Tag Archives: paul

Jesus Forgives Our Doctrine

I heard Scot McKnight on a podcast the other day where he made an interesting observation. “I grew up in a Paul church,” he said, and went on to explain that in America there are “Paul churches” and “Jesus churches.” I hadn’t thought of it in exactly those terms, and I may not parse it out exactly the same way McKnight does, but I realize that he’s right. This is not to say that some churches openly worship Paul instead of Jesus (though a few come close). The difference is between churches that worship and celebrate Jesus according to ideas about Jesus, especially those gleaned from the writings of Paul as interpreted by the church fathers and reformers, and churches that seek to follow the teaching and way of Jesus himself. This isn’t really about Paul vs. Jesus, it’s about the often shocking disparity between our doctrinal beliefs and the kingdom ethos that Jesus taught and embodied.

Even though I’d never considered the “Paul church/Jesus church” rubric before, I have been meditating for a long time on the glaring disconnection between the Protestant church’s doctrines of sin and grace and the attitude and behavior of Jesus toward “sinners” in the gospels. In a “Paul church” setting, the tendency is to focus on legality and guilt, and to treat sinners like offenders and defendants. When there is talk of forgiveness and atonement, it is usually reserved for those who have entered into a process of confession, conversion, and belief. But is that how Jesus dealt with sinners? Jesus urged his hearers to repent and turn from sin, to be sure, but did he withhold blessing and salvation until his subjects proved sufficiently contrite or devout?

In my opinion and experience, stories speak much louder than doctrines and axioms. Stories are interactive, designed to engage and provoke thought. And the Bible is full of stories and testimonies, especially about Jesus. So here are three stories about Jesus interacting with sinners that a “Jesus Christian” might take to heart.

Jesus Versus a Blind Man (John 9)

Wait a minute, you protest, a blind man isn’t the same as a “sinner!” And in your cozy, enlightened, twenty-first-century context you may be correct. But in this story and in the larger ancient world, the overwhelming belief was that anyone with an infirmity or disability was obviously being punished for some violation of God’s laws and/or the natural order. Jesus’ followers spell it out: “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” (9:2) Jesus responds, “He didn’t sin nor did his parents; this happened that God’s works could be seen in him!,” (9:3) and then proceeds to heals the man. For Jesus, pain and brokenness are not signs of divine punishment but opportunities for divine blessing. And this is why I include this particular story on this list. In a Jesus-based view of humanity, the category of “sinner” has a radically different shape than it does elsewhere. Before we talk about how to deal with “sinners,” we might need to radically rethink the label itself.

Jesus Versus an Adulterous Lady (John 8)

OK, this is more like it. A real live sinner, caught in the act, even! Spicy! In this famous incident, a crowd of extremely religious gentlemen are set to stone a woman they caught in adultery (I guess the man she was with had to get to jury duty or something). They’re super excited to put their Bible-based doctrine into action and “deal with sin” when Jesus crashes their party and ruins everything. He exposes their hypocrisy, disperses the crowd, and sends the woman on her way to continue being alive. In a “Paul church” environment, Jesus’ admonition to “sin no more” (8:11) is the instructional takeaway. But really, “sin no more” is the least radical aspect of this story. This woman, guilty beyond doubt of a top-ten sin, is pardoned and rescued by Jesus with no lecture or ceremony, without so much as a word of contrition or devotion from her. What does this story tell us about Jesus and sin? In this account, like so many others from the gospels, the danger of punition and violence comes not from heaven but from the human religious establishment. Jesus’ only role is to invade and disrupt that system and advocate for the “sinner” that it seeks to victimize.

Jesus Versus His Own Murderers (Luke 23)

I’ve talked about this story many times here on the blog, because it always gets to me. In fact, if I was tasked with summing up the message of the New Testament in a single short passage, it might have to be this one. Jesus has been betrayed and abandoned by his followers, taken into custody, tortured, and is being executed, all on trumped-up charges. The son of God hangs there, degraded and mutilated, the victim of wicked collusion between religion and empire. And with his dying breath, what does he do? Does he call fire and death upon his persecutors? Does he speak ominous prophecies of vengeance and vindication? No, with his last breath he simply and bafflingly pronounces pardon upon his killers: “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing!” (23:34)  Is there a more moving and powerful sentence in all of world literature? Not only does Jesus forgive his oppressors – unrepentant pagan murderers who will never believe in him or embrace the kingdom of God – he dies advocating for them. In a stunning and prescient sociological insight, Jesus recognizes the systemic and environmental forces behind the heinous deeds of his executors and looks upon them with inexhaustible understanding and compassion.

What if our doctrines of sin and grace were based on the words and deeds of Jesus in stories like these instead of the musings of philosophers and theologians? What if being a Christian meant being like Jesus rather than believing Christian things about Jesus? And what if God looked more like Jesus the lover of sinners than any of our shame-based doctrinal formulas? 


Every Knee Shall Bow: The Bible’s Critique of Empire


This meme kicked me in the eyes over the weekend. It’s a particularly grievous example of a common Christian posture, a not-so-subtle threat on behalf of Jesus: worship me now or worship me later, but you WILL worship me! Of course Jesus never said anything like the words in that image, but it is rather loosely based on words written by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians:

“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus, Messiah, is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)

Most scholars agree that this passage comprises an extended quotation from an early Christian hymn about Jesus, a song which echoes Hebrew Bible texts like Isaiah 45 and subverts Roman imperial propaganda. But questions like context and source material have been of little interest to Christians throughout history who are content to take this text at face value as an ultimatum to nonbelievers. Believe now or be crushed later.

At the same time, there are many of us who reject such a reading as utterly antithetical to the very ethos and heart of Jesus. How could the same prophet of peace who loved us and gave his life for us now demand our allegiance and subjugation? That’s what despots and emperors do, not the Prince of Peace. And this gets to the heart of the matter.

Scripture vs. Empire

What’s missing from the discussion is an appropriate contextual understanding of the texts in question. As I indicated above, passages like Philippians 2 are not random proclamations out of time and space, they are subjective and derivative, products of a time, place, and tradition. Specifically, they are subversive parodies of imperial rhetoric. These are the kinds of things ancient people would say about kings and emperors (if they knew what was good for them), boldly revised with Jesus as their subject. In Isaiah 45 (the source material), it is YHWH who rescues and liberates the people, not the corrupt and oppressive kings of the nations. And here in Philippians (the subversive hymn), it is not Caesar who warrants worship and devotion but Jesus, a different kind of lord.

And there’s the rub: implicit in the name swap is also an exchange of values. Caesar demands worship under threat of violence, Jesus does not. Jesus is exalted as a divine and peaceful alternative to empire, not a sanctified version of the same monster. After all, as Jesus himself told us, the kingdom of God is not established by rulers “lording over” others, but by self-denying love that heals and saves others. The church’s mistake has been to imagine Jesus as the ultimate super-emperor, rather than the game changing, world saving anti-emperor. His kingdom is not defended against hated enemies with swords and battles, it is celebrated with feasts where everyone is invited and fed and loved. 

Ignoring the Critique

Why have so many Christians seemed unmoved and uninterested in the Bible’s pervasive critique of empire? This informed and clarified reading has become a fixture of biblical scholarship and has been largely embraced by “progressive” Christianity, but most mainstream Christians still resist or ignore it. Why is that? How has something that now seems so loud and unmistakable been essentially filtered out of our reading of the Bible for so long?

Could it be that American Christianity was formed and codified in a time when our home empire was unquestioned as a benevolent and even divinely sanctioned force for the salvation of the rest of the world? Has our commitment to the imperial rhetoric of our homeland inoculated us to the Bible’s anti-imperial posture? And/or, has Jesus been elevated to such a lofty but generic divine stature that the earthly and political dimensions of his life and legacy have been effectively rendered moot? Has worship of Jesus as supreme leader been so fervent and intense that the cause and content of that worship has gone unexamined? Have we really imagined that the meek and mild savior grew up to be a cosmic despot?

However we got here, this much seems self-evident: when you use Jesus to threaten and intimidate others, you have lost Jesus. When our proclamations of worship and devotion to Jesus are little more than sanctified and absolutized totalitarian threats, we have betrayed the very spirit of love we profess to represent. In the Bible’s anti-imperial critique, authoritarian language is reappropriated and turned inside out. The intended effect is an unmasking and mockery of earthly oppressors and a subversive proclamation of alternative values. Peace not war, forgiveness not accusation, advocacy not coercion. Our calling is not to Christianize empire, but to destroy it with love, to render it obsolete with service and empathy. That every knee might bow to the reign of peace and every tongue confess the supremacy of love.


The “New Perspective On Paul” and Why It Matters

The so-called “new perspective on Paul” is hardly new, being a product of the twentieth century, but it is still proving deeply influential in some circles and intensely divisive in others. In this post I want to briefly explain the “new perspective” and why I think it’s an important debate with some deep stakes.

The perspective has evolved over time, to be sure. Its original conceptions by authors like Krister Stendahl and E.P. Sanders have been largely left behind but its fundamental idea has endured. Today the most famous proponent of what he calls a “fresh perspective on Paul” is former Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright, who has written more pages on Paul in the last few decades than most theologians do in a lifetime. Those pages have been the gateway to the new perspective for many American students of Bible and theology. (Wright himself has become a divisive figure because of this. A Calvinist seminary professor saw me with one of Wright’s books on Paul and warned me to “be careful with that guy.”)

What is the “New Perspective”?

The fundamental question addressed by the new perspective is how to read the writings of Paul. As in, what was that guy even talking about? The “old” or traditional perspective is informed by the theological interpretation of the Protestant Reformers, themselves heavily influenced by the Augustinian grace-vs.-law tradition. According to the old perspective, Paul’s letters are primarily concerned with the pursuit of “salvation by grace not works,” whereby Christians are declared righteous and worthy of heavenly reward because of their faith in Jesus rather than their own good deeds and virtue. Indeed, for millions of Christians this isn’t a “perspective” at all, it’s the plain truth. It’s “the gospel.”

The new perspective rereads Paul with a renewed emphasis on his personal and cultural context. That is, his Jewish context. It recognizes that Paul was not a proto-Protestant writing textbooks for future Protestants, that he was a Jewish Christian apostle in the first century writing letters to Jewish and Gentile Christians in a network of first century church communities. As such, he is not chiefly concerned with abstract philosophical matters like the legalities of sin guilt or soul salvation, but with the practical experiences and crises of his congregations. And perhaps the most pressing issue facing Paul and his churches, according to his own writing, was the day-to-day challenges of Jewish and Greek Christians attempting to live together in the same community (the “covenant community” in Wright’s language).

According to the new perspective, “justification by faith” is not about legalism, judgment day, and how one might enter the gates of heaven. It’s about who might call themselves members of the covenant family and on what basis. Is it by “works of law,” by obeying Torah or being circumcised or keeping kosher? This would (and did) put the Jewish Christians at a steep advantage over the Gentiles in their midst. Paul emphatically says no, everyone who comes to church belongs there because of what Jesus has done, not because of anything they have done or not done. Paul is not against “good works” in general as if they disqualified one from God’s salvation, indeed he teaches ethics and love (radical, egalitarian love!). It’s just that no one in this community ought to think themselves a more authentic child of God than anyone else based on their observance of customs.

This shines a new light onto all of Paul’s authentic writings and how we read and interact with them. Not that they become meaningless or irrelevant to modern Protestants and other Christians, but that their true meaning is far more grounded in Paul’s ancient Jewishness than our traditions have been interested to acknowledge.

So What? This is Boring. You’re Boring.

I understand that this is a potentially boring and narrow debate. Something for the theology nerds. An internal matter for Protestants. But here’s why I think this matters so much: This is ultimately a debate about history, about how much we are willing to allow history and culture to inform and correct our reading of religious texts. The public squabble between John Piper and N.T. Wright over the issue of justification exposed this subtext in a major way.

In 2007 Piper wrote an entire book in response to N.T. Wright’s “fresh perspective” called The Future of Justification. In it he vehemently repudiated Wright’s understanding of Paul, based not on an alternate interpretation of the historical background, but on his own pastoral intuition, specifically his own distaste for historical backgrounds. Piper goes so far as to suggest that teaching history in church will only “confuse” and muddle people who need to believe in the old perspective for their own good.

Piper’s mindset is shockingly myopic and anti-intellectual. Dismissal of historical perspective as an unwelcome and even dangerous distraction from doctrinal correctness reveals an obtuse and possibly nefarious desire to keep church laypeople in the dark. It is one thing to disagree on the analysis of history, it is quite another to bury one’s head in the sand and hope it just goes away. Also, in eschewing the good and important work done by historians in recreating the world of second temple Judaism, and by actively choosing to remove Paul from that milieu, figures like Piper risk perpetuating the anti-semitic undertones of the classical grace vs. law doctrines.

It’s OK to Learn Something New

I understand that it is scary to even consider rethinking such fundamental assumptions and beliefs. But it can also be liberating and good. I am not especially interested in the “new perspective” as a movement or a label, but I welcome any opportunity for a refreshed and enlarged perspective on history and the Bible. After all, if we’re so afraid that a glimpse of history might confuse or ruin the ideas we’ve got, maybe they’re not quite as good as we think?

Combined with a refreshed vision of the context and message of Jesus in the gospels, a renewed perspective on Paul offers us an invaluable opportunity to rediscover aspects of ancient Christianity which have perhaps been obscured by our traditions. The insights of the Reformers are valuable, of course, but it would be a shame to permanently tether our understanding of Jesus, Paul, and Bible in what is ultimately an arbitrary point in fairly recent western history. Maybe we are due for our own reformation, one which takes us back to the future of Christianity, so to speak.

Because what is true in politics, war, and culture is also true in religion: we can’t afford to shut our ears to what history has to tell us.


5 Things St. Paul Believed That Most Christians Do Not

Why write a post like this? Not to be negative or contrarian, but to get us thinking. Modern Christians, especially conservative Protestants, tend to consider Paul the authoritative voice on Christian theology and church life. His letters have been read by each passing generation as if they were explicitly directed at that time, place, and audience. It’s easy to forget that Paul inhabited a unique ancient world of thought and practice, that he did not think like us or understand the universe like we do, and that he assumed his audience shared his worldview. We are not smarter or better than them, but we simply cannot imagine that we have the same interests and presuppositions as any Bible author or ancient person.

And so, five things that Paul asserted or taught in his letters which reflect a point of view completely foreign to modern people, including Christians. Continue reading


Atone Deaf Part Four: Paul and Atonement

Latest in a series of posts examining atonement, the question of meaning and accomplishment in the death of Jesus.

For many Christian theologians and most modern believers, Paul is the primary (and effectively the only) teacher of atonement in the New Testament. I believe this to be unfortunate for two reasons: 1) Despite how we have been trained to read his writing, Paul’s first concern is not atonement theory in particular or even theology in general. The death of Jesus is central to his writing, to be sure, but the apostle’s letters are impassioned pleas addressing specific contexts of crisis, not fully developed systematic theologies. To read them as such is to misread them. And 2), while we have been busy dissecting and synthesizing Paul’s writings to produce our various atonement theories, we have all but ignored the gospels and how Jesus understood his own death according to those traditions. That surely ought to be the loudest voice in this conversation. (Our series has already attempted to remedy this inequity, of course.)

Yet the significance of Jesus’ death (and resurrection) to Paul cannot be overstated. If we want to get a complete picture of what the earliest Christians thought about atonement, this is a major piece of the puzzle. Paul has a lot to say about why Jesus died, and I don’t mind admitting that my own presuppositions were challenged in this exercise. Let it be said that wrath and substitution are undeniably present in Paul’s complex understanding of atonement, though I would maintain that they have too often been overemphasized and defined according to a context other than Paul’s. It doesn’t help that Paul’s letters are so urgent and specific to their historical circumstances. We are at a major disadvantage as we try to reconstruct both his frantic train of thought AND his context. But when we are careful and patient with Paul, the rewards are many. Here is a too-brief overview of what Paul has to say about the death of Jesus in his letters, with special attention to Romans.

Continue reading


A “Historical Adam” For Every Occasion

Yet another new book explores the history of Christian belief in America, though this one begins its survey in the ancient Near East and tracks one very narrow (if surprisingly versatile) strand of theology. It concerns the first man Adam, the nature of his existence, and his many creative interpreters.

In Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible’s First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World, Karl W. Giberson tells two connected stories: the sordid history of the interpretation of a few short chapters from the Bible (Genesis 2-4),  and the story of the author’s expulsion from the halls of evangelical academia. Giberson’s own evolving views cost him his job and saw him branded a heretic and worse – a “liberal.” At times palpably bitter but always in command of his impressive research, his contention is that Adam has been a sort of blank slate onto which Christians have projected their ideological interests. To put it another way, Adam is the lump of clay we have fashioned into our own image.

Giberson’s history of Adam as a moral and theological mascot is often outrageous, as he traces it across centuries and continents, right up to our own cultural moment. It is amazing what Christian thinkers and gatekeepers have done with these few ambiguous Bible passages, and how insistent they have been that their views are not only obvious and true, but necessary to one’s spiritual well-being.

The Historical Adams

The Apostle Paul may be to blame for Adam’s eventual role as a theological gun-for-hire, though it’s unfair to hold him accountable for how future writers may have blown his work out of proportion. Paul appealed to Adam in new and innovative ways, taking a far greater interest in the first man than previous Jewish interpreters had done. The apostle imagined Adam as a sort of prototype of Christ, the one who inaugurated sin and death instead of faithfulness and life. By taking this creative juxtaposition as a literal, legal reality, later thinkers took Paul’s innovation to further extremes. What was meant rhetorically to exalt and draw eyes to Christ engendered an unhealthy and unhelpful obsession with Adam and the precise nature of his life and malefaction.

Giberson’s book accuses St. Augustine of crafting this sort of Adam-obsessed theology and foisting it upon later generations as a burdensome appendix to the gospel. Augustine took Paul’s Adam analogy off-road, galvanizing a doctrine of “original sin” that made the first man more than a type or an example. It made him a key player, and belief in him (and his literal, historical existence) became a prerequisite of divine salvation. In a phrase that echoes throughout the history of Adam interpretation, “no historical Adam, no gospel.” Suddenly the “good news” of Jesus came with some fine print.

From there, Giberson traces the history of the church, which at every turn finds Adam useful for new and creative reasons, but always emphasizes his literal role as the first sinner and father of all humans. There is the superhuman Adam, anywhere from seven to a hundred feet tall, immortal and gifted with superpowers, all lost in “the fall” (another interpretive golden goose not actually found in scripture). There is the racially ideal Adam, genetically perfect, displaying only the most “desirable” traits before his offspring are “marked” or made otherwise imperfect through the consequences of sin, resulting in a “hierarchy” of world races. There is also “traditional marriage” Adam, and “deceived by a temptress” Adam, and today’s model, “young earth creationist” Adam. In each case, argues Giberson, the configuration and re-mythologizing of Adam reflects the cultural and social concerns of the Christian gatekeepers of that time and place. In western civilization, we observe, racism, sexism, classism, and all manner of imposed human division have as their foundation or rationalization some interpretation of the early Genesis stories.

The Absurdity of Doctrinally Mandated Belief

The implications of the book’s thesis are many, and could generate many responses. For my purposes on this blog, the most relevant takeaway is the absurdity of what I’d call “doctrinally mandated belief.” That is, believing something, regardless of evidence, because we “need to” believe it in light of some preexisting belief or assumption. And so: Adam lived six thousand years ago and passed his sin-tainted genetic material on to every other human being, implanting them with a legal stain of sin. Why are we told we must believe this? Not because it is likely or evident or even taught by the Bible, but because our other doctrines (depravity, original sin, penal substitution, young earth, etc.) demand it.

Believing something dutifully out of obligation to other unexamined beliefs is dishonest, backward, and fruitless. It is also harmful to people who refuse to play along, as many like Giberson have discovered. This is what “biblical inerrancy” and “historical Adam” have in common: neither is evident and both are affirmed out of responsibility to some other pre-established theological construct. We must affirm inerrancy or the technical trustworthiness of the Bible (and thus our own credibility) will collapse. We must affirm a historical Adam or original sin, young earth creationism, and/or the gospel itself will collapse. None of this noise has anything to do with the real gospel and legacy of Jesus, in fact it only serves to obscure and damage it. If belief and trust in Jesus cannot be proffered without burdensome technical baggage, it is not worth the confusion and harm it causes. But as long as there have been Christians, Giberson’s book demonstrates, there have been Christian gatekeepers, eager to commandeer the gospel for their own small purposes.

In a follow-up post I will lay out my own thoughts on the value and meaning of the Adam and Eve narratives in Genesis.


Break Your Bible: 2 Thessalonians 1 and the Revenge of Jesus

The first post in this series examined Numbers 25 and religious zeal, a troubling text from the Hebrew Bible and the equally troublesome strand of biblical theology that it inspired. The second post explored Jeremiah 7, a text which seems to openly contradict one of the central tenets of Torah law. Those posts were intended to dramatically illustrate real conflicts between Bible texts and to highlight the problems with forced assumptions of biblical homogeny.

For this third (and final?) installment, I want to undertake something even more potentially unsettling for Christian Bible readers: I want to assess the moral integrity of a standalone passage of scripture, and one from the New Testament, no less.

“In Flaming Fire, Inflicting Vengeance”

Let’s get to it. Here is the text of 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 (ESV):

[5] This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering — [6] since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, [7] and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels [8] in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. [9] They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, [10] when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.

I hope the difficulties in this text are as obvious to you as they are to me. Even if you feel compelled to affirm everything you read in the Bible, I truly hope that the content of this passage gives you pause. There is a gleeful attitude of retribution, vengeance, and an appetite for divine violence in these verses that is unbecoming of a Christian, much less of a prominent apostle like Paul. Am I out of line for suggesting this? Are we permitted to make moral judgments like these about what we read in scripture? If not, why not? Does this author get a pass because he is writing scripture? Is scripture good by virtue of being called scripture, or because it says good things?

The Impulse to Make Excuses

As an amateur Bible scholar, I am tempted here to offer up some caveats. 2 Thessalonians is a contested book, understood by some to be the work of an unknown author writing in Paul’s name. But this doesn’t get us off the hook. The letter is received into the canon as a genuine work of Paul, and whatever the case it is Christian scripture. It is ours, but what shall we do with it?

Another possible caveat: These early church texts often reflect a context of persecution and fear, wherein Christians faced brutal dangers at the hands of Rome. Given these realities, isn’t it understandable that they might write a desperate text like this? The premise may or may not be true; the level of persecution facing the church in this early stage appears to have been minimal, though specific campaigns against Christians were not unknown. The question persists: Even if we can discover a context that helps us understand the reason for the bloodthirst apparent in a text like this, must our sympathy make space for acceptance and approval? Are the expectations and attitudes displayed in this passage normative for all Christians?

Clarifying The Text

It is helpful (and necessary, in a case like this) to be as precise as we can about what the passage in question is actually saying.

Our author says that Jesus will return in fiery judgment against unnamed enemies of the community to whom the letter is addressed. This divine act of vengeance will be “just,” since the enemies deserve it for the way they’ve treated God’s people. Jesus himself and his “mighty angels” will dole out this punishment, which will apparently involve obliterating the enemies of the Thessalonians before Jesus is received and celebrated by his true followers.

Some aspects of the judgment envisioned by this passage may align with general Christian expectations and teachings. Jesus the king will return, whatever that looks like, and he will “judge” the world and dwell with his people. Jesus himself described a judgment scenario in the form of a parable (Matthew 25:31-46). The judge in Jesus’ parable, the “son of man,” doesn’t personally unleash a violent attack on those judged unworthy, but he does send them away into (parabolic) “fire.” At first glance, this seems at least somewhat compatible with Paul’s shocking oracle in 2 Thessalonians.

On closer inspection, however, the basis and standard of Jesus’ judgment are completely different from those implied by this passage. The coming judge, says Jesus, will judge people from all nations, not just enemies of this church or those who oppose them. And that judgment will be based on ethical standards of personal integrity and charity, not on how badly they persecuted his friends. It’s about human decency, not petty revenge.

Jesus’ parable of final judgment, in addition to being universal and ethical in nature, was meant to challenge his hearers and call them to repentance, not to give exclusive comfort to “us” while guaranteeing the destruction of “them.” In this way, the judgment scenario imagined by the 2 Thessalonians passage seems to profoundly misunderstand and misrepresent Jesus’ vision of judgment, and to misapply it as tribal rhetoric to rally and rattle an insular community. This is judgment not as a clarion call to all humanity, but as a screed against a hated enemy.

Reading The Bible With Moral Discernment

We might give Paul a pass for the fear and aggression which informed a text like this. He was a human being, and clearly wanted to instill his readers with hope. But where his words clash with the teachings of Jesus – regarding love of enemies and the nature of God’s judgment – I conclude that we must read them through a Jesus-shaped lens and acknowledge their folly.

Wrestling with a passage like this is not about “undermining the authority of the Bible” or “questioning God.” I simply suggest that we do not numb our minds or hearts when we read scripture just because we consider it sacred. In fact, its sacredness ought to demand our full sensitivity. A major Christian value is discernment, paying attention to whether something bears good fruit or bad. Why should this not apply to our reading of the Bible?

This might be the test of a vision of judgment: does it present the same challenge to me and my community of “true believers” that it does to all humankind, or is it designed to target those I hate the most while giving my tribe a free pass? The latter type has been pervasive in American Christianity in the last century. While Jesus emphatically decried the “us versus them” mentality, his followers throughout history have found it irresistible, and Bible passages like this one have fanned the flames.

2 Thessalonians is ours. We cannot mute it or snip it out. We can, however, face it head-on and look to Jesus to help us understand and interact with it in a constructive or even a cautionary way. It simply won’t do to read a text like this without discernment, allowing it to temper or compromise the message and legacy of Jesus. Protestants have a history of doing this, especially with the writings of Paul. Learning to read the Bible with spiritual and moral sensitivity in pursuit of divine revelation is our best and only hope. We may need to break our Bible open to get at its heart.


Break Your Bible: Numbers 25 and the Zeal of Phinehas

In this series of posts I want to use selected texts from the Bible to illuminate and challenge the way we read and interpret the whole collection. By saying “Break Your Bible” I’m not advocating that we reject, redact, or revise the contents of the biblical canon, but rather that we allow difficult components of the canon to stretch and complicate the things we think we know and believe about how it all fits together. This first post will focus on a story from the Hebrew Bible that defies simplistic interpretation, the second will examine a prophetic text that complicates our reading of the Torah, and last we’ll look at a Greek passage that raises similar issues in the New Testament.

The Myth of Phinehas

Numbers 25:6-13 is a brief account tucked away among the lengthy annals and genealogies of the Torah, but it resonates throughout the Bible. It’s a mythic story, which is a comment on its function, not its veracity. This is an interpretive re-telling of an ancient crisis. In the story, Israel is devastated by a mysterious plague that kills thousands, and a man named Phinehas takes matters into his own hands. When he discovers that an Israelite man has taken a wife from among the Midianites (their pagan enemies), Phinehas runs his spear through the couple, murdering them. The plague subsides, and God is so impressed with the “zeal” of Phinehas that he honors him, granting him an “everlasting priesthood.” The myth succinctly describes a problem (sinful marriage) and its solution (summary execution), leaving no question in the mind of the reader that this is the way the world works; our problems emanate from an angry God who can be appeased by acts of ritual violence.

The problems with this myth and its native interpretation are many and obvious, I hope. Most of us today, even Christians, do not believe in the theology that this story presents. In fact, those who do appeal to this kind of thinking usually end up making public apologies. We don’t believe that diseases and natural disasters are sent by God to punish us for our sins, and we don’t believe that assuaging God’s wrath is a matter of identifying and murdering the right sinners. We recognize that this type of “zeal” reflects an archaic and dangerous way of thinking about God and other people.

But It’s In the Bible!

At the same time, Christians who appeal to the Bible as a perfect and inspired authority must find a way to fit this story and others like it into the grand narrative of “what the Bible says.” That would probably go something like, “God hates sin, and this is how He dealt with it in ancient times.” And that might give way to, “But now we have Jesus, so God has dealt with sin in a better way!” This appeal to an “old covenant/new covenant” upgrade is a common way for Christians to interpret unsavory passages from the Hebrew Scriptures without having to judge them or disagree with them. This approach might have some merit when suggesting, for example, that the old system of animal sacrifice has been fulfilled and supplanted by the self-sacrifice of Jesus (an idea we will scrutinize in the next post). But it’s quite another to suggest that killing human infidels in God’s name used to be OK “back then.”

Attempts to gloss over a Bible story like this one are motivated by ignorance and/or fear. Either we haven’t bothered to look this kind of ugly “zeal” fully in the face, or we’re afraid to do so. If it doesn’t bother us, there is something deeply wrong. If it troubles us, we need to respond. The “zeal of Phinehas” makes an excellent test case for our ability to discern and address different traditions and voices in the Bible. It demands that we do what most Christians seem to fear the most, to make a personal judgment about something we read in the Bible.

The Zeal Tradition

The “zeal” modeled by Phinehas was idealized and lauded by later generations as reflected by a text like Psalm 106. The poem, reflecting on Numbers 25, says that Phinehas’ bloody deed was “counted to him as righteousness,” a strong statement echoing a famous reference to Abraham in Genesis 15:6. So bold and righteous was Phinehas that he is placed on a pedestal next to Abraham, the great father of the faith. Eventually “zeal” evolves into a code word for religious violence. “Zeal for the LORD” and “zeal for the Law” mean fierce allegiance to God and Torah, by the sword if necessary. By the time of Jesus an entire Jewish sect known as “Zealots” had dedicated themselves to liberating Judea by making war against Rome.

Religious zealotry was not some artifact of ancient life that fulfilled its purpose and became obsolete when Jesus arrived on the scene. It was, had always been, and continues to be a toxic and insidious element wherever religion is practiced. In the Bible, it’s not just relegated to the “Old Testament.” It pervades the entire library. The question is, are there other voices represented in the canon which offer an alternative vision of God and a counterpoint to the zeal of Phinehas? What an excellent question.

Jesus and Holy Violence

The same Bible that celebrates Phinehas also gives voice to Jesus, who was first and foremost a Jewish prophet and heir to the traditions of the Hebrew Bible (not a Christian critiquing them from the outside). Not only did Jesus’ message center around peace, nonviolence, and enemy love (Matt 5-7), he unequivocally refuted the theological assumptions at the heart of the Phinehas myth. Jesus rejected the idea that victims of violence and sickness were “sinners” who deserved their fate (Luke 13:1-5; John 9:1-3). He rebuked his followers when they suggested that God should smite those who reject his message (Luke 9:51-56). And he forbade Peter from defending him with a sword (Matt 26:52-56). In fact, his chief prophetic critique of his beloved Jerusalem was her addiction to retribution and violence (Luke 19:41-44).

Jesus does NOT say, “Well, I’m going to die on the cross so religious violence won’t be a necessary evil anymore!” No. His message is ethical as much as it is theological. Holy violence is wrong and it has always been wrong. God was never like that, and we must repent of having ever believed it was so.

The Zeal of Paul

The apostle Paul has a more direct confrontation with the “zeal” tradition. In fact, it’s part of his own story. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul lays out his credentials as a Jew and says the following: “…as to the law [I was] a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church…” (Philippians 3:5-6). Paul followed the zeal tradition vigorously, and it led him to orchestrate the violent persecution (in some cases the execution) of Christians. But Paul reports that he counts his old identity as “trash” since he became a follower of Jesus. Paul is converted from the way of violent zeal to the way of peace and “the surpassing worth of knowing King Jesus my Lord” (3:8).

Break Your Bible Open

This is not as simple as “Old Testament” versus “New Testament.” The Hebrew scriptures offer countless visions of the beauty of God and prophetic rejections of religious violence, while the bloody legacy of zeal continues beyond Jesus into the New Testament and even in our own day. There is no easy formula, we cannot avoid the hard work of interacting with each unique voice we encounter in the pages of scripture.

This exercise is meant to challenge and complicate the way we navigate the texts of the Bible. Why would we want to do that? Because it affords us the opportunity to wrestle with real and challenging questions instead of conducting a scavenger hunt of our own assumptions and predetermined beliefs. It puts us at risk of genuine shock, revulsion, illumination, and revelation. The familiar old approach, which presumes that the Bible is flat and univocal and must always agree with itself, leaves us deaf to the diverse claims, counterclaims, and arguments of the collected traditions. It dulls the edges of the Bible’s words so they cannot cut into our hearts.

The myth of zeal says that law keeping is more important than human lives. Jesus says that love for other humans is law keeping. This is what the Bible says. What next?


More On the Post-Resurrection Stories

Mveng Resurrection Chapel of Hekima College Nairobi

Engelbert Mveng: Resurrection, Hekima College, Nairobi, Kenya, 1962.

I touched on this in my Easter post, but I want to say a little more about the details and ramifications of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in the synoptic gospels. Here are three deeply significant aspects of these strange tales that might have been obscured by traditional readings of the Bible.

1. Jesus returns in peace, unexpectedly.

Clearly no one in the gospel stories expected Jesus to be resurrected. Even when Jesus made cryptic predictions about his death and vindication, his followers told him to stop talking crazy and asked when he was going to become king and kill all the bad guys. As I’ve explored at-length elsewhere, the designation “messiah” had little to do with dying and coming back to life and everything to do with winning wars. After Jesus was executed, no one was looking at their watch wondering what was taking him so long. They were defeated and dejected. Their candidate was gone. The end.

And so when Jesus is resurrected, according to the synoptic gospels, it’s a surprise that completely blindsides his friends and followers. The shock and terror of the disciples is dramatized in the gospel texts, and we sympathize. Running into someone you watched die would be unsettling, to say the least. But once again, a deeper consideration of the historical and political background amplifies the drama. No one had ever imagined that a messianic candidate would die and be resurrected, but if that WERE to ever happen, surely the vindicated one would start the holy war to end all holy wars. With God clearly on his side, nothing could stop him. The disciples aren’t just scared because they think they’ve seen the ghost of a beloved friend, they’re staring at the risen body of the prophet they betrayed and abandoned. They must be thinking that judgment day is upon them.

But it wasn’t. Jesus announces “peace!” and tells them not to fear. The disciples (and innumerable Christian interpreters since) still want to know when the war will start, and Jesus lovingly smiles and shakes his head.

2. Jesus returns as a stranger.

The resurrection narratives in the gospels are diverse and sparse in detail, and they leave us asking many questions. In light of their ambiguity, however, continuities become more significant. For example, in every appearance story not a single person recognizes the risen Jesus on sight. From the final chapter of Matthew’s gospel to Paul’s vision in Acts, the resurrected Jesus is always encountered first as a stranger. This detail is easily overlooked, but its implications are staggering.

Quite in line with his expectation-defying career as a most unlikely messiah, Jesus is not portrayed as returning from the grave in public spectacle and revenge. His appearances are quiet and private, and his own friends don’t recognize him until they talk and eat with him. This Jesus is not the Jesus of triumphalism or culture war. This Jesus does not take over the world from an earthly seat of power, nor does he publicly shame those who don’t know him. He comes quietly alongside his followers and reveals himself in intimacy and friendship. An encounter with this Jesus is unexpected, a run-in with a stranger, a stranger who challenges and forever changes the way we look at things.

3. Jesus returns to affirm life, not “afterlife”.

The synoptic post-resurrection tales are remarkably brief, given their centrality and theological weight. As a result, we have tended to fill them out with our own assumptions and infer our own meanings. For many, the whole point of Jesus’ resurrection is to prove that heaven is real, and that Jesus can take us there with him if we negotiate a ticket. A peek at the texts, however, reveals a different agenda.

In Matthew, Jesus instructs his followers to go and make “disciples” (students) of his teachings who will keep his “commandments”. In Mark, the risen Jesus instructs the twelve to spread his message and “baptize” new followers.* In Luke, the most extensive of the narratives, Jesus reads scripture and eats with his followers, charging them with the task of being “witnesses” to his life and legacy. There is not a word about life after death or of his followers “going to heaven” when they die, but there is a clear mandate to proliferate his teachings. This includes his commandments to love God and neighbor, and his message of repentance and empathy.

Other texts will speculate about the nature of Jesus’ “appearing” at the “end of the age,” and of the fate of humanity and creation, but the gospels’ resurrection stories are clearly more concerned with the present. Here, Jesus’ legacy is first and foremost for this life, the one we’re living, for the well-being of his followers and of the whole world that God loves. This is the Risen Jesus we meet in the pages of the Bible and, hopefully, the one we seek in our lives.


*In Mark’s gospel proper, the risen Jesus says nothing at all. There are two “extra” endings, from 16:9 onward, widely considered to be later additions. It’s fairly easy to see why, even on the surface.


Reading Romans

I’m cross-posting the transcript from my latest podcast, in which I attempt to read Paul’s letter to the Roman church with fresh and careful eyes. This was a very personal endeavor for me, as Paul’s presence loomed large in my religious upbringing. This might be the most boring thing you’ve ever read, but this is what catharsis looks like for me. Check out the podcast version if you want to hear me stutter my way through this text.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is, for many Christians (conservative Protestants in particular), the most beloved and load-bearing document in the whole New Testament. Of course the gospels tell the all-important story of Jesus, but it is Paul’s writing which (according to this popular view) explains and illuminates the gospel so that Christians know how they ought to interpret, understand, and believe it. And since Paul is writing to the church, his “theology” is seen as a sort of textbook for how today’s church should think and behave and – most important – evangelize. For many modern believers, Romans is their “desert island” bible book.

And to be sure, Romans is one of the most valuable texts to have survived antiquity, a spiritual treasure and an historical goldmine. It is one of the oldest writings (if not the oldest) in the New Testament, pre-dating even the earliest gospel, Mark. Scholars of many stripes affirm it as a legitimate work of Paul, meaning that we have what is almost universally regarded as an authentic text written by the most prominent apostle of the first wave of Christian churches. Romans is a profoundly valuable letter.

But it is a letter! When we read Romans, we are literally reading someone else’s mail. This is not a theology textbook. It contains theology (which simply means “God words”), but it’s not theology for its own sake, nor is it comprehensive. Paul is not writing a systematic treatise for all Christians for all time, he’s writing an apostolic letter to a community in crisis. His words are meant to address a specific First Century problem, and to help a group of First Century believers find a way through it. The biggest problem with the traditional Protestant view of Paul is that it tends to overlook or downplay the crisis context of his letters, providing its own context in which the apostle’s words are to be read and interpreted.

In the tradition in which I was raised, what I would call non-denominational evangelicalism, Romans is read and taught in a very specific way, according to an externally-imposed rubric that says the book is all about how to get saved and become a Christian so your sins can be forgiven and you can go to heaven when you die. In fact, we memorized a routine called the “Romans Road” that was designed to help us explain “the gospel” to others in five easy steps. And I still remember it, it goes like this:

  1. Romans 3:23 – Everyone is a sinner…
  2. Romans 6:23a – Sin leads to death…
  3. Romans 5:8 – Jesus died for sinners…
  4. Romans 6:23b – Eternal life comes through Jesus…
  5. Romans 10:13 – Call on Jesus and you will be saved!

Putting aside the question of whether this list of propositions is true or helpful or coherent, even when I was a kid there was something obviously strange and wrong about our need to rip these verses out of context, chop one of them in half, and put them out of order just to tell our story. Paul does talk about sin, he does talk about Jesus’ death, and the life of the coming age and salvation. All that stuff is in the letter in some form, but it’s part of Paul’s bigger story, Paul’s argument, and – most important – it’s first and foremost for the benefit of the Roman church in crisis.

And what is the crisis? Let’s discover that together as we explore the actual letter that Paul wrote. Here is the opening salutation:

1 Paul, a slave of King Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for God’s good news, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the sacred writings – 3 the gospel about his son, who was descended from David’s seed in terms of flesh, 4 and who was marked out powerfully as God’s son in terms of the spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead: Jesus, the king, our Lord!

Paul begins his letter by identifying himself as an apostle of Jesus and articulating “the gospel” as he understands it: that the Jewish prophet Jesus, who was killed, was revealed to be God’s son through resurrection from the dead and is now king. This is Paul’s gospel – not a plan of salvation or an atonement theory or a theology of justification – but the simple and bold declaration that the vindicated prophet Jesus is now king of the world. It’s important to get this right now for two reasons: 1) to keep it simple, so we don’t get bogged down in some of Paul’s more convoluted arguments, thinking his gospel has gone off the rails, and 2) to draw a more organic connection between Paul and Jesus. Throughout history, many have struggled with the question of how to reconcile Jesus’ message of selfless love and humility with the way their own church presented the seemingly complicated soteriology of Paul. But I think the answer is right here in a fresh reading of Paul’s own words. Jesus said “the kingdom of God is here,” and Paul says “Jesus is king.” That’s the gospel.

Another title Paul assigns to Jesus, beside Messiah and king, is “Lord,” kyrios in Greek, and this prompts me to mention something I wish I’d pushed a little harder in the Acts podcast. Much of the language employed by Paul and the other apostles is language ripped from the political realities of their time, specifically the Roman imperial reality. Terms like “lord” and “gospel” and “salvation” are all jargon straight out of Caesar’s empire. Paul and company know this, and are surely being provocative by choosing these words. In the imperial cult, Caesar is the divinely appointed “lord of the world,” the “son of god,” and the “gospel” or “good news” of his reign is that he will bring “salvation” to the people he conquers. The early Christians frame their proclamation of the Messiah as a countercultural, anti-imperial protest. Jesus, not Caesar, is this world’s true “lord,” and the “good news” is that he brings real “salvation,” not a program of lies and violence. This is an often overlooked dimension of Paul’s writing that brings it into sharper focus. Of course, these words also have explicit Jewish parallels as well, as we’ve seen before. The fact that Paul’s words operate and resonate in these two spheres simultaneously – classical Judaism and Roman imperialism – is no coincidence. It’s a central and integral part of his whole message and ministry, which we shall presently see.

Before launching headlong into the purpose and argument of his letter, Paul takes care of a little business and mentions how badly he wishes he could travel to Rome and see the letter’s recipients in person. This is significant because most of Paul’s other letters are written to congregations in churches he himself had planted on his missionary journeys. In Romans, he is writing to a group with whom he has no personal experience, and it seems to frustrate him that he can only try to help them from afar. Then in verse 14 he gets to the point:

14 I am under obligation to non-Greeks as well as to Greeks, you see, both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 That’s why I’m eager to announce the good news to you too, in Rome. 16 I’m not ashamed of the good news, it’s God power, bringing salvation to everyone who believes – to the Jew first and also, equally, to the Greek. 17 This is because God’s righteousness is revealed in it, from faithfulness to faithfulness. As it is written, “the just will live by faith.”

Paul says that his gospel – the announcement that Jesus is king – is good news for both Jews and Greeks, because in it God’s goodness is revealed, and that, as the prophet Habakkuk has written, “the just will live by faith.” What is the point? It’s this: In the first Christian communities, as we saw in Acts, both Jewish Messiah believers and Greek converts come together to become a new and strange kind of family. Each of these groups comes with its own ideas of what it means to believe and belong. Jews have the Torah law, Sabbath and circumcision, and Greeks have the pagan practices and pantheon. The underlying tension of that early church and of the letter to the Romans is, how can these two fundamentally different groups of people possibly live together as the “people of God”? It must have seemed impossible, but Paul’s argument is and will be, that it comes not through any religious rituals or practices, Jewish or pagan, but through a living trust in the good news about Jesus. “The just shall live by faith,” not by making sacrifices or cutting themselves or building temples… And, argues Paul, this is what the prophet already said long ago. This is the message of Romans, and every argument that Paul is about to make – and some of them go in strange directions – will be in support of this central thesis. Let’s keep that in mind as we continue with Romans Chapter 1 and discover Paul’s first and most drastically misunderstood argument.

After saying that Jews and pagans are both equally saved by their trust in Jesus, he seems to go off on an angry rant against the pagans and their wicked practices. At first glance it seems to undermine his entire premise, and some modern Christians have been only too happy to use this material for their own purposes in condemning “worldly” behavior they find unacceptable. Here’s what Paul writes:

18 For the anger of God is unveiled from heaven against all the ungodliness and injustice performed by people who use injustice to suppress the truth. …
22 They [pagans] declared themselves to be wise, but in fact they became foolish. 23 They swapped the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of the image of mortal humans – and of birds, animals, and reptiles. …
26 So God gave them up to shameful desires. Even the women, you see, swapped natural sexual practice for unnatural, 27 and the men, too, abandoned natural sexual relations with women, and were inflamed in their lust for one another. Men performed shameless acts with men, and received in themselves the appropriate repayment for their mistaken ways.

This is one of a handful of what are sometimes called “clobber verses,” bible passages that appear to patently condemn homosexual behavior. And while we should be realistic about how a First Century apostle and former Jewish Pharisee would have felt about same-sex relations, we must also be careful and precise about the text we are reading and how it works. Paul’s words about “unnatural desires” come as part of a long screed in which he also condemns making images of birds and reptiles. In fact, Paul’s rant looks like a boilerplate criticism of pagan religious practices, including idolatry and temple prostitution, in which heterosexual men and women would “exchange” their “natural relations” for a same-sex experience as part of a religious ritual.

But whatever the case, we’ve interrupted Paul before he can make his real point. Unfortunately, Chapter 1 breaks at the end of this rant, and so most modern readers have stopped reading and taken Chapter 1 to be the “we hate pagans and gays” chapter. But of course, chapter breaks are superficial divisions added centuries after-the-fact, and Paul’s argument actually keeps on going into Chapter 2. Here’s what he says, coming right out of the “unnatural” rant:

1 So, you have no excuse – anyone, whoever you are, who sit in judgment! When you judge someone else, you condemn yourself, because you, who are behaving like a judge, are doing the very same things!

Well here’s a different kind of “clobber verse”! Paul’s whole point, it turns out, is not “God hates pagans,” but rather “Jewish Christians have no platform from which to judge Greek Christians based on common pagan stereotypes.” That’s a very different message from the way this passage is traditionally understood. He goes on to talk about God’s judgment, and how it – just like God’s love and salvation – is impartial and universal. This is not unlike Jesus’ “sheep and goats” parable: those who do what is right to their fellow human are judged to be God’s people, and those who do not, are not, regardless of religious affiliation. This is remarkable, and something we should hold on to as we read on.

In Chapter 3 Paul strings together a series of quotes from various Psalms to further illustrate his point: no one is righteous, even those who have Torah, so Jews and Greeks find themselves in the same boat. And here we find verse 23, the first stop on the “Romans Road” that says “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” In our evangelistic presentation, this was meant to illustrate our premise that all people are guilty of sin and hence condemned to hell. But let’s pay Paul the respect of actually reading the second half of his sentence in the next verse: “and by God’s grace they are freely declared to be in the right, to be members of the covenant, through the redemption which is found in the Messiah, Jesus.” Paul’s premise isn’t that everyone is hellbound (he doesn’t really talk about hell in his letters), but that Jews and Greeks are both “members of the covenant,” part of God’s family, because of their common trust in Jesus and not because of any special rituals or status.

In Chapter 4 Paul begins a new argument, the first in a series of appeals to the Hebrew Bible. He uses the example of Abraham, the great father of Judaism, and quotes Genesis 15 to make a fascinating point: Abraham lived before Torah, but God “counted his faith as righteousness.” If it was possible for Abraham to be “righteous” without Torah, it must also be possible for Greeks! For anyone! In fact, says Paul, the covenant, the promise to Abraham that his family would be great and bless the earth, came before Torah as well, and so he argues that non-Jewish believers can be grafted into this family apart from Torah, by faith in God through Jesus that is counted as “righteousness.”

Paul moves into a new argument in 5:12, shifting from Abraham to Adam. In Adam, says Paul, sin and death entered into the world. But Jesus is a “New Adam” who brings life instead of death, and grace instead of sin. Where sin increases, grace abounds, though Paul is quick to add that this is no excuse to commit more sins. Paul’s writing style can be funny sometimes, as he rants, changes his mind, and frequently answers his own questions. The apostle’s personality is all over this text, which is actually sort of endearing. In Chapter 6 he throws out a bunch of metaphors for the relationship with God that is made possible because of Messiah: we no longer resemble death, we resemble resurrection; we are dead to sin, and alive to God; we are no longer slaves to sin, we are slaves to God. We may find that last one less than inspiring, but class-based slavery was commonplace in Paul’s world and is one of his favorite metaphors.

In Chapter 7, a new metaphor. He compares Jewish Christians to abused wives who were bound to a bad husband by the law, but the husband dies and they are now free. Torah, he says, was the abusive husband, and in Messiah’s death his people have also died, and are now free from the law. Paul clarifies that this doesn’t mean Torah is bad or sinful, but that it brought awareness of sin and the consequences of sin, since no one could keep it. The law was good, but it shined a light on Israel’s failure. It brought only condemnation. But, according to Romans 8:1, “There is no condemnation for those in the Messiah Jesus.” Paul goes on to describe the role of the holy spirit (which he sometimes just calls “the spirit” or “God’s spirit”), in leading and guiding the Messiah’s people. They no longer live according to what Paul calls “the flesh,” their own will and experience, but they have access to “the spirit” and live according to it. This isn’t the same as dualism or gnosticism, which literally separate matter from essence into two warring realms. It’s more of a metaphor in which these new Christians can conceptualize their living. And, frankly, it’s an attempt to answer the question of how they can possibly expect to know right from wrong without Torah.

I can already tell I’m going to run long today, but I have to quickly mention something else here at the halfway point (of the letter, if not the podcast). Something very subtle and interesting has been going on in the last few chapters, not unlike what Matthew did with the opening chapters of his gospel. In Chapter 5 Paul talks about Adam, in Chapter 6 he talks about slavery and rescue, in Chapter 7 he talks about the law, and in Chapter 8 he talks about God’s spirit “leading” believers in the metaphorical wilderness of life. Paul’s arguments seem manic and off-the-cuff, but they actually appear to follow a sequence, a sequence that hits all the same beats as the story of Israel.

Still in Chapter 8, Paul takes his argument in yet another unexpected direction, and introduces a topic that is too often ignored in treatments of this letter. The apostle explains how creation itself – the physical world of trees, mountains, and oceans – is anticipating salvation. This is verse 22:

22 Let me explain. We know that the entire creation is groaning together, and going through labor pains together, up until the present time.

In Paul’s imagination, creation itself longs for deliverance, groaning like a woman in labor, ready to give birth to a beautiful new world. This is like the Gospel of John’s “new creation,” and it’s a radical framework that challenges the traditional, conservative view of eschatology which says the earth is doomed, and our goal is to get ourselves “saved” so we can escape to paradise. That is not Paul’s eschatology. He expects this world to be transformed and rescued, and he believes the Messiah’s people bear the “firstfruits” of that new world. This may sound like pie-in-the-sky stuff, but here’s the big question of eschatology: how different do faith and life look when people believe the earth will one day blossom into new life and glory, instead of burning away into oblivion? When the question of “eternity” has as much to do with nature and ecology as it does with the fates of human beings? Paul’s vision of “new creation” also provides a powerful foundation for the message of this letter: how is it possible for Jewish and Greek Christians to share a life together? It’s possible because they are both part of the same creation, with the same ultimate, glorious global destiny. Chapter 8 concludes with a beautiful poem about the confidence the apostle finds in following Messiah:

35 Who shall separate us from Messiah’s love? Suffering, or hardship, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? …
37 No! In all these things we are completely victorious through the one who loved us. 38 For I am persuaded, you see, that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor the present, nor the future, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in King Jesus our Lord.

Stirring words, but then in Chapters 9-11 Paul acknowledges an elephant in the room, and wrestles with a very difficult and formidable question raised by his own theology: what about Israel? What about mainstream Judaism and the majority of Jews who do not accept that Jesus is Messiah? Paul argues violently with himself on this topic for three chapters, and in the interest of time and sanity I’ll try to summarize his train of thought:

  • Jews are “Israelites,” the original recipients of the promise and covenant, and the Messiah is one of their own. (9:1-5)
  • But not all “children of Abraham” are true Israelites. Even in the Torah, God said “I loved Jacob, but I hated Esau.” God’s thoughts are mysterious, and he will choose his own family – even from among the Gentiles. (9:6-24)
  • During the Exile, the prophets said repeatedly that only a remnant of Israel would survive, anyway. (9:25-29)
  • Pagan nations have been granted membership in the covenant while Israel has failed to keep it. (9:30-33)
  • But Paul’s deepest desire is for Israel to find salvation, which is accomplished not by keeping the letter of the law but by trusting in the Messiah. (10:1-15)
  • God told this “good news” to Israel through the prophets, but they did not listen, and now others are listening. (10:14-21)
  • So, has God abandoned his chosen people? Not at all! Paul and half of the Christians are Jews! There is a remnant, selected by God’s grace. The remnant are blessed, and the rest have been “hardened,” but not forever. Paul believes that all Jews will see the glories of following Messiah and become “jealous.” (11:1-15)
  • The family of God is like an olive tree – Israel is the root, and Gentiles are grafted branches, replacing natural branches that had to be cut off. But don’t worry – even those old branches will eventually be grafted back on as well! (11:16-24)
  • This is why, Paul concludes, “all Israel will be saved.” (11:25-26)
  • And it will happen because of God’s boundless mercy. (11:27-36)

You’d think Paul would be tuckered out and ready to end the letter, but you’d be wrong. Chapters 12 through 15 are a sort of practical application of Paul’s central argument, an answer to the question, “what do we do now?” Paul tells the Roman Christians to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God,” which sounds kinda creepy and religious, but Paul elaborates:

12:3 … don’t think of yourselves more highly than you ought to. Rather, think soberly, in line with faith, the true standard which God has marked out for each of you. 4 As in one body we have many limbs and organs, you see, and all parts have different functions, 5 so we, many as we are, are one body in Messiah, and individually we belong to one another.

Paul’s advice to a diverse and nervous group of Christians is to think of themselves as members of the same body – each with a different purpose, but part of the same whole. Everyone is needed, everyone has a special set of gifts, and everyone belongs. This “members of the same body” metaphor is fundamental to the way Paul’s own churches are set up, and we’ll learn more about that in some of his other letters. He rounds out Chapter 12 with some familiar advice: that those in the community should, above all else, love each other. This is where Paul sounds the most like Jesus:

10 Be truly affectionate in showing love for one another, compete with each other in giving mutual respect. …
14 Bless those who persecute you, bless them don’t curse them. 15 Celebrate with those who celebrate, mourn with the mourners. …
17 Never repay anyone evil for evil, think through what will seem good to everyone who is watching. 18 If it’s possible, as far as you can, live at peace with all people.

Romans Chapter 13 is another passage that has been read out of context with unsavory consequences. Consider verse 1: “Every person must be subject to the ruling authorities.” If Romans is a kind of universal instruction book or Torah law for all Christians, then this “commandment” has all sorts of dangerous implications. Does this mean that Christians ought to be supportive or complicit in war, genocide, and exploitation? Let’s remember the context. Paul is writing to a congregation that is having an identity crisis. How can Jews be Jews, Greeks be Greeks, and all of them be Christians? In addition to the advice he gave them in Chapter 12, Paul now advises them to be good citizens, pay their taxes, and not assume a default posture of revolution or civil disobedience. This is a general exhortation and pep talk, not a pledge of allegiance to empire.

In Chapter 14 Paul gets more specific about the challenges facing this particular congregation. He warns the Roman Christians against judging one another for their personal beliefs and practices, but also warns them against flaunting those practices in front of each other. For example, some of them are vegetarians, and some eat meat. Some observe certain holy days, and others do not. No one should be shamed or shunned because they do or don’t, and no one should think they are privileged because they do or don’t. God has declared that “nothing is unclean,” says Paul (recall Peter’s dream in Acts Chapter 10), so anything goes, but you musn’t lord it over each other. Think of your neighbor before yourself. And in Chapter 15 Paul reaches the climax of the letter, bringing all of his arguments to a glorious conclusion:

5 May the God of patience and encouragement grant you to come to a common mind among yourselves, in accordance with the Messiah Jesus, 6 so that, with one mind and one mouth, you may glorify the God and father of our Lord Jesus, the Messiah.

The fundamental spirit of all of Paul’s ramblings can be summed in a single word: unity. He is pleading with this troubled congregation to find a common denominator in Messiah, so that their diverse beliefs and lifestyles can become an asset, not a source of conflict. Their devotion to Jesus is what makes them a family, not religious conformity or ritual. Paul concludes that Jesus has made it possible for different nations to come together in praise and brotherhood instead of resentment and violence. As he says in the last line of the letter proper:

15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the holy spirit.

There follows a bunch of postscript material in chapters 15 and 16, where Paul restates his burning desire to visit the Roman church, but explains that he must go to Jerusalem instead to deliver some much needed financial support to the poor Christians there. He introduces a deacon named Phoebe, who is likely the person who will actually present and read this letter to the Roman congregation. Lastly he sends greetings to a long list of names, fellow apostles in Rome, deacons, believers, and friends. We note the overwhelming number of female names on the list, which reflects a reality of the early church that might surprise modern readers. Since the earliest Christian communities met in people’s homes, women played a major role in both hospitality and leadership. Most fascinating is a reference to a female apostle named Junia, which should have had major repercussions for the modern church, except that most of our bible translations have chosen to quietly change her name to the male moniker “Junias.” A groundless and ideologically-motivated redaction, and not the only one to be sure.

After a short final blessing in the name of the Messiah, Paul’s letter ends. I hope I’ve given you what I was missing for years: a clear and simple exposition of the letter to the Romans in full, in order, and in context. Paul is not easy to read. He rambles and pleads, throwing every argument he can think of against the wall to see what sticks. It’s just easier to chop him up and do whatever you want with the bits and pieces, but it’s not really fair or helpful. The result has been a reading of Romans that is out of tune with the real heart of Paul’s message.

In the church of my youth, Romans was an instruction manual for converting others to the faith. But as we’ve just seen, this letter isn’t concerned with how to convert the lost, it’s about how those already in the church might find love, hope, and unity. And it’s specifically concerned with a social dynamic that is virtually unknown to churches in our time, as Jewish and pagan Christians – old enemies – were trying build a life together. Of course, there is plenty for us to learn from Romans about how Paul understood the gospel and the challenges of diversity in the church, and these are relevant in any century. But we should do our best to approach the material on its own terms. The sad and ironic thing is that while Paul so desperately wants the church to discover its freedom from law and embrace the grace of the Messiah, the church, it seems, would rather just turn Paul’s words into a new kind of Church Torah. It’s our problem, not Paul’s, if we’ve allowed his words to become a burden and a stumbling block.