Friday, January 16

Matthew 8:1-13: Here are the first two of the Ten Miracles that Matthew, following his standard pattern of comparing Moses and Jesus, sets in parallel to the Ten Plagues visited on Egypt.

In the first of these, the curing of the leper, the Lord invokes the authority of Moses (8:4), and in the second he extends the blessing of the Chosen People to the faith of the Gentiles (8:11). Matthew 7:29 introduced the theme of the Lord’s “authority” (exsousia), which appears here again in 8:9. It will reappear presently in the matter of the forgiveness of sins (9:6), where we will learn that this authority is shared with the Church (9:8).

All of these Ten Miracles illustrate this authority of Christ: over sickness and paralysis, over the demons, and over the forces of nature. Just as the Lord teaches with authority (7:29), we also find Him healing with authority; unlike the prophets and rabbis, Jesus heals by command, not by intercessory prayer.

Saturday, January 17

Romans 1:1-10: Paul’s eloquent introduction (verses 1-7) is easily the longest, most elaborate, and most detailed in all his epistles. This distinguishing feature reflects the fact that Romans, unlike Paul’s earlier letters to Thessaloniki, Galatia, Philippi, and Corinth, was not composed for the purpose of addressing questions and problems of the congregation to which it was sent. It bears the character, rather, of a theological treatise. In this sense, it lacks the immediately ad hoc quality of Paul’s other writings. The Epistle to the Romans is more theoretical, as it were, less directed to the particular conditions of an individual church. This is one of the qualities that make it unique in the Pauline corpus.

Although the Apostle evidently had several friends in Rome (as we see in the greetings sent to many individuals in chapter 16), this epistle does not show him especially familiar with the specific situation of the church in that city nor intent on dealing with particular problems there.

Consequently, it is curious that some Christians regard Romans as a kind of standard for all Paul’s letters, whereas it is arguably the least typical, both in form and in historical context. That is to say, Romans is a formal and developed theological treatise addressed to a church that Paul himself had not founded. For that reason, it lends itself, more than any of the other of Paul’s letters, to structured critical, study outside of an historical context. There is an irony here, inasmuch as Romans is the letter in which Paul devotes the most attention to a theology of history.

The theological theme of the Epistle to the Romans had been thrust toward the center of Paul’s interest and concern during the previous six or so years, ever since the Galatian crisis during the early fifties—namely, justification through faith, apart from the observance of the Mosaic Law. Paul’s concentration on this theme is the fruit of his deeper reflections during the ensuing years. Hence, there is no indication that the Church at Rome was subject to the same or a similar crisis as that which prompted the Epistle to the Galatians.

Paul’s name is the only one that appears as an author of this epistle, even though he actually dictated the work to Tertius (16:22). We may contrast this feature with Paul’s earlier inclusion of Timothy, Silvanus, and Sosthenes as joint "authors" (1 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Philippians 1:1, 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1) and his later inclusion of Timothy in the letter to the Colossians (1:1).

In the Epistle to the Romans it is clear that Paul thinks of his evangelization of the eastern Mediterranean basin as pretty much completed. The churches founded in that region he had now handed over to the care of the pastors whom he appointed, and he now trusted those men to transmit the Gospel to the following generations.

Paul is now ready to turn his attention to the western end of the Mediterranean basin, especially Italy and Spain, and this epistle, borne to its destination by the trusted deaconess Phoebe (16:1), would serve to introduce the Apostle to those churches, while he completed one last task that he had appointed for himself in the east—namely, the transmission to Jerusalem of the collection of alms that had been made among the Pauline churches.

In this epistle’s initial greeting we observe its emphasis on Christology, its avowal of the historical Jesus, "born of the seed of David according to the flesh," and the Christ of faith, "designated [or “declared,” horisthentos, not "predestined" or prooristhentos] to be Son of God with power." These are two descriptions of the same Jesus Christ, of course, along with the recognition that His resurrection from the dead (verse 4) is the historical fact manifesting and demonstrating His true identity (cf. Acts 2:34-36; 1 Corinthians 15:45; Philippians 3:10).

The expression "the obedience of faith" (hyupakoe pisteos—verse 5) is an appositional genitive (“the obedience which is faith”) indicating that faith is active, not simply passive; it is a commitment and not just a reception (cf. 10:17; 16:26). It is not a mere assent of the intellect but a dedication of the heart.

Sunday, January 18

Romans 1:11-17: For some time now, Paul has wanted to come to Rome (verses 10-13), where the local Christian congregation was already famous among Christians elsewhere (verse 8). The church at Rome seems first to have been established by Roman Jews who had been present at the original Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2:10; cf. Tacitus, Annals 15.44). Indeed, this early date for the founding of the church at Rome is supported by the funerary inscription of a Christian woman, Pomponia Graecina, in the early forties, well before the arrival of the apostles in that city.

Although these early Christian founders had been expelled from Rome in the general expulsion of the Jews in A.D. 49 (Acts 18:1; Suetonius, "Claudius" 25), it is reasonable to suppose that some of them returned there after the death of Claudius in the year 54. As to the actual composition of the church at Rome when Paul wrote this epistle four years later, we can say little that is certain. Nonetheless, on the presumption that Gentile Christians at Rome were not affected by the expulsion in 49, we may guess that there were more Gentile Christians than Jewish at Rome when Paul wrote this epistle very early in the year 58.

It is not clear who was pastoring Rome at this time, much less who was the chief pastor in that city. The absence of any greetings to Simon Peter in this epistle would be utterly unintelligible if the latter had already arrived in Rome. Indeed, our earliest direct evidence for Peter’s presence in Rome does not come until the early sixties (1 Peter 5:13).

Especially puzzling is this epistle’s lack of any reference to Linus (2 Timothy 4:21), identified by Irenaeus of Lyons (Adversus Haereses 3.3.3) as the first bishop of Rome. (We run into an identical difficulty early in the second century, when Ignatius of Antioch, in whose letters the bishops of the local churches are otherwise named, failed to name the bishop of Rome. This aspect of the early history of the church at Rome remains mysterious.)

Paul is very conscious that his own faith is shared by the believers at Rome (verse 12), even though he had not evangelized there. This consciousness on Paul’s part is an important key to the interpretation of this epistle, because it implies that the doctrines presumed in this work pertained to the general deposit of faith common to all the early preachers of the Gospel. This shared deposit of faith formed the context within which Paul addressed the major preoccupation of this epistle, as well as the evangelism (evangelisthasthai) that he hoped to accomplish there (verse 15).

This last reference bri
ngs Paul to the subject of the Gospel (evangelion) in verse 16. The Gospel means both "salvation" (soteria) and "righteousness" (dikaiosyne), a pairing that is common in Holy Scripture (cf. Psalms 98 [97]:2; Isaiah 45:21; 51:5-8; 56:1; 61:10-11). The Good News is not a simple religious message, even less a religious philosophy; it is "the power of God" (dynamis Theou). It is God’s power working through His word, giving godly shape to history (1 Corinthians 2:4; 4:20).

In the Epistle to the Romans, the "salvation" effected by God’s power in the Gospel most often refers to a future reality (5:9-10; 8:24; 10:8,13; 11:11,26; 13:11) more than an already accomplished fact. That is to say, in this epistle salvation is something to which Christians look forward rather than something they have already received. Paul’s perspective on this point will shift somewhat over the next two years (cf. Ephesians 2:8).

The Gospel reveals God’s reconciliation of man to Himself (verse 17), a reconciliation without which man is the object of the divine wrath (verses 18 and following). The righteousness of God (3:5,21,22,25,26; 10:3) is the divine quality and act by which He renders men righteous. This is what the Gospel reveals.

The expression "from faith to faith" seems to mean "through faith and for the sake of faith." That is to say, salvation pertains to faith, from beginning to end. This is how the justified man lives.

Monday, January 19

Romans 1:18-32: In order to assess the "power" (dynamis) of the Gospel, Paul now describes the human state without the Gospel. Neither Judaism nor classical paganism, the Apostle argues, whatever their other accomplishments, have been able to attain or preserve moral integrity. If the Jew, enlightened by God’s Law, has been unable to do this (as Paul will argue in chapter 2), much less could the Greek or Roman.

Paul begins with these pagans, providing a stunning description of the depravity of his age. This description is colored by Paul’s perception as a Jew (indeed, we note his interjection of a standard Jewish doxology in verse 25), because his comments coincide with the assessment that other Jews of antiquity rendered with respect to paganism. In these lines of the epistle, we hear the voice of the Maccabees two and a half centuries earlier. Paul, like most Jews of his time, regarded the pagan world as "abandoned," "handed over," "forsaken" by God (verses 24,26,28).

The moral depravity of the age was a revelation (apokalyptetai) of the divine wrath against idolatry (verse 18; Isaiah 30:27-33). Following the argument in the Book of Wisdom (Wisdom of Solomon) 13:1-9, Paul insists that “something” about God is knowable in the works of Creation (verses 19-20). Indeed, this something is not only knowable, it is also "known" (to gnoston), so that man is inexcusable in not recognizing it.

Paul is not talking here about a personal knowledge of God, which requires faith (cf. Hebrews 11:3,5-6; 1 Corinthians 1:21), but a factual knowledge of God’s existence and some of His predicates (verse 20; Acts 14:15-17). Such factual knowledge about God is ineluctable, he says, except to those who have completely blinded their hearts (verse 21; Ephesians 4:17). These latter refuse to acknowledge what they cannot help knowing. Therefore, they decline to praise God or to thank Him, turning instead to false gods (verse 23; Psalms 106 [105]:20; Deuteronomy 4:16-18). These are gods of their own making, to whom, their makers are aware, they will never have to render an account. These are non-judgmental gods, which is what their creators prefer.

This idolatrous darkening of the heart begins with the entertainment of deceptive thoughts (verse 21), but it soon finds expression in man’s very body. It leads directly to sexual immorality (verse 24; Wisdom 14:22-27). That is to say, the mendacity and illusions of the human mind produce mendacity and illusion in the human flesh, and this corporeal untruthfulness, this fleshly illusion, is the very essence of homosexuality. Those unable to recognize the intelligent design of nature can hardly be expected to honor the most elementary markings of the human body (verses 26-28). The homosexual sin, then, is not just one sin among others; it is symptomatic of a much deeper spiritual problem.

Thus, homosexual behavior, which is "against nature" (para physin, contra naturam—verse 26), is the social and cultural progeny of an engendering idolatry. Other
sexual sins, such as fornication and adultery, at least show deference to the
biological structure of nature. The homosexual vice, however, by refusing to
do so, is particularly vile. It is the very embodying of a lie, a physical
falsehood.

Besides sexual turpitude, idolatry leads to all sorts of their sins, which the Apostle proceeds to enumerate (verses 29-31). Paul is not speculating here. Having traveled through the cities of the Greco-Roman world, having heard the confessions of his converts (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11), he is immediately familiar with these sins.

We should bear in mind that Paul, in his assessment of the world of his time, is speaking of society as a whole, not every single individual within it. He is not saying that every single pagan in the world is morally depraved. He is saying, rather, that pagan society is morally depraved.

Nor, when he speaks of the sins of homosexuals, does Paul mean that in each case that person’s sins are the result of his own personal sin of idolatry. He is saying, rather, that the homosexual vice, regarded as a social phenomenon, is the symptom of a deeper, truly radical sin, the sin of idolatry. An idolatrous culture is what spawns this disposition to regard the homosexual impulse as normal and homosexual behavior as licit.

Consequently, it is precarious to use Paul’s arguments here as applying directly to individuals who may be struggling with temptations to this particular vice; this struggle does not mean that these individuals are personally guilty of idolatry. When he treats the homosexual vice as a symptom of idolatry, Paul is describing the manifest state of pagan society without the Gospel, not each individual’s state of soul.

In addition, the divine condemnation is deserved, not only by those who do these terrible things, but also by those who approve of them, those non-judgmental types who embrace the pale, flaccid I-will-not-impose-my-morality-on-others theory. God’s judgment falls, then, not only on the malefactors themselves, but also on the society and individuals that condone, excuse, permit, or approve such malefaction.

Tuesday, January 20

Romans 2:1-16: Having described the moral failings of paganism, Paul now turns to the Jews. Woe to them if they pass judgment (verse 1), because they too have failed to measure up. Jew and Greek stand before God on level ground, in fact (verses 9-10). The Jew’s possession of the Torah, in which God reveals His moral will, is no guarantee that the Jew is superior to the Greek (verses 12-16).

Here Paul twice addresses the Jew as "man," anthropos (verses 1,3), indicating that he too is of the common clay, an heir of Adam, that first and fallen anthropos. Jewish blood is no guarantee of moral superiority over other men (cf. Matthew 3:8; John 8:39; Galatians 2:15). The Jew too, says Paul, is called to repentance, metanoia (verse 4; Wisdom 11:23), because his own heart is just as "impenitent" (verse 5).

In this epistle, the theme of which is justification through faith, the Apostle insists that the Lord "will render to each man according to his deeds" (literally "works," erga—verse 6; Psalms 62 [61]:13; Proverbs 24:12), and he goes on to speak of "the patience of good work" (verse 7). Even this early in the epistle, then, Paul closes the door to any antinomian interpretation of it.

Those who do good works are said to be seeking (zetousin) "glory and honor and incorruptibility" (verse 7). This incorruptibility, aphtharsia, is to be contrasted with the corruption of death, introduced into the world by sin (5:12).

The translation of the word aphtharsia as "immortality" (as in the KJV) is misleading, because immortality suggests something immaterial and essentially spiritual (as when we speak of "the immortality of the soul"). The Greek word aphtharsia, in contrast, refers in this context to the spiritual transformation of matter itself, of which the formal and defining example is the resurrected body of Christ. "Incorruptibility" is a property of the risen flesh of the Christian (1 Corinthians 15:42,50,53,54).

Introduced into human experience by the resurrection of Christ, this incorruptibility reverses the power of death. Indeed, the resurrection of the body is the final act in man’s salvation and the great object of his hope. (This is also the reason why, as we have seen, sentences about "salvation" normally appear in this epistle in the future tense. The fullness of salvation comes in the resurrection of our bodies.)

To those who are seeking salvation Paul contrasts those who are seeking only themselves, searching for some kind of self-fulfillment (eritheia) outside of God’s will (verse 8).

In verse 10 Paul returns to the importance of good works (literally "working the good"—ergazomenos to agathon). Salvation through faith is not for the lazy. Grace is free, but it is not cheap.

In chapter one Paul had spoken about the revelation of God’s existence through nature. Now he writes of the revelation of God’s moral law through nature (verses 14-15). His juxtaposition of Natural Law with the Mosaic Law does not mean that every particular of the latter can be discerned in the former; he means simply that the Natural Law can be known by man’s conscience and that those who have only the Natural Law will be judged according to that law, just as the Jew will be judged according to the Mosaic Law.

With respect to this revelation of God’s moral will through nature, the third-century Christian apologist Origen wrote: "There is nothing amazing about it if the same God has implanted in the souls of all men the same truths which He taught through the Prophets and the Savior. He did this in order that every man might be without excuse at the divine judgment, having the requirement of the law written in his heart" (Against Celsus 1.4).

Wednesday, January 21

Romans 2:17-29: Paul continues talking to the imaginary "man" that he earlier addressed (verses 1,3). This man calls himself a Jew (verse 17). This man, whom he had earlier reprimanded for judging others, Paul now taunts with a series of claims that were commonly made by the Jews: knowledge of the true God and His will, confidence in the Law, a superior moral insight, and the consequent right to provide guidance to the rest of the world (verses 18-20).

Paul does not deny the validity of any of these claims, but they do raise in his mind a series of concomitant questions that he now puts to the Jew (verses 21-23). The latter’s behavior, after all, leaves a lot to be desired. Indeed, the bad conduct of the Jew, as Isaiah had long ago remarked, has brought reproach of the God of the Jews (verse 24; Isaiah 52:5 in LXX). Their defining sign, circumcision, has been rendered morally meaningless by their insouciance to the rest of the Torah (verse 25).

Now, asks Paul, how is the circumcised Jew who disobeys the Law of Moses morally superior to the uncircumcised Gentile who observes the Natural Law written in his heart (verses 26-27)?

Throughout this diatribe the Apostle is continuing the very argument that the Old Testament prophets had directed to the Chosen People ever since Amos and Isaiah eight hundred years before—namely, that a strict adherence to the prescribed rituals is no adequate substitute for the moral renewal of the heart and a blameless life pleasing to God. Far from rejecting the Old Testament here, Paul is appealing to one of its clearest themes (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Micah 6:6-8; Jeremiah 4:4; 9:24-25; Ezekiel 44:9).

The true circumcision is internal. This is the "secret" (krypton) that the Lord sees (verse 16). It is the heart that must be circumcised (verses 29-30; Acts 7:51). The true moral renewal of man, then, is not the fruit of a greater and more intense moral effort; it comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit in the circumcised heart.

In his contrast of two circumcisions, Paul invokes the distinction between letter and Spirit that he had used a year earlier to describe the difference between the Old Testament dispensation and the Christian Gospel (2 Corinthians 3:6). The ci
rcumcision or pruning of the human heart places that heart under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whose grace causes the human being to become a child of God (8:15; Galatians 4:6). The Gospel, then, is not simply a source of new moral information; it is the internal principle of a new mode of life.

Paul’s distinction between a Jew in the flesh and a Jew in the Spirit puts us in mind of Jesus’ insistence, in the Sermon on the Mount, that a believer’s existence is defined, not by his external observance of a religious code, but by his internal relationship to the heavenly Father (Matthew 6:1,4,6,8,14,18). Indeed, the same expression "secret" (krypton) is used in both places (verses 16,29; Matthew 6:4,6).
In spite of the historical advantage that God has given the Jew over the Gentile (verses 9-10; 1:16), they are both called by the Gospel to the same repentance.

Thursday, January 22

Romans 3:1-8: To say (as Paul has been saying) that both the Gentile and the Jew are called to repentance is not to deny the historical advantage of the Jews, because "to them were committed the oracles of God" (verse 2). Later in this same epistle (11:11-23) Paul will argue at greater length that God still keeps His eye on the Jews; they will still have their important role to play in the outcome of history. The Jews’ current displacement from their native root (which is Christ, we perhaps need to insist, and not some piece of real estate in the land of Palestine) is only temporary, "until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in" (11:25).

Meanwhile, in fact, only "some" of the Jews have failed (verse 3), only "some of the branches have been broken off" (11:17). In these assertions Paul seems to have in mind not only his contemporary situation but all of Jewish history. That is to say, the Old Testament itself testifies that there have always been both faithful and unfaithful Jews. Those very "oracles of God," which were committed to the Jews, also bear witness to the failure of some Jews to take God’s word seriously. No matter, says Paul, because God Himself is faithful, even to an unfaithful people (verses 3-4).

The divine fidelity also is recorded in the "oracles of God." This expression, ta logia tou Theou (Psalms 107 [106]:11; Numbers 24:4,16), includes the whole corpus of Sacred Scripture, not simply the prophetic utterances (Hebrews 5:12; 1 Peter 4:11). The whole Old Testament testifies to God’s fidelity in the face of man’s infidelity (3:26; Exodus 34:6; Numbers 23:19; Isaiah 55:11; Hosea 3:26).

Paul’s quotation from Psalm 51 (50):6 in verse 4 is based on the Septuagint, not the Hebrew text, and its entire context, which is one of repentance, is worth considering here. David himself, to whom this psalm is attributed, had been unfaithful to God through the sins of adultery and murder, but his own unfaithfulness did not eliminate the faithfulness of God. Indeed, with an oath God swore that He would never be false to David (Psalms 89 [88]:35). This divine "oracle" bears witness to the very point that Paul is making—the fidelity of God to His pledged word.

On the other hand, when God manifests His wrath (orge, a word that appears in Romans twelve times, more often than in any other book of the New Testament), He can hardly be called evil for doing so (verse 5). In other words, God’s use of man’s sin as an occasion of manifesting the divine mercy cannot be thrown back at God as an excuse for continuing to sin.

It is most instructive to observe that even during Paul’s own lifetime, some Christians have already accused Paul of saying just that. In this text we learn that the Apostle’s earlier statements about justification by grace through faith (especially in Galatians, it would seem) were already being misinterpreted. His affirmation of the freedom of Christians from the precepts of the Mosaic Law were already being interpreted as a declaration of freedom from all law, all moral responsibility, all personal effort in the process of their salvation. Paul here bears witness to this distortion of his teaching by those who claimed him as their authority.

It was arguably to refute this early misinterpretation of Paul that James insisted that "a man is justified by works, not by faith only," and that "faith without works is dead" (James 1:22,26).

Peter likewise, even as he referred to Paul’s epistles as "Scriptures," remarked that in those epistles "are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:16).

Evidently Paul himself agreed with the negative assessment of those who distorted his teaching to their own destruction. He had earlier written of the inadequacy of sola fides, remarking that "though I have all faith, so that I could move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing" (1 Corinthians 13:2).

Friday, January 23

Romans 3:9-20: After the diatribe that begins this chapter (verses 3-8), Paul returns to the theme introduced in chapter two, the alleged moral advantage of the Jew over the Gentile. Even though God’s fidelity to the Jews, in spite of their infidelities to Him, does ironically manifest the privileged position of the Jews in salvation history, from a moral perspective this fact hardly warrants any boasting on the part of the Jews. Indeed, it shows them up rather badly. In short, Paul is arguing, "we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin" (verse 9).

This is, in truth, man’s concrete position before God—he is "under sin" (hyph’ hamartian).Such is Paul’s repeated contention in Romans (verse 23; 5:5:12). Let us note he uses the word "sin" here for the first time in this epistle.

In support of his thesis about man’s subjection to sin, Paul quotes (along with other sources) the Book of Psalms 14 (13):1-3; 53 (52):1-3. These two psalms both begin with the fool’s assertion that "there is no God." In citing these psalms, therefore, Paul is once again taking up, from chapter one, the denial of God by the "fools" (1:22), whose "foolish hearts were darkened" (1:21). The "fools" in these psalms, Paul is suggesting, are not simply Gentiles, because "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (verse 23).

The totality, the completeness, of man’s sinful condition is indicated here by Paul’s scriptural references to the various body parts that contribute to the sin: throat, tongue, lips, mouth, feet, eyes (verses 13-5). Man is, in short, sinful, sinful in all his parts.

What “man” I meant in this context? Well, the Old Testament passages cited by Paul seem to refer to the Jews, after all (verse 19), so the Jew can claim no moral superiority over the Gentile. In verses 19-20 the totality of man’s sinful state is accented by the triple use of the word "all" or "every" (pas).

In short, man is not justified before God by the works of the Law, because "by the Law is the knowledge of sin" (verse 20). This expression, "works of the Law," does not refer to good works generally; it refers, rather, to those commandments (including, ironically, a certain abstention from "work" on the Sabbath) laid down in the Law of Moses. Paul is not contrasting faith with works; he is contrasting the Gospel with the Law of Moses. The latter, he says, does not justify man; it gives man, rather, the knowledge or consciousness (epignosis) of sin.

Here again the apostle cites the Book of Psalms (143 [142]:1-2), where the inspired psalmist insists that "all flesh " (pasa sarxs) fails to be justified (dikaiothesetai) before God. How, then, is a man to be justified, to be rendered righteous? The psalmist himself answers, "In Your faithfulness hear me, in Your righteousness." That is to say, even according to the Old Testament, it is God who justifies; it is God who makes righteous.

Paul thus introduces a theme that will be developed at greater length in chapter seven, namely, man’s consciousness of sin made more manifest by the Law. The function of the Law, in this context, is to prove to man just how rebellious, how depraved, how immoral he is (4:5; 5:13). If in this sense the Law makes sinners of us all, surely this is even more the case for the Jew, after all, to whom the Law was given.