In the book of Romans, Paul talks about humanity being justified by faith, but what does this have to do with the family of God? In this episode, Tim and Jon look at Paul’s letter to the Romans and unpack what it looks like to unify a diverse group of people into one family.
To be a part of the family of Jesus is to have an obligation—by participating in this story, in this family—to be a bridge-builder, especially if you’re in a place of higher social status or opportunity or privilege. It’s just a very clear directive.
When God makes humans, he says that male and female together are the image of God. This principle applies to the unity of all people (Genesis 1:27). In other words, for humanity to rightly bear God’s image and partner with God in his vision for all of creation, humanity has to be unified.
The first casualty in the Bible is the rupture of unity between Adam and Eve, which quickly leads to the fractured relationship between humanity and God.
Left up to their own devices, humans unify around their own image instead of God’s. So God elects Abraham’s family to fulfill the purpose for which he intended all humanity. Biblical election is about one group being chosen for and on behalf of the many.
Abraham’s family becomes the nation of Israel, commissioned by God to be a means of blessing and redeeming all other nations. But Israel fails and goes the way of Babylon. So prophets like Isaiah look ahead to God’s promise of a coming Messiah, who will reunify Israel and bring people from all nations into God’s family.
The Messiah is Jesus, who comes to redeem Israel, but all along the way, people from other nations come to him too. (Canaanites are even represented within Jesus’ family tree.) Jesus is the ultimate faithful Israelite, fulfilling the commission God originally gave Abraham.
Following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit, carry the Gospel message to people from nations outside Israel. Under the direction of the Spirit, the disciples determine that non-Israelites no longer have to be circumcised to be part of the family of Abraham. Now they can join God’s covenant people through the Messiah.
The book of Acts traces the disciples’ journey as they grow in their understanding of their commission to the nations and learn how to discern the leading of the Holy Spirit as they go.
In part two (26:00–29:00), Tim and Jon pick up the story of Acts with the life of the apostle Paul, first introduced as Saul of Tarsus in Acts 7.
Much of Acts follows the story of Paul, who is called the “apostle to the Gentiles.” Because of his upbringing in Jewish rabbinical school and his tenure as a Pharisee, Paul’s knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures is extensive. His letters to early churches make up much of our New Testament, and his writings are full of biblical theology reconciling Jewish history and Scripture with the story of Jesus.
In part three (29:00–37:30), Tim and Jon discuss Paul’s awareness of his own calling to the nations.
Paul’s commissioning is retold three times in the book of Acts, and in each occurrence, his calling to the nations is referenced.
Acts 9:15-16 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the nations and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
Paul frequently identifies himself by his calling in his letters to the early churches.
Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the good news from God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the nations for his name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Messiah.
Christianity seeks to unite a diverse range of people. And this was an even more difficult task in Paul’s day than it is today.
In part four (37:30–53:20), Tim and Jon unpack Romans 16. This passage appears to be a list of greetings, but it actually provides tremendous insight to the demographic realities of the churches in Rome and the possibility of ethnic/cultural divisions.
Based on Paul’s greetings to various people in Romans 16, we know he was writing to half a dozen house churches, made up of 20-30 people each. This means there were a couple hundred Christians in Rome, all meeting in different household groups. Paul names just a few.
Those house churches represented diverse ethnic and socioeconomic groups, denoted by the Jewish, Latin, and Greek names Paul lists.
Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting. For the report of your obedience has reached to all; therefore I am rejoicing over you, but I want you to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.
Paul warns the Roman churches against divisions instigated by people who want to reject others from God’s family based on ethnic/cultural differences. At times, Jewish leaders had trouble accepting non-Israelites. In the letter to the Romans, Paul is writing about those who wanted to reject Jews and Jewish history.
Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to offer judgment the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.
Paul is reminding early believers in Rome that, while kosher laws are no longer mandatory for God’s people, they are not wrong. These minor differences of opinion are no grounds for condemning one another. Jesus accepts the person who follows kosher laws and the one who doesn’t.
Paul’s number one guiding principle for bringing unity to a diverse group of people is to model the power principle Jesus himself did. As the one with power, Jesus humbled himself to meet others where they were at, and never with condemnation.
In part five (53:20–end), Tim and Jon discuss Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith.
For Paul, justification by faith was primarily focused on the issues of ethnic/cultural division in the expanding family of Abraham. While we have a tendency to think of it as primarily a legal atonement doctrine, it was all about unity for Paul.
...For we have said that, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised. For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith...so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “A father of many nations have I made you.”
In the ethics of Jesus, if you have power, you should use it to serve and create unity.
Notice that Paul does not directly greet his friends and coworkers and relatives in Rome. He has the dominantly Gentile audience do it for him as part of his rhetorical strategy to help effect some sort of reconciliation or unity among the Christians in Rome before he arrives there. In particular, he wants the marginalized Jewish Christians, many of them newly back in Rome from exile, to be embraced. It is not at all an accident that Paul again and again in this passage uses the verb aspazomai. This verb does not merely mean “greet” in some perfunctory way. It literally means to wrap one’s arms around and embrace someone, and when coupled with the command to offer the holy kiss as well (v. 16), it amounts to a command to treat those named as family, to welcome them into one’s own home and circle. Paul is going all out to create a new social situation in Rome, overcoming the obstacles to unity and concord dealt with in chs. 14–15. — Ben Witherington III and Darlene Hyatt, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 379–380.
To be a part of the family of Jesus is to have an obligation to be a bridge-builder with others, especially those with less societal power.
Show produced by Dan Gummel and Camden McAfee.
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