The Hermeneutical Implications of Scripture’s Theological Location

INTRODUCTION

Theological hermeneutics – human understanding and interpretation in light of the identity and acts of the triune God – faces two problematic questions that, I believe, every biblical and/or theological scholar must be prepared to address. First, should the Bible be read in some special sense as divine revelation, or should we read the Bible like any other text? And second, should biblical and theological studies be one discipline, or two?

In what follows, I propose that we can best account for both (1) the relationship between general and special hermeneutics and (2) the relationship between biblical and theological studies by first attending to Scripture’s theological location regarding its subject matter – the all-encompassing story, to which it bears witness, of how the triune God creates and redeems a people unto fellowship with himself.

In the first section, I will argue that the Scripture plays an authoritative role in the all-encompassing story to which it bears witness. After briefly summarizing the subject matter of Scripture, I will explain Scripture’s role by explaining the relationships between Scripture and (1) God, (2) creation, and (3) God’s people. With respect to God, Scripture is the authoritative and inspired word of the triune God, which God uses to reveal himself and redeem his creatures. With respect to creation, because Scripture’s subject matter is all-encompassing, there is no domain outside of its purview. And with respect to God’s people, Scripture is unavoidably and irreducibly ecclesiological.

Once we clarify the relationship between Scripture and its subject matter, if the story to which Scripture bears witness is true, then the relationships between (1) special and general hermeneutics and (2) biblical and theological studies become much less problematic.

In the second section, therefore, I maintain that, because Scripture plays a uniquely authoritative role within its all-encompassing subject matter, theological hermeneutics encompasses both special and general hermeneutics. This has implications for two related hermeneutical triads: the general hermeneutical triad of author, text, and reader, and the special hermeneutical triad of historical, literary, and theological analysis. My approach calls for giving theology pride of place in both triads. That is, the divine author, the Christ-centered text, and the Spirit-led interpretive community of the Church are of primary importance. Nevertheless, due to the historically particular way(s) in which the triune God has revealed himself and redeemed his people, a theological hermeneutic requires attending to the historical and literary particularities of all authors, texts, and readers – especially to those involved in the interpretation of Holy Scripture.

Finally, in the third section, I offer an account of biblical and theological studies as a single multifaceted discipline, one that includes both biblical studies and the various theological sub-disciplines of historical, systematic, and pastoral theology. Because Scripture’s subject matter is complex, unified, and irreducibly ecclesiological, biblical and theological studies need each other. This has, I believe, implications for how the contested and contentious fields of biblical theology and the theological interpretation of Scripture ought to relate to each other.  Furthermore, because the Church’s understanding of and participation in Scripture’s subject matter is historically, conceptually, and practically complex, the theological subdisciplines need each other. Continue reading “The Hermeneutical Implications of Scripture’s Theological Location”

The Epistle to Philemon: Analysis and Application

 

As the briefest member of the Pauline corpus, the epistle to Philemon is a letter of recommendation for the sake of reconciliation in which the apostle Paul brings the gospel truth of mutual participation in the body of Christ to bear on an estranged relationship – making a delicate request of his friend Philemon to receive back a certain Onesimus into full fellowship as a brother in Christ.[1]

Comprehension of the passage’s contemporaneous Greco-Roman epistolary landscape facilitates a knowledgeable analysis of its constituent parts.[2] Subsequently, the interpretive insights yielded by this examination facilitate an application of the letter to the contemporary Christian church.

Greco-Roman Letters

Originally referring to “an oral communication sent by messenger,” the Hellenistic ἐπιστολή eventually encompassed a wide variety of documents – from commercial to legal, political to personal.[3] As Greidanus notes, the basic form of a Greco-Roman letter was tripartite, consisting of introduction/opening, body, and conclusion.[4]

The first section named the sender and addressee, often including a brief greeting and “a wish for good health.”[5] Most difficult to analyze formally, the body of Hellenistic letters was flexible enough to encompass content suited to each writing’s particular communicative act.[6] Finally, “greetings to persons other than the addressee, a final greeting or prayer sentence, and sometimes a date” comprised a typical conclusion to Greco-Roman epistles.[7]

In contrast to literary essays and official documents of the day, written to general audiences apart from any relational context, Paul’s letters are more private and personal – exhibiting his pastoral concern for those to whom he was a representative of Christ and an elder in the faith.[8] Nevertheless, the Pauline epistles arguably exceed their contemporaneous correspondence in length, structure, and didactic intent.[9]

Although Paul understandably followed the prevailing Greco-Roman form in his own letters, he nonetheless freely adapted the epistolary conventions of the day to suit his own purposes.

For example, as O’Brien notes, although “on occasion the more intimate letters of the Hellenistic period began with a thanksgiving to the gods for personal benefits received,” Paul expanded and developed the introductory thanksgiving/blessing section in his writings more often than any writer of his day, yielding a mix of Hellenistic form with Jewish and Christian content which is present in most of his letters.[10]

Similarly, Paul often modified the Greco-Roman form by including a concluding paranetic section of exhortation after the body of his letters.[11]

Analysis of Philemon

An appreciation of Pauline epistolary form in Greco-Roman context yields important interpretive insights relating to both the parts and whole of the letter to Philemon, in which Paul displays remarkable tact as he advances his request for reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus.[12] 

Although lacking a definite section of paranesis, the epistle is composed of

  • an opening greeting (Philem 1-3),
  • thanksgiving/prayer (4-7),
  • body (8-22),
  • and closing (23-25).[13]

Opening Greeting

Of immediate note, Paul atypically refers to himself, in the midst of an otherwise standard greeting, not as an apostle (cf. Gal 1:1) or servant (cf. Rom 1:1; Phil 1:1), but as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (Philem 1; NRSV) – perhaps best explained by his desire throughout “to entreat rather than command” (cf. 8-9), but also to stress Onesimus’ usefulness to him in his captivity (cf. 11-13).[14]

Sender (“Paul…and Timothy”; Philem 1a), and addressee (“Philemon…Apphia…Archippus…and the church in your house”; 1b-2) thus identified, Paul’s signature greeting of χάρις καὶ εἰρήνη (3) functions as a benedictional transition to a section of thanksgiving and prayer (4-7), which – as elsewhere in the Pauline corpus – introduces the letter’s main themes.[15]

Thanksgiving/Prayer

As Bruce notes, “the ground of the thanksgiving and the substance of the prayer are closely related to the purpose of the letter.”[16] Paul gives thanks to God because of Philemon’s love, faith, and refreshment of “the hearts of the saints” (Philem 5, 7).

The content of Paul’s subsequent prayer, then, is that “the sharing of [Philemon’s] faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ” (6; ESV).

However, the phrase ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου is better translated as “the mutual belonging which is proper to your faith,” referring to, as Wright puts it, “the mutuality of the Christian life which, springing from common participation in the body of Christ, extends beyond mere common concern into actual exchange” – a mutual belonging which lies at the heart of Paul’s argument and requests throughout the epistle.[17]

In addition to introducing the key themes of love/heart (cf. ἀγάπη, 4,7,9; σπλάγχνα, 7,12,20) and mutual participation (cf. κοινωνόν, 17), the thanksgiving/prayer rhetorically establishes mutual goodwill as an exordium in which Paul emphasizes characteristics of Philemon to which he can then appeal.[18]

Body

The main request of the letter’s body – of noteworthy length in its Greco-Roman context – is that Philemon should receive Onesimus just as he would receive Paul (17b).[19]

Although Paul makes use of every persuasive tactic at his disposal – including concession of apostolic authority (8; 19b), emotional appeal (9, 12), pun (11), and appeal to honor (14) – the main thrust of the argument depends on the “mutual belonging” (6) between Philemon and Onesimus now that the latter has become a Christian during Paul’s captivity (10).[20]

Regardless of the exact nature of the past estrangement (about which Paul remains virtually silent), Philemon is urged to interpret the seemingly unfortunate state of affairs as an opportunity for eternal reconciliation (15-16), transferring any debts that Onesimus had incurred to Paul’s own account instead (18). In receiving back Onesimus, Paul’s “very heart” (12b), as “a beloved brother” (16), Philemon would continue his refreshment of the saints’ hearts (7) by refreshing Paul’s heart (20).[21]

Here, then, is an analogous microcosm of the gospel itself – a fulfillment of Paul’s prayer for κοινωνία (6) and of the cruciform “ministry of reconciliation” of 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 and Colossians 1:24-29.[22]

As Wright notes, just as in Christ God reconciles the entire world to himself (2 Cor 5:19), “God is in Paul reconciling Philemon and Onesimus” – who both owed a debt, so to speak, to the apostle for their conversion (Philem 10, 19b).[23]

Confident of Philemon’s compliance with his reconciliatory request (21), Paul makes an additional request for lodging based on Paul’s hope for release from imprisonment and subsequent travel to Colossae to be present with his audience (22) – an epistolary structure known as the “apostolic parousia,” revealing Paul’s consideration of his writings as substitutes for his physical presence.[24]

Closing

Finally, Paul reports the greetings of his gospel co-workers to Philemon (23-24), before reverting to the plural to include the other addressees (2) in his concluding benediction.[25]

Application

If the consensus interpretation that Onesimus is Philemon’s runaway slave is correct, then Deuteronomy 23:15-16 would seem to mandate that Paul not return the fugitive to his estranged master. [26]

However, the reality of their mutual belonging in Christ compelled the apostle to facilitate the reconciliation now possible due to the Messiah’s death, burial, and resurrection (cf. 2 Cor 5:16-21).

Nevertheless, Lightfoot reveals a potential hurdle for modern readers of this ancient text when he notes that, though “the word ‘emancipation’ seems to be trembling on [Paul’s] lips…he does not once utter it.”[27]

The first step in resolving this frustration involves the clear delineation between the context of slavery in which Onesimus lived, the transatlantic slave trade of the 16th through 19th centuries, and the modern day slavery of human trafficking and forced labor – for it is far too easy to conflate the three in indignation at Paul’s failure to request Onesimus’ freedom.[28]

Then, once the anachronism of expecting Paul to be a modern abolitionist is noted, it can be clearly seen that, as Bruce observes, though the epistle to Philemon “throws little light on Paul’s attitude to the institution of slavery,” it brings “the institution into an atmosphere where it could only wilt and die.[29]

After all, the same κοινωνία that enabled Philemon and Onesimus to be reconciled could not help but destroy the dynamics of slavery within the kingdom of God and body of Christ – where “there is no longer slave or free,” but all are “one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

According to the world, Onesimus belonged to Philemon as a slave. According to Christ, they belonged to one another as brothers.

Although here in Philemon, as elsewhere (cf. Col 3:22-4:1), Paul stops short of prohibiting slavery, it is clear that he understood the gospel of Jesus Christ inescapably to transform the divisive condition of humanity into a restored, eternal unity which transcended all temporal divisions (cf. 1 Cor 7:17-24; Col 3:11).

Paul’s tactful requests reveal that the bond between Philemon and Onesimus as brothers in the Lord (Philem 16) was far stronger than the social expectations of master and slave.

Transcending the issue of slavery – yet simultaneously striking at its very core – Paul’s masterfully crafted epistle to Philemon reminds Christians in every age to apply consistently the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ to their relationships, in spite of individualism’s siren song, which might tempt them to manipulate and dominate instead of to mutually belong to one another in κοινωνία.

Furthermore, readers of Paul’s letter to Philemon should follow his peace-making example by seeking to be ministers of reconciliation in their respective contexts – no matter how discordant or seemingly insignificant.

This brief letter thus coheres with the biblical theme of unity. Because God is one, his people are called to be one as well – a community of forgiven women and men, Jews and Gentiles, even slaves and masters who forgive each other’s debts and refresh each other’s hearts in the κοινωνία of their faith in Jesus their Messiah.[30]


[1] Philemon is categorized as a letter of recommendation by D. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987) 211-2 and W.W. Klein, C.L. Blomberg and R.L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Rev. Ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004) 431. This paper assumes the “consensus view” of the epistle’s provenance: namely, that the apostle Paul is addressing Philemon of Colossae regarding the estranged slave and now convert, Onesimus. The creative reconstruction of J. Knox, in which the extant epistle to Philemon is the “letter from Laodicea” (Col 4:16) which was written by Paul to Archippus (Philem 2), master of Onesimus, is here ignored; cf. J. Knox, Philemon Among the Letters of Paul (New York: Abingdon, 1959). For critical responses to Knox’s claims from the consensus view, see F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984) 198-202; G.B. Caird, Paul’s Letters from Prison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987) 217; and N.T. Wright, The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon, TNTC (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989) 164-6.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, “Greco-Roman” and “Hellenistic” are used synonymously.

[3] P.T. O’Brien, “Letters, Letter Forms,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 550.

[4] S. Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 315; cf. W.G. Doty, Letters in Primitive Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973) 27; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551.

[5] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 315.

[6] Doty, Letters, 34-5.

[7] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 315.

[8] O’Brien cites the intensely personal letter to the Galatians and Paul’s emphasis on apostleship at Gal 1:1, 15, 16; 5:2. O’Brien “Letters,” 551.

[9] Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 426.

[10] Although notably absent from the epistle to the Galatians. P.T. O’Brien, “Benediction, Blessing, Doxology, Thanksgiving,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 69; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551-2; Cf. 1 Cor 1:4-9; 2 Cor 1:3-4; Rom 1:8-10; Eph 1:3-14; Phil 1:3-11; Col 1:3-14; 1 Thess 1:2-3:13; 2 Thess 1:2-12; 2:13-14; Philem 4-7.

[11] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 316; cf. 1 Cor 16:13-18; Rom 15:14-32; Doty, Letters, 27; pace Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, who include thanksgiving and paranesis in “the fairly typical [Greco-Roman] structure,” claiming that NT thanksgiving sections “performed what all writers considered a common courtesy.” Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 430. While a definitive stance is impossible sans a comprehensive study of Hellenistic epistolary literature, it seems best to emphasize the distinctiveness of Pauline thanksgiving and paranesis.

[12] See A. Patzia, “Philemon,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 706. As a letter of recommendation, the passages closest extant parallel is perhaps a letter from Pliny the Younger to a certain Sabinianus, requesting that he mercifully receive a penitent freedman. Pliny, Letter, 9.21; cited by Aune, New Testament, 211 and J.B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973) 318-9.

[13] Pace Doty’s suggestion that Philem 21 contains the formulaic paranesis. For robust examples of Pauline paranesis, see Rom 12:1-15:13; Gal 5:13-6:10; 1 Thess 4:1-12, 5:1-22, the other examples cited by Doty, Letters, 43.

[14] Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 333; cf. Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 205; Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 172. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations come from the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV].

[15]  “Grace and peace” is a modification of the Hellenistic greeting χαίρειν, designed both to affirm the grace and peace of God which his readers already possessed and to pray that they might enjoy/embody such blessings more fully; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551. On the epistolary function of Pauline thanksgivings, see O’Brien, “Benediction,” 70.

[16] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 208.

[17] Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 175-6; cf. 2 Cor 1:6-7; 4:10-15; Col 1:24; T.G. Gombis, Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: T&T Clark, 2010) 40; pace suggestions of κοινωνία here as evangelism (so NIV, Philem 6) or vague generosity (so Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 208-9; and Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 335). The concept of Christian mutual belonging can be seen to have its roots in the “fellow Israelite” laws of the Pentateuch – the example par excellence being Leviticus 19:18’s injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

[18] Aune, New Testament, 211. The theme of mutual belonging is also expressed in the use of fellowship terminology in the epistle’s opening and conclusion: ἀδελφὸς (1), συνεργῷ (1), ἀδελφῇ (2), συστρατιώτῃ (2), συναιχμάλωτός (23), and συνεργοί (24).

[19] Doty, Letters, 35.

[20] Although Patzia rightly acknowledges the “continuing questions of interpretation” relating to the location of Paul’s imprisonment (Rome, Ephesus, or Caesarea) and the timing/nature of Onesimus’ conversion, neither issue is central to the discussion at hand of mutual belonging in Christ; Patzia, Philemon, 705. Rhetorical arguments noted by Aune, New Testament, 211. As Patzia notes, per rhetorical criticism the epistle can be structured into exordium (4-7), proof (8-16), and peroration (17-22). Patzia, “Philemon,” 704.

[21] Aune, New Testament, 211-2.

[22] By “the gospel,” I am primarily referring to the atonement as the act in which God fulfills his creative purposes by bringing his attributes to bear on our sinful condition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah in order to save a people to robust unity with himself, each other, and the entire creation. See A.J. Johnson, God’s Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth. (New York: T&T Clark, 2012).

[23] Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 181, 186-7; cf. Paul’s use of sonship as a metaphor regarding conversion: 1 Cor 4:14-15; 2 Cor 6:13; Gal 4:19; Phil 2:22.

[24] Doty, Letters, 36; O’Brien, “Letters,” 552.

[25] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 224-5; Caird, Paul’s Letters from Prison, 223. The list of names at Philem 23-24 mirrors that found at Col 4:10-17, except for the omission of Jesus Justus (Col 4:11). Of note, though impossible to explain fully, is Epaphras’ designation as Paul’s “fellow prisoner” instead of a “fellow worker” as the others. However, Bruce notes that, as “the evangelist of the Lycus valley” in which Colossae was located (cf. Col 1:7; 4:12), Epaphras “would be personally known to Philemon,” and thus merit distinct mention. Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 213-4. The concluding benediction of Philem 25 closely resembles Gal 6:18 and Phil 4:23.

[26] Bruce, Caird, Lightfoot, and Wright all adopt the consensus view. Deuteronomy passage cited by Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 197, fn. 19.

[27] Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 323.

[28] Although an analysis of first century slavery far exceeds the scope of this essay, a potential aid in differentiating between ancient and modern slavery when it comes to Philemon is Gombis’ critique of the consensus view’s failure to acknowledge Paul’s language of ἀδελφὸν…ἐν σαρκὶ at Philem 16. It is likely that Philemon and Onesimus’ relationship was different than that between a normal master and slave. See T.G. Gombis, “Philemon and Onesimus: ‘Brothers in the Flesh’” (paper presented at the International Meeting of the SBL, St. Andrews, Scotland, 11 July, 2013).

[29] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 197-8. Similarly, Wright notes that, although “inveighing against slavery per se [at the time] would have been totally ineffective,” Paul’s subtler message mimics Christ’s approach to cosmic change from the bottom up, from the inside out. Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 168-9.

[30] Cf. Deut 6:4; John 17:20-23; Eph 4:1-6.

Scripture: Handle with Care – by Amy Chase Ashley

Update (April 2017): I’ve gone back to update/clean-up the formatting in this wonderful June 2013 guest post from my friend Amy Elizabeth Chase Ashley, one of the most gifted students of Scripture with whom I’ve been privileged to study. She blogs at https://amyechase.wordpress.com/

Scripture: Handle with Care

Jeremiah 29:11

When I accepted the invitation to speak at my parents’ church, I immediately started thinking about what message I would deliver.  I decided to give a message on something that is very important to me after my four years at Cedarville and something I am very passionate about.  I hope it will be engaging; I hope it will make you think; and I hope it will bring glory to God.  If I can accomplish those three things, I will be satisfied.

The Scripture I chose is Jeremiah 29:11 and I’m guessing that most Christians could recite the verse from memory.  If not, once you read it, you’ll probably remember or recognize it.

“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.’”

This is a familiar verse for a lot of Christians.  My question today is whether it should be.

This might seem like a strange question, but I think you’ll understand what I mean soon.

So why is this verse so familiar to us?  Well, it’s used a lot.  Are you nervous about future uncertainties?  Jeremiah 29:11.  Are you starting a new job?  Jeremiah 29:11.  Graduating from high school or college?  Jeremiah 29:11.  That teenage girl had her boyfriend break up with her?  Jeremiah 29:11.  Car trouble that makes you late to work?  Jeremiah 29:11.  Lost your lucky pencil?  Jeremiah 29:11.

I hope you’re catching my sarcasm.

And maybe you think I’m exaggerating.  But I did a Google search for Jeremiah 29:11 and you can buy folders, clocks, plaques, keychains, mugs, pictures, bumper stickers, aprons, tote bags, iPhone cases, tshirts, pillows, bracelets, and even playing cards that have this verse on them.  It might be rivaling the 23rd Psalm after all that.   And I know for a fact that it can be found on countless greeting cards whether they be sympathy, graduation, engagement, or congratulatory cards.

- this is not a bag of trail mix you cant just pick out the p

I saw a meme on the internet the other day.  It was an image of the Bible, and the text said: “This is not a bag of trail mix.  You can’t just pick out the pieces you like and ignore the rest.”  I’m afraid that the widespread use of Jeremiah 29:11 demonstrates a bigger problem: we really are guilty of treating the Bible like a bag of trail mix.  Jeremiah 29:11 is an M&M that we pull out time and time again while we ignore all the peanuts and raisins and cashews and granola all around it.

Christians claim to have a high view of Scripture—that is, we say that the Bible is the authoritative, divinely inspired Word of God.  We are quick to use it to tell the world what they’re doing wrong whether that be gay marriage or murder or how to raise children.  We say that we live by what the Bible says, but I’m afraid that we’re often guilty of not even knowing what the Bible says.  For me, the widespread use of Jeremiah 29:11 proves this.

To demonstrate, does anyone know what Jeremiah 29:10 says?  No, because it’s a peanut.  Jeremiah 29:12?  Sorry, I don’t like raisins.  But I am feeling uncertain about this new job/relationship/house/baby/friend/responsibility/accomplishment/etc., so I like to be told that God has good plans for me.  I like to imagine him saying, “I know the plans I have for you…”

Continue reading “Scripture: Handle with Care – by Amy Chase Ashley”

Reading and Interpreting the Bible: Deuteronomy 6:1-15

Deuteronomy 6:1-15 (NRSV)

Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

10 When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, 11 houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and when you have eaten your fill, 12 take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 13 The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. 14 Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you, 15 because the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God. The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth.

INTRODUCTION

As the climactic renewal and enumeration of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel, Deuteronomy contains at its core a cross between an ancient Near Eastern law code and treaty.[1]

Within this structure, the laws and treaty stipulations – general (5:1-11:32) and specific (12:1-26:19) – are given pride of place. After the setting and introduction to the covenant (4:44-49), Moses[2] begins his second sermon (5:1-28:69) with an interpretive restatement of the Decalogue (5:6-21), couched within an extended reflection on the initial law-giving at Horeb and Moses’ role as mediator (5:1-33).

In the passage at hand (6:1-15), he then transitions to the remainder of the general stipulations (6:1-11:32) with an introductory exhortation (6:1-3), a distillation of the covenant principles (6:4-5), and an extension of these principles to future generations and society (6:6-9), concluding with a warning against forgetfulness and idolatry as the Israelites soon enter the land of Canaan (6:10-15). In remembrance of and in response to Yahweh’s unique faithfulness, Israel must love Yahweh absolutely and exclusively by internalizing, embodying, and teaching covenant faithfulness as they inherit the blessings of the promised land.

INTRODUCTORY EXHORTATION: 6:1-3

Moses begins this passage with an exhortation to keep the general stipulations of the covenant to be discussed in Deuteronomy 6-11. In response to Yahweh’s command (recounted at 5:31), Moses teaches the people the “commandments, statutes, and ordinances” (5:31, 6:1; referring to the covenant stipulations) [3] so that they will “carry them out in the land” (5:31, 6:1).

This transmission of the covenant stipulations from Yahweh to Moses to the Israelites was not meant to achieve a merely epistemic result, but also an ontic one. That is, Moses was not merely teaching them the stipulations so that they would merely know (and do) the right things, but so that they would be the right kind of people, internalizing and embodying the stipulations as they entered the promised land of Canaan. The intended result of the commandments, statutes, and ordinances was holistic covenant faithfulness.

At the heart of the appropriate epistemic and ontic response to the covenant stipulations was the proper fear of Yahweh their God (6:2a), which was to result in a continual obedience for generations upon generations (6:2b),[4] reflecting the importance of teaching covenant faithfulness to their children.[5] As the injunctions to “pay attention” and “be careful” (6:3a) indicate, this obedience was also to be careful and deliberate.[6] The promised results of such continual and careful covenant faithfulness are long life (6:2c) and many descendants (6:2b, 3a) in the bountiful promised land (6:1b, 3b), recalling Yahweh’s unique faithfulness to fulfill his promises of land and offspring to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3.[7]

DISTILLATION OF THE COVENANT PRINCIPLES: 6:4-5

Following the brief introduction to the general stipulations (6:1-3), Moses distills the Decalogue, itself an encapsulation of the entire covenant, into just sixteen Hebrew words, providing “the expression of the essence of all God’s person and purposes” (6:4-5).[8]

Named after the first Hebrew word in 6:4 (shéma’, “hear, pay attention”), the “Great Shema” has long been regarded as central to Deuteronomy and to Israelite theology and praxis.[9] However, because of its brevity, the translation of the Shema (particularly 6:4) into English has been the topic of considerable debate. Although the initial imperative and vocative (“pay attention, Israel”) are clear enough, translating the remaining four terms (“Yahweh, our God, Yahweh, one”) into English involves making a decision on the placement of the copulative and the precise translation of ekhad as “one” or “alone.”[10]

On balance, given the statement’s quasi-poetic brevity, it seems best to render 6:4: “Yahweh is our God, Yahweh is one.”[11] This translation allows for a mediating position between Block’s arguments for rendering ekhad as “alone,” emphasizing God’s uniqueness, and Janzen’s arguments for God’s oneness as internal consistency and faithfulness to Israel.[12] Compared to the gamut of Canaanite and other ancient Near Eastern deities, Yahweh was indeed unique,[13] primarily because of his faithfulness to Israel from the patriarchs (6:3b, 10a), through the exodus (6:12), and into the imminent conquest of Canaan (6:1b, 3, 10-11). That “Yahweh is one” is not so much an ontological statement as it is a historical reflection[14] in remembrance of Yahweh’s unique faithfulness to his covenant people.

Therefore, in response to this unique faithfulness, Israel must love Yahweh absolutely (6:5), as seen by the concentric use of lebab (“heart,” the inner being, including emotion and intellect), nephesh (“soul,” the entire being, including desires), and me’od (“strength,” the physical being, including economic and social resources).[15] This is the only proper response to the God who is truly ekhad (6:4),[16] comprising the essential principle upon which the entire covenant rested.[17] Related to the previously mentioned fear of Yahweh and obedience to the covenant stipulations (6:1-3), loving Yahweh involves the epistemic/ontic response of internalizing (with the lebab and nephesh) and embodying (through the me’od) covenant faithfulness.

EXTENSION TO FAMILY AND SOCIETY – 6:6-9

The proper love of Yahweh is absolute, permeating not only the entire person (6:5), but also all of life (6:6-9),[18] including the family unit (6:7) and society (6:8-9). Beginning again with the concept of epistemic internalization, Moses commands the Israelites to keep “these words” (referring to the entire covenant through the Shema)[19] on their hearts/minds (6:6).

This internalization of the covenant through constant reflection is then to be extended by teaching covenant faithfulness to future generations (6:7a), here described with an unusual verb (shanan) which evokes the imagery of engraving a message into stone.[20] Just as Moses is teaching the Israelites the covenant stipulations, they must teach these things to their children through constant repetition and discussion of the faithful covenant lifestyle within the household, reflected through the double merism of 6:7b (sitting/walking; lying down/getting up).[21]

Finally, this commitment to covenant faithfulness was to transcend the household and permeate the entire society (6:8-9). Although the instructions here (to “tie,” “fasten,” and “inscribe” the covenant stipulations on the forearm, forehead, and door frames, respectively) were taken literally in later Jewish tradition,[22] they were probably meant to be interpreted metaphorically.[23] In this case, 6:8 refers to the embodiment of the covenant principles in everyday life, identifying each individual Israelite as a faithful covenant member.[24]

However, in 6:9 the exhortation to covenant faithfulness is then expanded to the household and the community as “these words” (6:6) are inscribed “on the doorframes of your houses and gates” (6:9).[25] In response to Yahweh’s unique faithfulness, the Israelites are to love him absolutely by internalizing (6:6), embodying (6:8-9), and teaching (6:7) covenant faithfulness.

(For more even more biblical exposition, see my essay on Philemon.)

WARNING AGAINST FORGETFUL IDOLATRY: 6:10-15

However, the proper love of Yahweh is also exclusive, for his uniqueness demands that he be worshipped alone. After distilling the covenant (6:4-5) and extending its essential claim to the family and society (6:6-9), Moses exhorts his audience to eschew all forms of forgetful idolatry. Instead, the Israelites are to love Yahweh exclusively as they inherit the blessings of the promised land, in remembrance of and in response to his unique faithfulness (6:10-15).

The historical context of this passage is especially important for the interpretation of 6:10-11. Moses reminds the Israelites of Yahweh’s unique faithfulness by linking the divine promises of land to the patriarchs with the fulfillment of those promises in the imminent conquest and occupation of Canaan.[26] The concrete description of the promised land in 6:10b-11 was designed to remind the audience that it was a blessing and a gift from Yahweh in faithful fulfillment of his kingly duties.[27] The warning in 6:12 to “be careful” reveals Moses’ anxiety that the sudden affluence the Israelites would experience in Canaan might lead them to forget their uniquely faithful God, who had redeemed them from the oppressive hand of the Egyptians and provided for them throughout the wilderness wanderings.[28]

Therefore, 6:13 contains an intensely covenantal threefold call to the exclusive love of Yahweh alone.[29] As part of the proper response to Yahweh’s oneness (6:4), the Israelites are to fear only Yahweh, serve only Yahweh, and swear only by Yahweh’s name.[30] Moses then intensifies the warning even further in 6:14-15 with a rephrasing of the first two commandments (Deut 5:7-10).[31] On the basis of Yahweh’s righteous jealousy and the promised punishment of exile (5:9; 6:15; cf. 28:63; Lev 26:43), the Israelites are to love Yahweh exclusively by completely eschewing all forms of foreign idolatry (6:14).[32]

(For an overview on how to read the bible, check out Amy Chase Ashley’s Scripture: Handle With Care.)

CONCLUSION

As an introduction to the main exposition of the general covenant stipulations (Deut 6-11), Moses begins with an exhortation, calling the Israelites to the proper internalized and embodied response to Yahweh’s commands, statutes, and ordinances: covenant faithfulness as they enter the promised land (6:1-3). Then, he presents the distilled essence of the covenant principles in 6:4-5: the demand for the absolute love of Yahweh on the basis of his unique faithfulness.

This essential covenant claim is then extended to the family unit and society in 6:6-9 as the Israelites are commanded to internalize, embody, and teach covenant faithfulness to future generations.

Finally, in 6:10-15, in anticipation of the conquest of Canaan as a revelation of Yahweh’s unique faithfulness to the patriarchs and the nation, the people are sternly warned to eschew all forms of forgetful idolatry and instead to worship Yahweh alone.

Therefore, taken as a whole, Deuteronomy 6:1-15 was written to teach its original audience that, in remembrance of and in response to Yahweh’s unique faithfulness, they were to love Yahweh absolutely and exclusively by internalizing, embodying, and teaching covenant faithfulness as they inherited the blessings of the promised land.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

(Links are affiliate links.)

Block, Daniel I. “How many is God? An Investigation into the Meaning of Deuteronomy 6:4-5.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47 (2004): 193-212.

Carpenter, Eugene E. “Deuteronomy.” Pages 418-548 in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Edited by John H. Walton. Vol. 1 of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Edited by John H. Walton. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009

Christensen, Duane L. Deuteronomy 1:1-21:9, revised. Word Biblical Commentary 6a. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001.

Hamilton, Victor P. Handbook on the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Janzen, J. Gerald. “On the Most Important Word in the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).” Vetus Testamentum 37 (1987): 280-300.

McConville, J.G. Deuteronomy. Apollos Old Testament Commentary 5. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002.

Merrill, Eugene H. Deuteronomy. New American Commentary 4. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994.

Rad, Gerhard von. Deuteronomy: A Commentary. Translated by D. Barton. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966.

Walton, John H., Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000.

Wenham, Gordon J. A Guide to the Pentateuch. Vol. 1 of Exploring the Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002.

Notes

[1] The relevant sections are: Historical Prologue – Deut 1-3; Laws/Treaty Stipulations – chs. 4-26; Document Clause – 27:3; 31:9-13; Blessings – 28:1-14; and Curses – 28:15-68. Gordon J. Wenham proposes this structural approach to the Deuteronomic covenant in A Guide to the Pentateuch (vol. 1 of Exploring the Old Testament; Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002), 125. The similarities between Deuteronomy and ANE suzerain-vassal treaties are also noted by Eugene E. Carpenter in “Deuteronomy,” in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (ed. John H. Walton; vol. 1 of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament, ed. John H. Walton; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009),  420.

[2] Throughout this study, I assume Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy. Furthermore, I assume that the passage at hand was originally composed just prior to Moses’ death and the subsequent conquest of Canaan. With regards to setting, Carpenter places Moses in the plains of Moab on the eastern side of the Jordan River in either 1406 or 1229 B.C. The earliest extra-biblical account of the Israelites in Canaan, a stele erected by Merneptah in western Thebes, mentions them already in the land in 1209 B.C (Cf. Carpenter, 420).

[3] J.G. McConville, Deuteronomy (Apollos 5; Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), 140. On mitzvah, khuqqim, and mishpatim, Eugene H. Merrill notes this as the standard reference to the covenant stipulations as opposed to the Decalogue or the law as a whole (Deuteronomy (NAC 4; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 160). Cf. Deut 4:1-8 for an example of how this phrase and its permutations are used as a reference and structural marker.

[4] Merrill, 161.

[5] This is the first mention in 6:1-15 of the theme taken up again at 6:7.

[6] McConville (140) notes the alliteration of shema’ and shemar, describing the cumulative effect as a call to “careful, sustained obedience.”

[7] McConville, 140.

[8] Merrill, 162.

[9] Daniel I. Block claims that “the Shema’ is as close as early Judaism came to the formulation of a creed” (“How many is God? An Investigation into the Meaning of Deuteronomy 6:4-5,” JETS 47 (2004): 195). Similarly, most commentators note the Shema’s distinctive importance. Cf. Duane L. Christensen, Deuteronomy 1:1-21:9, revised (WBC 6a; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 142; McConville, 139-140; Merrill, 162; Gerhard von Rad, Deuteronomy: A Commentary (trans. D. Barton; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), 64.

[10] These are only two of the numerous proposals for the translation of ekhad. See Block, 195-8 for a full discussion.

[11] J. Gerald Janzen, “On the Most Important Word in the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5),” VT 37 (1987): 280-300; Merrill, 162-3.

[12] See Block, 211-2 and Janzen, 300

[13] Carpenter, 456; John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), 177.

[14] Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 394.

[15] I have here conflated the lexical data provided by Block, 203 and Merrill, 164.

[16] Merrill, 164.

[17] McConville, 139.

[18] Block, 204.

[19] McConville, 142; Merrill, 167.

[20] Merrill, 167.

[21] Block, 204; Merrill, 167.

[22] This literal interpretation resulted in the tephillin and phylacteries, small boxes containing Torah verses (Exod 13:1-10; 13:11-16; Deut 6:4-9; 11:13-21) which were worn on the forehead and forearms. Similarly, 6:9 was interpreted literally, resulting in the mezuzah, boxes containing Deut 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 placed on the doorposts of Jewish dwellings. Cf. Merrill, 168.

[23] As argued by McConville (142) and Merrill (168), although McConville does allow for the possibility of a literal reading.

[24] Merrill, 168.

[25] Block, 204; Merrill, 168.

[26] Christensen, 146; McConville, 143; Merrill, 169.

[27] Cf. “the duty of kings in Mesopotamia to build cities as part of incorporating new territory into their kingdom” (McConville, 143).

[28] von Rad, 64.

[29] Merrill, 171.

[30] McConville, 143.

[31] Merrill, 171.

[32] McConville, 143; Merrill, 171.

The Book of Romans, Distilled and Paraphrased

The following is an attempt, written in 2012, to distill and paraphrase the main argument/message/story/logic of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. 

Romans 1:1-17

If you don’t catch anything else from what I’m about to say, remember this:

God is righteous. He is just. He is faithful.

God has proven himself faithful to his promises of restoring the world, working through his faithful Son, the Messiah, to bring about both our faith in and our faithfulness to him.

Allow me to explain this further.

But first, the objections:

Romans 1:18-32

See, at first glance, the big idea above seems ridiculous. God is faithful? Have you seen the world recently? It’s corrupt to the core. Idolatry, sexual immorality, violence, deception, hostility, etc. Because people refused to believe that God is who he says he is, Sin and Death have infected and affected every layer of human existence. If God is truly righteous, why is his world so unrighteous?

(For a theological essay about what the Bible is and why it’s important, read this piece.)

Romans 2:1-29

Furthermore, look at his “chosen people,” the Jews! They are no better than anyone else, despite their privileged position as the ones through whom God promised to work.

They have failed to understand that their identity as God’s people was more inward than outward, and by boasting about their possession of God’s law (instead of allowing God to change them from the inside out), they have become just as unrepentant and stubborn as the rest of the world!

Romans 3:1-8

Doesn’t Israel’s utter failure to have faith in God and fulfill their role as a conduit of God’s grace to the entire world mean that God’s plan and promises have failed?

No. Just because some of the Jews failed does not mean all of them have.

And it especially does not mean that God has.

He is still faithful and righteous. But more on that later…

Romans 3:9-20

Even though everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike, is corrupt…

Despite the fact that Sin and Death, God’s cosmic enemies, have polluted his creation…

Although Scripture itself testifies that we are all unfaithful…

Although the Law which was supposed to guide us in our pursuit of God has only highlighted just how broken we are and how far we have fallen…

Romans 3:21-31

Despite all of these things, God is righteous.

God has revealed his covenant faithfulness to us through Jesus the Messiah, the True and Faithful Israelite through whom God has kept his redemptive promises. Through his death, the Messiah has absorbed the wrath of God which our unfaithfulness merited. What’s more, he has reconciled us to God and made possible the truly human life, one which honors God by living in perfect relationship with him and the rest of his creation. Through the Messiah, God is proving his faithfulness in redeeming the entire world.

Romans 4:1-25

However, you’ll notice I said “made possible” above. This is because the benefits of what the Messiah has done are only appropriated to us, as they always have been, through faith. The unrepentant Jews made the mistake of assuming that their cultural identity of Torah-obedience was the source of their identity as God’s people. Not so! Look at Abraham! The righteousness of God was appropriated to him because of his faith. After all, he wasn’t even circumcised yet! Therefore, just as Abraham, we all receive the benefits of and incorporation into God’s redemptive mission through faith, and not through the Law. The key is putting our faith in the faithful Messiah.

Romans 5:1-21

Pardon me, but this topic is so important that I’m going to run with it for awhile!

See, this combination of the Messiah’s faithfulness and our faith in him means that God has declared us faithful (righteous). Did you hear that? Not only is God faithful, but despite our unfaithfulness, he declares us faithful as well because of his faithful Son and our faith in him!

This means that we now have PEACE (and not enmity) with God!

This is possible because, get this, at every point at which our father Adam (and everyone ever since) failed, the Messiah has perfectly succeeded!

Before placing our faith in the Messiah’s faithfulness, we were all “in Adam.” That is, we were at enmity with God because of our unfaithfulness to him which deserved condemnation. However, the Messiah’s faithful obedience didn’t just undo our unrighteousness, putting us back on level ground. Instead, it has taken us to the soaring heights of God’s own righteousness! We are now “in the Messiah”!

Romans 6:1-25

But that’s not the only transfer that’s happened! Being moved from “in Adam” to “in the Messiah” also means that we’ve been moved from the Death which Sin brings to the Life which the Messiah offers to us! While we were “in Adam,” we were slaves to Sin and Death, dominated by them and without freedom. However, now that we are “in the Messiah,” we have choices! Free choices! Sin still brings death, but we have been set free and we have the ability and opportunity to make proper choices and live life to its fullest by being truly human, giving glory to our gracious Creator!

Romans 7:1-6

All of this has radically changed our relationship to God’s Law. Through the transfer from Adam to Messiah, from Death to Life, we have been set free from the Law’s condemnation! We can now live a life where God’s Spirit writes the Law on our hearts!

Romans 7:7-25

See, beforehand, while we were still “in Adam,” the Law didn’t really help us out. Because of our initial unfaithfulness, the Law highlighted our brokenness and need for a Messiah Savior. It condemned us in the sight of a holy God. Although there was nothing wrong with the Law itself, there was something profoundly wrong with us, and the Law was very good at showing that!

Romans 8:1-30

But our faith in Jesus the faithful Messiah changes things. As I mentioned above, we have now been set free from the Law’s old condemnation! The Spirit of God writes God’s law on our very heart. Not only that, the Spirit also gives us the power to live a life which is pleasing to God, in right relationship with our Creator and all of his creation. The Spirit is both our GPS and our engine. Therefore, we no longer have to worry about being condemned by the Law, because the Spirit guides and enables us to fulfill the Law’s requirements as those who are “in the Messiah.”

Romans 8:31-39

Take a moment to think about all I have said so far. Despite the unfaithfulness of all humanity, God has proven himself faithful, most notably through his faithful Son, the Messiah. Look at all God has done for us and given to us through the Messiah! Consider the depths of his love for us! Nothing can separate us from the love of God and the love of our Messiah! God is indeed righteous. Although the plan has not yet been fully accomplished, he is well on his way toward redeeming all that he has made.

However, we still haven’t covered everything. If you’ll remember, there’s still that tricky bit about the failure of God’s chosen people. Even though God has done all of this for us through the Messiah, doesn’t the failure of Israel damage his righteousness?

Can God still be fully faithful if it appears his specific promises to/about Israel have failed?

Despite the apparent failure of Israel, God is still righteous and faithful!

Consider three reasons why:

Romans 9:1-29

Firstly, if you will remember, God never promised to use every single ethnic Jew as one of his chosen people. Consider Abraham’s descendants, they were numbered through Isaac and not Ishmael. Similarly, Isaac’s descendants were numbered through Jacob and not Esau. This does not mean that God is unfair, for he is not obligated to show mercy to anyone! It also does not mean that God was eternally unloving to those he did not choose at specific times to work through in Israel’s history toward the coming of the Messiah! The main point isn’t that Ishmael and Esau were damned to hell. It’s that God has never promised to choose and use every single ethnic descendant of Abraham. It is therefore unfair to act as if God has promised to always use all physical Jews. As I alluded to before, the *true* Jews have always been so inwardly, not just outwardly.

Romans 9:30-10:21

Secondly, let’s not blame God for what the Israelites themselves failed to do! Just because many (but not all!) Israelites have failed to have faith throughout the years does NOT mean that God is no longer faithful. Although God never promised to choose and use every ethnic Jew as one of his chosen people, all Jews did have more than enough opportunities to place their faith in God and live in faithfulness to him! However, as mentioned toward the beginning, they failed to realize the key role that faith played in the process. They boasted in their ethnic/national identity of Torah-following instead of boasting in the faithfulness of their God and fulfilling their priestly duties to the world. Please do not blame this failure on God. He has remained faithful and gracious.

Romans 11:1-36

Thirdly, and finally, the story is not yet over! The failure/rejection of Israel is neither total nor permanent. God has always preserved a faithful remnant. That is, there has always existed, within ethnic Israel, the true Israel, the faithful people of God. Despite Israel’s failures, there has always been a remnant, graciously preserved by God to accomplish his purposes. But this remnant will not always be partial! There will come a day in the future when God will do through Israel abundantly above and beyond what he has ever done before. A complete, full generation of Israelites will someday be rescued and used by God to bless the world, completely dispelling any notions that God has somehow failed his people. Despite Israel’s faithlessness, God has remained, and will always remain, faithful and righteous.

This is more than even I can comprehend!

Praise be to God!

Romans 12

In view of God’s righteousness, his faithfulness in redeeming the world and putting it back together again through his faithful Son, the Messiah, let’s consider what it looks like to join him in his redemptive mission! If you’ll remember, our faith in the faithfulness of the Messiah is designed to bring about our own faithfulness as well!

What does this faithfulness look like, in response to all God has done?

It starts with a refusal to conform to the world’s ways of life. Remember my mentioning of the consequences of Sin and Death earlier? Well, in addition to those things, you must also refuse to be conformed to the ways of pride and division. Instead of conformity, pursue transformation. Allow the Spirit of God to renew your mind, and it will revolutionize your relationships. Pursue things like unity, genuine love, harmony, and peace. In all circumstances, even when you are being persecuted, refuse to be overcome by evil. Instead, overcome evil with good.

Romans 13

This all more-or-less makes sense when applied to fellow believers and neighbors, but when we start talking about persecutors and the government, things get tricky!

The crucial thing to remember is that, although God is in the process of invading this fallen world to establish his righteous kingdom, this does NOT mean that you should go violently overthrowing the Roman Empire, or any other empire for that matter! This is because the King we follow stands for, as I’ve just mentioned, genuine love, harmony, and peace. This rules-out violent rebellion and vengeful retaliation.

I’m NOT arguing, by any means, that you should mindlessly participate in the currents of society and government which go against God’s kingdom. Stay alert and faithfully follow the Messiah!

However, instead of trying to overthrow the Empire, you should reasonably and respectfully participate in society. Trust God’s sovereignty over human affairs by submitting to the authorities and paying your taxes. God’s kingdom will be established from the inside out!

These things are all related. The same characteristics of your love for each other and for your neighbors should be applied to persecutors and the governing authorities. If “in Adam,” then this stuff sounds ridiculous. However, we are “in the Messiah,” and this radically changes everything. Let us live in LOVE, the fulfillment of God’s law, as we await our Messiah’s return…

Romans 14-15

…which brings me to the most pressing issue I wish to address.

See, all of this means very little if it does not impact how you Jews and Gentiles relate to each other within the body of the Messiah, the Church. Now that you are both accepted as full members of God’s holy people, I realize that there has been quite a bit of social tension created, specifically with regards to food! While I could give you an apostolically-prescribed menu, that would defeat the purpose, because my main goal (and God’s main goal, for that matter) in this is to see you unified, harmoniously working together as Jews and Gentiles for God’s kingdom.

Here’s why this is important. If you allow something as simple and amoral as food to fragment you, think of what a slap in the face that is to the Messiah, who moved heaven and earth to defeat Sin and Death and reconcile you all to God.

Sin and Death destroy relationships.

Our Messiah destroyed Sin and Death.

If you, then, go back and destroy relationships over things such as food, you are effectively undoing the work of the Messiah.

Do not let this be so! Overwhelm each other with grace and love as you pursue unity!

Use these principles within the body to settle all further and future differences as well, for your unity and love for one another prove that God’s mission is working in the world!

Romans 16

I am confident that God has been and will continue to be at work in your lives. Deeply consider the things I have said to you. But take heart, for we serve a God who loves human beings, and that is why he has chosen to use us in his redemptive mission!

Just don’t forfeit this precious role by allowing people to cause dissensions among you!

I have now come full circle in my argument.

Despite our failures, God is righteous in his mission of redeeming the world through his Son, the Messiah, and through his people, the Church, of which you are a part.

His faithfulness to us through the Messiah is designed to bring about (through our faith in him) our own faithfulness and obedience to him.

May our righteous God and our faithful Messiah be praised and given glory forever!

Amen!