagan terms using things they find reasonable, authoritative, and persuasive. He’s working within their frame of reference. That will continue through the first half of chapter two before he switches to address a Jewish audience.

Paul doesn’t try to prove a point by just quoting Jesus. He understands his audience. He goes to where they are and he works from there. He works with the values and ideals of specific communities and uses those to build a bridge to the gospel.

Is this something we today are able to do or do we try to force all conversations to follow our terms? Can we talk with secular humanists and secular humanist ways to convince them of the reasonableness of Christianity or do we just start quoting scripture and expect them to fall into line?

Analysis of the Passage

In the beginning of this passage Paul is still addressing a Roman, Gentile audience. Remember that he didn’t write in chapter and verse. Those are artificial divisions imposed much later and they are not always helpful. Verses 9-16 are a transition between the Roman audience and the Judean audience. You get a sense of this change in verse 17 which starts with, “But if you call yourself a Judean…” It’s almost as if Paul just turned his head. He’s been talking to one side of the room and now he turns and begins to address the other side.

I really want you to “get” this point. There are two audiences to this letter. One is pagan or Gentile and the other is Judean or Jewish. The epistle makes a lot more sense if you “get” this first point. Can you understand the evidence I’ve shown you from the letter that supports this claim?

Verses 1-8

Paul is still making a pagan argument, using pagan logic. He’s not quoting Jesus when he talks about not judging one another. Paul’s never read the gospels. They weren’t written yet. He’s arguing with pagan logic that a society who judges others is condemning itself because it has already betrayed the justice of God by executing the Messiah.

“Do you despise…” The point is not that God’s wrath is not coming. Civilization is still here because God is patiently calling society to repentance. Then Paul talks about the just judgments of God, but he continues to speak in a pagan way. When Paul talks about seeking glory and honor and immortality, these are the goals and values of pagan Rome. These goals are incorruptible goals. They are eternal goals. These are things that matter.

But those who are self-seeking—ignoring justice—these people get wrath and destruction.

We might want to pause at this point and reflect on our own civilization and our own goals. To what extent is our society organized around self-seeking goals?

Verses 9-11

Paul’s now wrapping up the pagan argument and shifting to the Jew. To say that God does not show favoritism when God judges is a message to Jews as well as Gentiles. Just because they’re (or we’re) the chosen people of God does not give us a free pass. Paul always insists that we must do what the law requires in order to be justified. That’s not the same as saying we must perfectly obey the law. But Paul never retracts this demand that the purpose of the law be fulfilled by God’s people. He often insists that Gentile Christians should not try to obey the law.

Are obedience to and fulfillment of the law the same things?

Obedience and fulfillment of the law are quite different things. We fulfill the law by following Messiah Jesus but we don’t follow Messiah Jesus by obeying the Law. That’s just Judaism. It’s not yet Christianity. There are a lot of Jewish Christians still today.

Verses 12-16

For this reason when the Gentiles who do not have the law do what they law requires, they are justified. It also means Gentiles who do not have the law are not without excuse. What God requires has been made known to everyone.

Keep in mind that Paul thinks his message is one of glad-making tidings. There is a new standard of justice. That standard is the judgment given by Messiah Jesus. This is happy news for the whole world. If the one condemned and killed by the law is the new norm of justice, then this is a revolutionary promise to us all.

Verses 17-28

The Jew to whom Paul is speaking in this passage is the Pharisee, not the Sadducee. The Pharisees believed they had a mission to the Gentiles but the Sadducees did not want anything to do them.

Paul is a Pharisee and a very good one. Paul is using a common Pharisaic argument against fellow Jews. In order to get the real sense of what Paul is doing you have to imagine that he’s not indicting individuals who steal or commit adultery. He’s talking in good Pharisaic fashion about the Judean people in diaspora.

Circumcision is a form of identity. Paul’s argument should be read as a fundamentally Jewish argument. He’s not making a Christian argument. What he’s saying is found in Deuteronomy and the prophets already. A Pharisee would argue beyond Paul that if you wanted to be a Jew you still had to be circumcised. Paul would agree, but he’d also argue that you don’t have to be a Jew to follow the Messiah.

You can get a better sense of how Paul’s argument is working by substituting the word “Christian” for “Jew” and by substituting “baptism” for “circumcision.” Paul is working against the sense of religious privilege. Baptism, like circumcision, is important, but it will not help you if you don’t do what the law requires.

Reflection

  1. Like Paul we realize the injustice and corruption of our society. What can we learn from the strategy Paul uses to indict his societies?
  2. How is it the case that what happens in Jesus is glad-making tidings for societies?
  3. If God doesn’t show favoritism and if Paul condemns religious privilege, is it the case that Christians have taken too much pride in being Christian?

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Christian Community

Fundamental gear.

Fundamental Gear

Fundamentals of Christianity Series

These are the full notes for this presentation originally delivered at Brentwood Church of the Nazarene. The series runs throughout the summer. We’re exploring the fundamentals of Christianity by beginning with the problem of pluralism within Christianity. As we explore that problem we cover some of the fundamental practices, beliefs, and disciplines of what it means to be Christian. I invite you to practice community by leaving comments, questions, and feedback.

Big Questions of the Series

  1. How do we read the Bible and develop beliefs in ways that connect us with God and with one another?
  2. Are there particular Christian virtues, practices, or disciplines that promote this kind of connection?
  3. What role should Christian community play for us today?

Learning Objectives of this Lesson

  1. Understand the role of community in creating value and meaning.
  2. Understand the role of value and meaning in creating behavior and identity.
  3. Define community as a voluntary association of like-minded individuals.
  4. Explain the role of community in the vitality and sustainability of the Christian faith.

Beginning Questions

  1. Why should people go to church?
  2. What are we talking about when we talk about community?

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Evangelical Pluralism

Fundamental gear.

Fundamental Gear

Fundamentals of Christianity Series

These are the full notes for this presentation originally delivered at Brentwood Church of the Nazarene. The series runs throughout the summer. We’re exploring the fundamentals of Christianity by beginning with the problem of pluralism within Christianity. As we explore that problem we cover some of the fundamental practices, beliefs, and disciplines of what it means to be Christian. I invite you to practice community by leaving comments, questions, and feedback.

Big Questions of the Series

  1. How do we read the Bible and develop beliefs in ways that connect us with God and with one another?
  2. Are there particular Christian virtues, practices, or disciplines that promote this kind of connection?
  3. What role should Christian community play for us today?

Learning Objectives of this Lesson

  1. Recognize the presence of pluralism within Protestant Christianity.
  2. Explore the source of this pluralism in core Protestant values, principles, and doctrines.
  3. Recognize the cultural values reflected in these doctrines.
  4. Understand the tendency towards division that this creates.

Beginning Questions

  1. How is it that two reasonable, godly, intelligent, good-willed people can read the same passage of scripture and arrive at totally different interpretations?
  2. Is it true that all interpretations are equally valid—e.g. that all roads lead to heaven?
  3. What are some different approaches that Christians have taken to interpret the Bible in the past?
  4. Do different approaches have different consequences or ramifications?

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Welcoming Sinners: Luke 15:1-10

Seeking escape.

Seeking escape.

We actually debate whether we should follow Jesus’ example of eating and drinking with sinners.

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Prayer: Luke 11:1-13

When asked to teach the disciples how to pray, Jesus responds by teaching them about God.

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Eternal Life: Luke 10:25-37

Eternal life begins right here and right now as we follow in the way of Jesus.

Listen to the audio version: https://bcnilluminations.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/eternallife_luke10.mp3%20
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Christian Love: Luke 6:27-38

Should Jesus’ command to love our enemies, or his command not to judge, be read literally?

Listen to the audio version: https://bcnilluminations.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/christianlove.mp3%20
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