Thursday, November 24, 2011

Romans 14 - The Context

Please click to read Romans 14:1-15:13. At the wise suggestion of my friend Alan Knox, I’ve decided to extend this discussion to include the first part of Romans 15.

In order to understand 14:1-15:13, we need to take a look at the broader context of this epistle. The author was clearly the apostle Paul. He likely wrote to the Roman church from Corinth while on his third missionary journey. Paul desired to travel to Rome to meet these Christians, but first had to return to Jerusalem with the money he had collected for the church there.

We don’t know how or by whom the church in Rome was founded. However, as recorded in Acts 2, there were Jews in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit arrived during the feast of Pentecost. It’s possible that some of those Romans Jews surrendered to Christ at that time and then returned home with the gospel. Regardless, by the time of Paul’s third missionary journey there was a church in Rome.

The Roman church was most likely a mix of Jews and Gentiles. This could have created tension within the church as it relates to what to do with the OT law. We must remember that the only bible the Roman Christians would have had was the OT (probably the Septuagint). This would have undoubtedly informed both their thinking and decision making.

Paul’s letters are usually “occasional” in nature. This simply means that he wrote to deal with specific things that were going on. It is quite possible that Paul wrote to the Roman church in part to help them deal with Jew-Gentile (or even Jew-Jew or Gentile-Gentile) tension over how to best apply the OT law as followers of Jesus Christ.

Paul dealt quite a bit with the law throughout the letter. Generally speaking, he focused on salvation in chapters 1-11 and sanctification/application in chapters 12-16. We learn in 1-11, among other things, that the OT law does not save. Instead, all who have faith in Christ (apart from the law) are declared righteous/just in the sight of God. Paul famously wrote in 3:21-26:

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it - the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

The Roman church in particular seemed to be struggling with OT eating and drinking prescriptions. Some in the church thought they needed to follow OT restrictions. Others in the church ignored the law and ate what they wanted. Another area of possible tension and/or disagreement focused on how to view certain days. Some thought particular days (especially the Sabbath) were to be treated with unique prominence, while others treated every day the same.

Paul knew that the Roman Christians needed a full understanding of the gospel. This would help them better comprehend how to apply the law. His emphasis upon faith and grace apart from the law shows that it no longer held sway over them. In chapter 14 Paul referred to the Christians who followed OT restrictions as “weak.”

Backing up a couple of chapters, Paul begins his great application section in 12:1-2, writing, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

The apostle goes on to instruct the Roman believers that they are all part of one body. They must use their spiritual gifts for the good of both the body and the broader community. The apostle then gets very specific about what the Christian life looks like. By the time we arrive at 14:1, the readers of Romans fully understand the gospel. They also know that Paul expects lives fully devoted to Christ in all areas. Additionally, the church is to be united as one body. Paul then instructs them, in 14:1-15:13, in how to deal with specific issues that have the potential to tear them apart.

What do you think? Is this the context? What should be added, deleted, or altered? 

Context is critical. Without it, we won’t correctly understand what Paul meant.

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