God is Setting All Things Right. So I am Blogging Through the Bible in a Year.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Crux of Romans: the Identity Crisis of Jews vs. Gentile (#Romfor21stC)

The discussion of Romans often begins in the wrong place – at least not in the most important area to help understand the text. In this, the first foray into Romans, I wish to rectify that by diving into the question, “Why did Paul write this letter anyway?”

Understanding Judaism is essential for understanding Romans. In the USA we distinguish between religion and race. Jewish culture, expecially in the first century, does not differenciate race and religion. They would not understand the idea of “Roman Jews” or an “Asian-Jew.” They considered themselves Jews only regardless of where they lived or their mixed racial composition. Abraham as their father identified them as the Children of God and the Torah (the Law of Moses) provided a common tradition. Everyone obeyed God in the same physical way - circumcision, the holy days and sacrifical ritiuals. Gentiles were considered uncultured heathens who were in no way similar to Jews. When Jesus proclaimed that the righteous live at a higher level than doing only the physical actions commanded in the Torah and that he was greater than Abraham the Pharisees forced the Romans to crucify Jesus. He threatened what held their entire culture together.


Possibly because of their prejudice, the apostles taught the Gospel exclusively within their Jewish “race” for up to 10 years. Cornelius’ conversion in Acts 10-11 caused a great stir by challenging the apostles’ concept of “the children of God.” Jews were forced to concede that their ancestry alone no longer gave them exclusive claim to being God’s chosen people. Many Jews thought circumcision, the identifying marker of a Jewish man, was identified a disciple of Jesus. Paul and others fought against this at the Jerusalem counsel in Acts 15 because it would also require the Gentiles to obey the entire Torah and would diminish Jesus’ message (Gal. 5:1-15). If you accepted one part of the Torah, you must accept the entire Torah.

The Church in Rome

The church in Rome consisted of both Jews and Gentiles. Around ad 49 the Jews were expelled from Rome (Acts 18:2). Approximately five years later they were allowed to reenter the city and found a church no longer centered around the Torah – causing a great rift. Paul writes the letter we call Romans hoping to redefine their identity as disciples of Jesus the Messiah.

Why this is important to understanding Romans

Stating that the overarching theme of Romans is “faith vs. works” glosses over this essential component of the letter. Paul is not giving a theological or theoretical treaties on the role of faith and works in salvation. He is helping a church caught in a crisis of identifying who are true children of God. Paul writes to the Jews to show them God’s kingdom now includes Gentiles who do not follow the Torah. He writes to the Gentiles to show them God still has a heart for the Jews and a place for the Torah. It is a great message of unity through mutual respect - a theme which has an important application to today's world.