Way back in the mid 80’s when I first started teaching Bible studies at work (during lunch time), I had a diverse audience of Engineers and Managers. I remember when I was about to start a Study on prayer, one of those managers stopped me and asked me to give him a summary of what we were going to be talking about before he would decide if he was going to stay on.
Yes, I gave him a summary, using the Lord’s prayer as the structure. And he stayed on. My point in bringing this up is that my Introduction last time may not have been fully satisfying to someone who is wondering, where is this all going? Is what I am going to talk about really supported by the letter itself? After all, I am not giving the reader a bibliography of theology textbooks or Church Father writings to bolster my case.
So, here is my detailed take on the structure of the letter to the Romans (spoilers and all).
How is the discussion in the letter to the Romans directed to its audience?
I claim that the structure of the letter is driven by Paul’s concern that there is a tension between Jewish and Gentile believers that needs to be addressed.
1:7 to all that are in Rome, beloved of God, called saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and [our] Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul starts addressing all. And then he goes into the discussion of Chapter 1 into chapter 2 where he points out that believers have a revelation of God’s righteousness while unbelievers have a revelation of wrath. So, what causes this difference in revelation? (Yes, we know the difference is that believers are “saved”. But, technically, what is the reason this believer vs. unbeliever difference exists in the mode of revelation?) I think, Paul is anticipating that some in his audience may suggest that the difference is who has the Law. So, then he says that both Gentile and Jewish people have a law. The Jews have it literally written, the Gentiles have it written in their heart. Therefore, all believers, Jew or Gentile should beware of sinning (against the law).
Why does Paul bring this up? Because we all sin? Sure. But it appears that some people in his audience had a bigger problem:
2:17-23 But if *thou* art named a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast in God, and knowest the will, and discerningly approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law; and hast confidence that thou thyself art a leader of the blind, a light of those who [are] in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and of truth in the law: thou then that teachest another, dost thou not teach thyself? thou that preachest not to steal, dost thou steal? thou that sayest [man should] not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege? thou who boastest in law, dost thou by transgression of the law dishonour God?
Clearly, this passage is addressed to the Jewish believers, so the quote that follows, written for them in the Scriptures, is brought up by Paul: 2:24-25 For the name of God is blasphemed on your account among the nations, according as it is written. Then he says For circumcision indeed profits if thou keep [the] law; but if thou be a law-transgressor, thy circumcision is become uncircumcision.
Given the choice between Gentile believers and Jewish believers, who do we think thought that circumcision was a profit? The strain on the Church that led to the Jerusalem council (which is contemporary with this letter, as most sources ascribe it to 50 AD) was due to Judaizers that were telling Gentiles they had to get circumcised and obey other restrictions of the Law. What other restrictions of the Law? Surely dietary restrictions were among them. We can deduce this from the resolution of the Council.
We can also tell that “boasting in the law” is a problem that Jewish believers are liable to have. We can deduce this from Paul’s discussion of his heritage in Philippians.
More importantly, the crisis that led to the Council of Jerusalem tells us that indeed there was, around this time, a tension between Jewish and Gentile believers. Which can lead us to assume that the issues Paul is addressing in the letter to the Romans are the kinds of issues that caused that tension. Yes, we cannot deduce this absolutely. But it seems safe to assume that the problems of the Roman Church were similar to those of other early churches at that time. Why not?
So now Paul says:
2:28-29 For he is not a Jew who [is] one outwardly, neither that circumcision which is outward in flesh; but he [is] a Jew [who is so] inwardly; and circumcision, of the heart, in spirit, not in letter; whose praise [is] not of men, but of God.
Seeing how this continues the thought of the previous verses, Paul has just told the Jewish believers that circumcision of the flesh is not what determines their right standing with God, but rather that of the heart, as Deuteronomy 30:6 says.
Ok. So, to whom does he then address the next section of his argument:
3:1 What then [is] the superiority of the Jew? or what the profit of circumcision?
It is hard to deny that he is still “taking to” the Jewish believers. (Yet, certainly, the Gentile believers are in the audience listening to this. After all, it is the tension (competition?) between the two groups that Paul is trying to eliminate.) In fact, the next two verses prove that it is the Jewish believers that he wants to think deeply about these things:
3:2-3 Much every way: and first, indeed, that to them were entrusted the oracles of God. For what? if some have not believed, shall their unbelief make the faith of God of none effect?
To whom were the oracles of God entrusted? The Jews. They had the written law. But these Jewish believers in addition have a personal pain that is shared by Paul. We get to hear about this directly from Paul later by Chapter 9. They were faced with the reality, witnessed to by God Himself throughout Scripture, that not all Israel believed. They were told again and again that God would rescue (only) a remnant.
Whatever their rabbis taught about this is not something we can know from this letter. But we know what Paul tells them: ‘The fact that some of our Jewish brothers do not believe in Jesus as the Messiah does not mean that God has been less than fully faithful to His Promise.’
Now Paul has to get them to see that having the written Law – which is something that both Jewish believers and Jewish non-believers have in common – is not what God’s promised salvation was based on. This is what starts the discussion about how the written Law condemns us (and later it will turn out that this is true about all “law”).
3: 21-23 But now without law righteousness of God is manifested, borne witness to by the law and the prophets; righteousness of God by faith of Jesus Christ towards all, and upon all those who believe: for there is no difference; for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;
As we can see, Paul never loses sight of the fact that he has both Jew and Gentile in his audience (all). But notice how he punctuates this conclusion:
23:28 -30 for we reckon that a man is justified by faith, without works of law. Is [God] the God of Jews only? is he not of [the] nations also? Yea, of nations also: since indeed [it is] one God who shall justify [the] circumcision on the principle of faith, and uncircumcision by faith.
Paul wouldn’t have to ask this rhetorical question, “Is God the God of Jews only?” if he weren’t addressing precisely that claim (or feeling or tendency) within someone in his audience. After all, he just said for all. (What part of all didn’t we get?)
Now Paul starts a discussion that compares and contrasts Faith with Law.
That is a logical next step to the case he has been building. But to whom should he primarily address this discussion? We have both Gentile and Jew in the audience…
4:1 What shall we say then that Abraham our father according to flesh has found?
Well… who in that audience considers Abraham their father according to the flesh? The Jews. Paul is going there for the same reason that Jesus had to go there in the gospel of John. The Jews had a tendency to base their hope, their identity as people of God, on father Abraham.
That the ensuing discussion is still focused on the Jewish believers (though, again I say, this is being heard by everyone) is evidenced by these comments:
4:8-10 …blessed [the] man to whom [the] Lord shall not at all reckon sin. [Does] this blessedness then [rest] on the circumcision, or also on the uncircumcision? For we say that faith has been reckoned to Abraham as righteousness. How then has it been reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision.
Again, no one can claim that being circumcised was an obsession of the Gentiles. Clearly, it is the Jewish believers in his audience that need to accept this message. (While all of us need to know the truth of it.)
Paul is going to wind down this part of the argument by telling the audience, ‘look, Abraham’s promise of the Messiah was for all nations (Jew and Gentile).’
4:14-17 For if they which [are] of law be heirs, faith is made vain, and the promise made of no effect. For law works wrath; but where no law is neither [is there] transgression. Therefore [it is] on the principle of faith, that [it might be] according to grace, in order to the promise being sure to all the seed, not to that only which [is] of the law, but to that also which [is] of Abraham’s faith, who is father of us all, (according as it is written, I have made thee father of many nations,) before the God whom he believed, who quickens the dead, and calls the things which be not as being;
What is interesting, is how Paul has kept the term “law” alive in this discussion about Abraham, who was declared righteous before the Law of Moses was given, Now, why does he do that?
I believe he does that because now he is going to go back to a seed he planted in Chapter 1 and 2: All mankind has “a law”, whether it be physically written or written in their hearts. And that means that it is not only the Jewish believers that can fall in the trap of relying on their law for righteousness, the Gentile believers who had a Natural law are just as liable to fall likewise. (We know they too had reduced their “heart law” down to written codes of law.)
How does he bring the discussion back to both kinds of believers?
Take it back to Adam, the father of all mankind. And using that pivot point Paul says, ‘Look, sin is the problem. Death proves it (according to Genesis). And since all have been dying since Adam, then sin is not just the breaking of “a law” (that is, transgression, be that of the law Moses’ or of the Natural law), sin is rebelling against God in our hearts.’
5:13-14 (for until law sin was in [the] world; but sin is not put to account when there is no law; but death reigned from Adam until Moses, even upon those who had not sinned in the likeness of Adam’s transgression, who is [the] figure of him to come.
Thus, Paul gets to expound how Jesus’ life of obedience, sacrifice, and resurrection, is the key to the salvation that God had promised for all mankind. Chapter 6 then tells us how that salvation gives us the power (through the Holy Spirit) to leave behind the slavery of sin to choose instead a willing “enslavement” to Christ.
You would think that by this point Paul is done with his discourse; that he has made the point that there is no point in putting our hope in “law” (whether we are Jew or Gentile). So, why does he come back to it in Chapter 7?
The Conclusion, sort of
My opinion is that Chapter 7 is his conclusion of the argument. He does that by recapping his most important points. But Paul, brilliant as he was, always thinks of one more example, one more proof. (Or maybe, he is just like Columbo: “one more thing”.) So, he brings in the idea of marriage the same way Jesus used it in Luke 16:13-18.
Is Paul done addressing the specific concerns of his Jewish brothers? No, he will come to that again in Chapter 9, 10 and 11. And in so doing we will get another glimpse at the tension he is addressing when he finally addresses the Gentiles directly. Because, as we can expect, they too were part of the problem:
11:12-18 …But if their fall [be the] world’s wealth, and their loss [the] wealth of [the] nations, how much rather their fulness? For I speak to you, the nations, inasmuch as *I* am apostle of nations, I glorify my ministry; if by any means I shall provoke to jealousy [them which are] my flesh, and shall save some from among them. For if their casting away [be the] world’s reconciliation, what [their] reception but life from among [the] dead?…Now if some of the branches have been broken out, and *thou*, being a wild olive tree, hast been grafted in amongst them, and hast become a fellow-partaker of the root and of the fatness of the olive tree, boast not against the branches; but if thou boast, [it is] not *thou* bearest the root, but the root thee.
The balance of chapter 11 drives this point home.
Now we get to Chapter 12, and Paul is now addressing both sides and telling them…
‘We need to get along.’
12:3-4 For I say, through the grace which has been given to me, to every one that is among you, not to have high thoughts above what he should think; but to think so as to be wise, as God has dealt to each a measure of faith. For, as in one body we have many members, but all the members have not the same office…
12:16 Have the same respect one for another, not minding high things, but going along with the lowly: be not wise in your own eyes…
Chapter 13 continues with instruction of how we are to behave in and outside the Church. Which leads to Chapter 14 where he finally addresses the specific issues of the tension between Jews and Gentiles, highlighted in the dietary restriction laws. (As we saw in the Council of Jerusalem.)
14:1-3 Now him that is weak in the faith receive, not to [the] determining of questions of reasoning. One man is assured that he may eat all things; but the weak eats herbs. Let not him that eats make little of him that eats not; and let not him that eats not judge him that eats: for God has received him…
Note that it would be anachronistic to read into the above discussion just a disagreement between vegetarians and meat-eaters. We know from the Council of Jerusalem and the discussion in 1 Corinthians chapter 8, that the central concern was meat sacrificed to idols. It follows that one way to avoid eating any of it unawares is to stop eating meat altogether.
Reading that chapter, we see also allusions to holidays which, we are safe to assume, is referring to the keeping of Jewish holidays. (For, surely, no Gentile believer would be proposing to keep some of his old gods’ pagan holidays.)
14:5-6 5 One man esteems day more than day; another esteems every day [alike]. Let each be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regards the day, regards it to [the] Lord.
And this verse makes clear that the strife created by this tension was real: 14:13 Let us no longer therefore judge one another; but judge ye this rather, not to put a stumbling-block or a fall-trap before his brother…
Paul’s repeated advice on how to not get into these kinds of problems is this: (humility)
15:1-3 But *we* ought, we that are strong, to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each one of us please his neighbour with a view to what is good, to edification. For the Christ also did not please himself; but according as it is written, The reproaches of them that reproach thee have fallen upon me.
As he is finally concluding the letter, Paul again recaps his key message that this salvation is for both Jew and Gentile.
15:7-12 Wherefore receive ye one another, according as the Christ also has received you to [the] glory of God. For I say that Jesus Christ became a minister of [the] circumcision for [the] truth of God, to confirm the promises of the fathers; and that the nations should glorify God for mercy; according as it is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among [the] nations, and will sing to thy name.
And again he says, Rejoice, nations, with his people. And again, Praise the Lord, all [ye] nations, and let all the peoples laud him. And again, Esaias says, There shall be the root of Jesse, and one that arises, to rule over [the] nations: in him shall [the] nations hope.