Psalm 2: Quare Fremuerunt Gentes? (Why Do the Nations Rage?)

(Here’s my paper on Psalm 2, submitted to Dr. M. Sydney Park in partial fulfillment of my Biblical Interpretation course here at Beeson Divinity School. Although I don’t consider this the best thing I’ve ever written, I’d love for you to check this piece out and let me know what you think, because no matter the limitations of the assignment, there’s always room for improvement. Plus, I didn’t have space to talk about all the issues whirring around in my head while writing this paper, and your constructive feedback might very well help me take my next intellectual steps. Click the title below for the .pdf version.)

Psalm 2 – Quare Fremuerunt Gentes?

As the first royal psalm of the Psalter, Psalm 2 exhorts rebellious world leaders to serve Yahweh in wisdom by submitting to his anointed Davidic king who has been granted a global kingdom.1 Comprehension of the psalm’s original message first requires an examination of its constituent parts, with an eye toward its poetic features and original context. Furthermore, an understanding of the enduring significance of Psalm 2 necessitates a consideration of its canonical and redemptive-historical context, including the New Testament’s typological interpretations of the passage. This essay will provide both aspects before concluding with a brief discussion of how best to interpret and apply Psalm 2 to the contemporary Christian Church.

Original Message

Psalm 2 is arranged in four stanzas of three verses each that follow a loosely chiastic movement from the rebellious rulers of nations (2:1-3), to Yahweh (2:4-6), to his anointed king (2:7-9), and back to the rulers (2:10-12).2 The psalmist opens with a twofold rhetorical question that uses synthetic parallelism to express indignant astonishment at the nations’ rage (2:1a) and the peoples’ vain plots (2:1b).3 The rest of the first stanza clarifies the scene: the “kings” and “rulers” of the earth are rebelliously conspiring “against the Lord and against his Anointed” (2:2), using the metaphor of “bonds” and “cords” in their reported direct speech (2:3) to express comparatively the implied rule of the Israelite king.4 The second stanza shifts the focus upward from the limited earthly sphere of influence of the rebellious kings to the unlimited heavenly kingdom of Yahweh (2:4), who anthropomorphically responds to their machinations with laughter and derision, “just as humans would mock something ridiculous.”5 As Ross notes, the two verbs “he will speak” and “[he will] terrify them” (2:5) are respectively a metonymy of cause and of effect to portray the full divine response, arranged in chiastic order (“speak + wrath // anger + terrify”) to emphasize God’s wrath.6 At the heart of the passage’s chiastic structure, bridging the second and third stanzas, is a dramatic shift of scene from Yahweh speaking while seated in the heavens (2:4-6) to Mount Zion and the Davidic king’s recounting of the divine decree (2:7). Both divine speeches emphasize that the authority of Israel’s king proceeds from his divine installation and sonship.7 As Mays notes, although the human ruler in view is not equal or identical to the deity, this unique appearance in the Psalter of “son” as the Davidic king’s title (cf. 2 Sam 7:14) reveals the close correspondence between God and the king.8 This powerful polemic against the rulers who would dare to rebel against such an authoritative king continues through the third stanza (2:7-9), where the son/king is granted a global kingdom (2:8), described with synonymous parallelism between (1) the “nations” and “ends of the earth” and (2) “your heritage” and “your possession.” The section concludes with a vivid image, utilizing “a rod of iron” as a metaphor for the Davidic king’s divinely-granted authority and “like a potter’s vessel” as a simile for the relative vulnerability of the rulers of nations sans divine installation and protection.9

In the final stanza (2:10-12), the psalmist appropriately begins with “now therefore,” a common phrase from Hebrew wisdom literature, before exhorting the rebellious kings and rulers of the earth to “be wise” (2:10) by serving the Lord in reverential fear (2:11) and submitting to his anointed son/king (2:12a).10 The urgency of the exhortations is “met by the warning that he may be angry” (2:12b-c).11 The ambiguity of the subject (“he”) of the descriptions of anger in these two clauses serves to illustrate the close link between Yahweh and his king throughout the entire psalm. As Ross rightly notes, the result of either interpretive option would be the same – “the king will put down their rebellion, but it will be God giving him the victory. To rebel against the one is to rebel against both, and to submit to one is to submit to both.”12 The psalmist concludes by promising blessing to those who take refuge in “him” (2:12d) – an again ambiguous referent, but contextually describing those who demonstrate reverential faith for Yahweh by submitting to his anointed king.13

Contextually, the parallels between this passage and the promises spoken to David in 2 Samuel 7:8-16 clarify the content by identifying the psalm with the coronation of a Davidic king, in addition to the Davidic covenant’s continuity with the other covenant commitments of Yahweh throughout the OT.14 Despite Gunn’s creative proposal that Psalm 2 refers to the anointing and not the coronation of the king, Ross offers a balanced perspective when he views the psalm’s original occasion as a time of crisis due to the vulnerability of the nation to foreign attack at the time of a new king’s coronation.15 Within the Psalter itself, Psalm 2 comprises an introduction along with Psalm 1 – focusing “on the victory of the LORD’s anointed king over the nations” after Psalm 1’s emphasis on the wise way of the righteous.16 Because the final editing and compilation of the Psalter took place in absence of a Davidic king, this fitting introduction “served as a reminder of God’s plan” to its earliest audiences.17

However, as VanGemeren rightly emphasizes, “the juxtaposition of Psalm 3 [a Davidic lament psalm] with Psalms 1 and 2 creates a sense of dissonance” which refocuses “the hope of the godly from David to the Lord, who has made the promises to David.”18 That is, the tension between the idealized portraits (of the individual and Davidic king) in the first two Psalms, the “canonical understanding of the failure of David and of the Davidic dynasty,” and the “real world of failure and exile” experienced throughout the rest of the Psalter and Hebrew Bible encourages a christological and eschatological reading – one which looks for the fulfillment of the expectations of Israel and David in a coming anointed king who is both Son of David and Son of God.19

Enduring Significance

It is reasonable to assume that Psalm 2’s uniqueness as the only psalm to use “son” as a title for the Davidic king and the only OT combination of “anointed/messiah,” “king,” and “son” in one passage contributed to its frequent use in the NT.20 The redemptive-historical context of the second psalm suggests its meaningful relevance (1) during the Hebrew monarchy when a Davidic king was on the throne, (2) during the post-exilic absence of a king, and (3) as the psalm’s circle of context extended into the New Testament and the nascent Church – taking on a typological significance in its portrayal of the anointed Davidic king as the type of which Jesus the Messiah was the antitype.21 Based on the NT evidence, as VanGemeren notes, “from the perspective of typology, Jesus is the fulfillment of the psalm,” because “he is born of David’s lineage (Mt 1:1; Lk 2:4, 11), has a right to David’s throne (Lk 1:32), is the Son of God in a unique way (Mt 3:17; Lk 9:35; Heb 1:5), and will ultimately subdue all enemies under his feet (1Co 15:25-27; Heb 2:5-8).”22 Although a full discussion of messianic typological interpretation exceeds the purview of this paper, a discussion of the quotations of Psalm 2 in Acts 4:25-26 and twice in Hebrews (1:5 and 5:5) will suffice to demonstrate the NT sensitivity to the contours of God’s redemptive mission and the uniqueness of his Messiah – an awareness which contemporary interpretative methods should embody.23

Following the reprimand and release of Peter and John from the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:1-23), the believers to whom they are reunited quote Psalm 2:1-2 (Acts 4:25-26) as they confess to God (4:24) a poignant interpretation of the resistance the anointed king of Psalm 2 faced from the “Gentiles,” “peoples,” “kings,” and “rulers” (4:25-26) in terms of the lethal opposition Jesus received from “Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel” (4:27). Of note is the intimate awareness of not only the content but also the eschatological bent of Psalm 2 that such a typological interpretation of the text required. In a profound interpretive dialectic, familiarity with the passage’s unmet expectations, the patterns of God’s redemptive work, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus enabled these believers to bring Psalm 2 to bear on the very resistance their messianic interpretations were creating for themselves.24 Because Psalm 2 teaches that “the declaration of the Son of God is God’s answer to the opposition of the world’s powers,” the early Christians used the passage to bolster their proclamation of the gospel in the face of external threats, not by directly identifying themselves with Psalm 2’s Davidic king, but by taking refuge in him, so to speak, by proclaiming their experience of the passage’s unique fulfillment in the person of Jesus and trusting in Yahweh’s promised blessing (Ps 2:12).25

The uniqueness of Jesus’ fulfillment of the second psalm is further accentuated in the quotation of Psalm 2:7 at Hebrews 1:5a and 5:5. The former quotation follows immediately after the introduction to the epistle (1:1-4), and is paired with a quotation of 2 Samuel 7:14 (Heb 1:5b) in order to emphasize the Son’s superiority to the angels, a theme which is then carried forward through a litany of OT quotations which collectively emphasize the same point.26 The latter occurrence of Psalm 2:7 (Heb 5:5) is the first use of an OT passage in the lengthy central discussion of the priesthood of Christ in Hebrews 5:1-10:18, explaining his appointment as high priest in terms of his divine sonship – with an emphasis on the humility of one who “did not exalt himself,” (5:5a) but rather was installed by God. In answer to those who would overlook the Son’s unique status, both uses of Psalm 2:7 together emphasize that “the same one who exalted the Son above the angels (Heb. 1:5) has also glorified him to become high priest (5:1-9).”27 Significantly, the typological use of Psalm 2 in terms of Jesus Christ’s fulfillment as antitype coheres with the central point of the passage in its original context: the indissoluble link between Yahweh and his anointed son/king.

The interpretation of Psalm 2 in the contemporary Christian context should demonstrate the same sensitivity the NT does to the contours of God’s redemptive mission and the uniqueness of his Messiah. This does not denigrate the passage’s relevance to Christians today, but rather guards against identifying oneself with the king of Psalm 2 and usurping the uniqueness of God’s Son in the desire for authority, blessing, and protection. Although Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard claim that “royal psalms [such as Psalm 2] relate best to the modern counterparts of Israel’s kings: the leaders of the Christian community,” this approach, seems to risk a gross misinterpretation of the passage if Christian leaders fail to show due concern for the uniqueness of Jesus as the passage’s fulfillment.28

Instead, interpretations of Psalm 2 best emphasize the “crucial inherent differences between monarchs and church leaders” when they cohere with the passage’s original exhortation to demonstrate wisdom by submitting to God’s authoritative and anointed king.29 This is a warning to those who rebel against God by neglecting the authority of his anointed king – either by spurning him or, perhaps even more dangerously, by trying to take his place.30 Christian leaders need to heed this warning just as much as anyone else. And yet Psalm 2 is simultaneously an encouraging comfort to those who follow Jesus the Messiah as the King of Kings, especially in times of fierce opposition when the future of God’s mission seems most vulnerable. The promised global kingdom (Ps 2:8-9) will one day be fully given to the Son of David who is the Son of God – and although the rulers of this world will continue to rise up against Yahweh and his king, those who take refuge in the Son (and therefore in Yahweh himself) will still receive the promised blessing (Ps 2:12) as faithful citizens of the Son’s kingdom.

=== NOTES ===

1 All consulted commentators classify Psalm 2 as a royal psalm, the first example of their remarkable agreement throughout the passage. See P.C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, WBC (Waco: Word, 1983) 64; D.J. Estes, Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005) 179; J.L. Mays, Psalms, IBC (Louisville: John Knox, 1994) 45; A.P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 1:1-41 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011) 199; and W.A. VanGemeren, Psalms, EBC 5, Rev. Ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008) 89. The main, notable exception is a certain facet of Gunn’s analysis. See fn. 15 below; cf. G.A. Gunn, “Psalm 2 and the Reign of the Messiah,” BSac 169 (2012) 431-2.

2 Craigie, Mays, Ross, and VanGemeren all agree on the verse divisions of the stanzas. Craigie and VanGemeren note the chiastic structure of the Psalm as a whole. See Craigie, Psalms, 64; Mays, Psalms, 45; Ross, Psalms, 200-1; VanGemeren, Psalms, 89.

3 “Psalmist” will refer to the unknown author of Ps 2 throughout this paper. As Gunn notes, “though the psalm is anonymous, it is accorded Davidic authorship in Acts 4:25. […] Whether the psalm is of Davidic authorship has little bearing on the interpretation of the psalm.” Gunn, “Psalm 2,” 427.

4 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations come from the English Standard Version [ESV].

5 Ross, Psalms, 205.

6 Ross, Psalms, 206.

7 Cf. Craigie, Psalms, 66-7.

8 Mays, Psalms, 47-8. Ross agrees, noting that “you are my son” is “a pure metaphor. The statement makes a comparison between what a son is to a father and what the king is to God to describe the special relationship between them.” Ross, Psalms, 207.

9 Cf. Ross, Psalms, 209-10.

10 VanGemeren, Psalms, 97. For the Wisdom use of “now therefore,” see Prov 5:7; 7:24; 8:32. For kissing as a sign of “homage and submission,” see 1 Sam 10:1; 1 Kgs 19:18; cf. Craigie, Psalms, 68. Finally, for a discussion of the phrase “kiss the Son” as the crux interpretum of the passage at hand, see the discussions in Craigie, Psalms, 64, fn. 12.a; and VanGemeren, Psalms, 97-8, fn. 12. I agree with Ross when he notes that “in addressing leaders of other countries where Aramaic was spoken, using the Aramaic word [for “son”] made sense.” Ross, Psalms, 198-9, fn. 6.

11 Ross, Psalms, 212; emphasis added.

12 Ross, Psalms, 213.

13 Cf. Craigie, Psalms, 68; Ross, Psalms, 213;

14 Craigie, Psalms, 64. The Davidic covenant of 2 Sam 7 stands in elaborating continuity with the Abrahamic (Gen 12-17) and Mosaic (Exod 19-24) covenants, and is itself intensified and elaborated upon in the “new covenant” of Jer 31. This context of covenantal continuity is extremely important to the interpretation of Ps 2 because, without it, Yahweh’s exclusive, close relationship with the king (Ps 2:4-12) is inexplicable.

15 Ross, Psalms, 200. VanGemeren rightly notes that “any attempt to link the psalm with an actual coronation of a Judean king…finds little support in the text.” VanGemeren, Psalms, 89. Gunn’s proposal, while heeding VanGemeren’s caution and offering a creative explanation of the already-not-yet dimensions of Jesus Christ’s current kingly reign, seems more driven by the concerns of a presupposed eschatological system than by a straightforward exegesis of the passage at hand. Although the gap between David’s anointing as king (1 Sam 16) and his coronation as such (2 Sam 2, 5) is instructive for considerations of the Hebrew monarchy, it does not mean that such a gap was normative for the kingly sons of David for whom the psalm at hand was probably composed. Furthermore, there are other, better ways to explain the unique kingdom reign of Christ during the current age than this kind of artificial reverse interpretation of Psalm 2. See Gunn, “Psalm 2,” 431-2.

16 Ross, Psalms, 200.

17 Ross, Psalms, 200.

18 VanGemeren, Psalms, 90.

19 VanGemeren, Psalms, 90,8; cf. Pss 19:13; 25:7, 18; 31:10; 32:3-5; 38:3-4, 18; 39:1, 8; 40:12; 41:4; 51:1-2.

20 Mays notes both aspects of Psalm 2’s uniqueness. The OT/NT assumption is my own. Mays, Psalms, 40,7. According to the UBS Greek New Testament, 4th Rev. Ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2001) 887,95, Psalm 2 is quoted in the NT at Acts 4:25-26 (Ps 2:1-2); 13:33; Heb 1:5, and 5:5 (Ps 2:7). Furthermore, there are allusions and verbal parallels to Psalm 2 at Mt 3:17; 17:5; Mk 1:11; 9:7; Lk 3:22; 9:35; Jn 1:49 (Ps 2:7); Heb 1:2 (Ps 2:8); Rev 11:18 (Ps 2:1); and 19:19 (Ps 2:2). Gunn notes that “based on New Testament quotations, allusions, and verbal parallels, Psalm 2 is one of the most frequently referred to of all the psalms.” Gunn, “Psalm 2,” 427.

21 Ross, Psalms, 213, fn. 31, citing J. Clifford, Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002) 46.

22 VanGemeren, Psalms, 91.

23 As noted above (fn. 20), NT quotations of and allusions to Psalm 2 abound. The three examples have been chosen based on this essay’s prompt and the author’s prior familiarity with the thought-flow of Hebrews.

24 As Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard note, “the use of typology rests on the belief that God’s ways of acting are consistent throughout history. Thus NT writers may, in places, explain phenomena in the new Messianic era in terms of their OT precursors.” W.W. Klein, C.L. Blomberg and R.L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Rev. Ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004) 183. A familiarity with the consistent patterns of God’s redemptive work throughout history would have undoubtedly involved an intimate knowledge of the covenantal continuity throughout the OT, reference in fn. 14 above.

25 Mays, Psalms, 50.

26 Cf. “angellwn”as a “hook-word” between Heb 1:1-4 and 1:5-14. The other OT passages cited are, in order: Deut 32:43; Pss 104:4; 45:6,7; 102:25-27; and 110:1.

27 Gunn, “Psalm 2,” 438.

28 Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 358. Christian leaders who desire instruction in the biblical ways of leadership do well to look to Jesus the Messiah as an example of humble servant leadership (cf. Jn 13:12-20), but should not feel the need to identify themselves with the Messiah himself in order to secure the respect and obedience of those under their instruction. No messianic interpretation of Christian leadership is necessary in order to follow Paul when he exhorts his readers to imitate him as he imitates Christ (cf. 1 Cor 11:1).

29 Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 358-9.

30 Cf. Ross, Psalms, 214.

Romans 13: Reading An Abused Text of Scripture Rightly

Introduction

This study of Romans 13 rests upon a crucial presupposition: without context, words can mean anything and everything, and therefore mean nothing. It is only through the delimiting influence of context that words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs are endowed with significance.

Although this concept seems simple and justified enough, it is often forgotten within the field of biblical exegesis. Due to influences as simple as our versification of the biblical text and as complex as the historical/theological developments which have dictated how we teach and interpret the Scriptures, many exegetes (wittingly or unwittingly) ignore context when trying to ascertain the meaning of particular biblical texts.

An adequate case study of this phenomenon is the interpretation(s) of Romans 13:1-7, a text that has been used to justify everything from utter obedience to totalitarian regimes to unquestioning support of harsh anti-immigration laws. These seven verses from Paul’s epistle to the Romans have been grossly abused at numerous points since their original composition.

In Romans 13:1-7, Paul exhorts the Roman believers to apply his previous commands toward love (12:9), harmony (12:16), and peace (12:18) in the context of obedience to government (13:1-5) and the payment of taxes (13:6-7).

Far from being a comprehensive condensation of the apostle’s beliefs regarding any and all governments past and present, this passage is a specific and historically-conditioned pastoral address to the Roman believers, discouraging them from political unrest, disobedience, and rebellion in order to protect their testimony and the effectiveness of the Roman church in the gospel mission.

This thesis will be “proven” by appealing to the historical context of the original audience and the overarching context of Romans 12:9-13:10 in which this passage rests.

(For more on the book of Romans, check out my sermon on Romans 1:1-17.)

Historical Context

When Romans 13:1-7 is read as if it was written in a modern North American context, it seems as though Paul is appealing to the sovereignty of God in the affairs of nations to remind us of the divinely-appointed nature of our free-market economy and federal constitutional republic.

All of this is supposedly done to prompt us toward active participation in our civil government and unquestioning obedience to all of its laws. After all, these verses come up in discussions of Christian political involvement, debates on just war theory vs. pacifism, and diatribes against illegal immigrants and those who desire to aid them.

However, using these seven verses as a packet theology of church and state is problematic, even within the Pauline corpus alone. The same man who wrote Romans 13 also frequently took up themes in his writings that would challenge the power and authority of the Roman Empire, for the declaration that Jesus is Lord contains the implicit declaration that Caesar is not. Our understanding of these seven verses must, therefore, be able to mesh with other passages (such as Phil 2:6-11; 3:20-21; 1 Thess 1:9-10; and 4:13-5:11) and their implications on relations between church and state.[1]

Many commentators in recent years have recognized the importance of interpreting this passage in light of its historical context at the time of its composition (c. A.D. 57[2]), instead of assuming that these verses are Paul’s fundamental views on how church and state should relate to each other.[3]

Knowledge of the situation facing the Roman Christians in A.D. 57 is crucial to the interpretation of this text. Emperor Claudius had expulsed Jews from the city of Rome in A.D. 49, removing Jewish believers from the Roman church and therefore leaving only Gentile Christians behind in their stead.[4]

However, Claudius was killed by his wife Agrippina in A.D. 54, and her son Nero advanced to the throne that same year, immediately allowing the Jews to return to the city. When Romans was written by Paul in A.D. 57, the Empire enjoyed a period of peace that looked quite different from the chaos that would characterize the later years of Nero’s reign.

Guided by his advisor Seneca, Nero made promises of a different and better peace than the pax romana of Augustus. He promised true peace, characterized by restraint and the peaceful resistance to using force in order to govern. While these promises were dashed beginning in A.D. 59, with Nero’s matricide, the loss of his advisors, and the beginning of his persecution of Christians, it is crucial to remember that Paul wrote Romans during the period of hopeful peace from A.D. 54-59.

Romans 13:1-7 should not, therefore, be interpreted as if it were written to Roman believers in the later years of Nero’s reign, when persecution and oppression were rampant, for this would unduly strengthen Paul’s “pro-Empire” sentiments here.[5]

With this background information, it is easy to see why Paul here gives advice to his readers, a cosmopolitan church in Rome struggling to figure out Jew-Gentile dynamics in the early years of Nero’s reign, so as to prevent them from drawing negative attention to themselves and damaging the effectiveness of the gospel mission.

Although things were presumably “going well,” as mentioned above, Paul knew full well that things could get tense for the Roman believers very quickly. Despite the period of relative peace from A.D. 54-59, tensions were rising in Rome in A.D. 57-58 regarding the particularly nasty practice of indirect taxation. Furthermore, the Jewish believers who had returned to the city in A.D. 54 might not have been on the best terms with neither the Roman authorities nor the Gentile believers. Much of what Paul has to say in this epistle speaks to this issue: the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians within the Roman context.

It is not, therefore, unreasonable to assume that this played a role in the social tension Paul here addresses in Romans 13:1-7. Furthermore, revolutionary sentiments were in vogue at this time among the Jews in Palestine, and Paul was perhaps worried that the fervor would spread to the Roman church and quickly create some serious problems given the tensions within the church and its social context.[6]

Positively, then, when Romans was written, the original audience enjoyed a period of relative peace and stability before the chaotic upheaval that would take place in A.D. 59.

Negatively, there was still quite a bit of tension within and around the Roman church which had the potential to divide the church and get the Christians in serious trouble with Roman authorities if rebellion became the rallying cry for the followers of Jesus, assured of the lordship of their King and the reality of his kingdom.

It is therefore a mistake to read Romans 13:1-7 as a justification of the sins of the state, as if this passage gave a carte blanche to the atrocities to be committed in the later years of Nero’s reign. Paul was capable of saying negative things about pagan governments when they were going awry[7], but he nevertheless appealed to God’s sovereignty over human governments in order to prevent the tense situation of his audience from erupting into a social upheaval that would wreck the church’s testimony and hinder the gospel mission in the city of Rome and the empire over which that city ruled.

His audience then (and readers of the epistle today) would not, therefore, be expected to never challenge the government or abstain from promoting or participating in its practices, as Romans 13:1-7 has often been used to argue. Instead, they were (and are) to wisely interact with human governments, not seeking to cause any trouble in society that would damage their testimony, but not hesitating to stand firm in the cause of Christ their King when human governments do things contrary to the kingdom of God.[8] Wright pulls these themes together quite well:

[P]recisely because of all the counter-imperial hints Paul has given not only in this letter and elsewhere but indeed by his entire gospel, it is vital that he steer Christians away from the assumption that loyalty to Jesus would mean the kind of civil disobedience and revolution that merely reshuffles the political cards into a different order. […] The main thing Paul wants to emphasize is that, even though Christians are servants of the Messiah, the true lord, this does not give them carte blanche to ignore the temporary subordinates whose appointed task, whether (like Cyrus) they know it or not, is to bring at least a measure of God’s order and justice to the world. The church must live as a sign of the kingdom yet to come, but since that kingdom is characterized by justice, peace, and joy in the Spirit [14.17], it cannot be inaugurated in the present by violence and hatred.[9]

These sentiments and those outlined above will now be augmented by a brief examination of Roman 13:1-7 within the overarching context of Romans 12:9-13:10.[10]

Scriptural Context: Romans 12:9-13:10

The passage at hand only makes sense within the overarching context of Romans 12:9-13:10. Although Paul undoubtedly changes topics at 13:1, the thematic links between 13:1-7 and 12:9-21 are difficult to ignore. KakoV (“evil”) and agaqoV (“good”) occur in Rom 12:17, 21 and 13:3-4. Orgh (“wrath”) is mentioned in 12:19 and 13:4, 5. Also, conceptually, vengeance is mentioned in 12:19 and 13:4.[11] It is therefore quite reasonable to see a connection between 13:1-7 and 12:9-21.

The links between this passage and the one immediately preceding it, however, should not overshadow the importance of the thematic verses earlier in 12:1-2. There Paul effectively redefines the people of God as no longer just Jews, but Gentiles as well. This is a common enough theme throughout the entire epistle and in almost all of Paul’s writings,[12] but in Romans 12:1-15:13, it is of particular importance.

Having spent the first eleven chapters of the epistle explaining the identity of the people of God as a mix of Jews and Gentiles and defending the covenant loyalty of God in the process, Paul now devotes chapters 12-15 to redefining the “rule of life” of the people of God.[13] In 12:9-21, Paul proclaims “love as the fundamental moral imperative in human relationships,”[14] urging his readers to pursue harmony (12:16) and peace (12:18). He then redefines in 13:1-7 how the people of God in the church at Rome should relate to the power structures of the society in which they dwell.

Romans 12:9-21 is one of the most loosely-constructed passages in the entire epistle. This means that it would take quite a bit of time and space to comprehensively analyze the syntax and detailed meaning of the passage. However, some general observations are in order.

The thematic verse of this paragraph is 12:9 (NET)[15], “Love must be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil, cling to what is good.” From there, Paul emphasizes the important manifestations of genuine love: mutual devotion and eagerness in showing honor (12:10), enthusiastic spiritual service (12:11), hopeful joy and persistent prayer in the face of suffering (12:12), and hospitably meeting the needs of the saints (12:13). Harmony is commanded within and outside the church, extending even to persecutors (12:14, 16). Instead of responding in kind to their persecutors and therefore being “overcome by evil” (12:21a), Paul urges them to live peaceably (12:17-18), forbidding them from taking vengeance into their own hands (12:19). Instead, the Roman believers are to “overcome evil with good” (12:21b), and this is illustrated in 12:20, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head.”

At this point after 12:21, most modern English readers of Scripture are confronted by a large “13” and perhaps a subject heading, such as “Submission to Civil Government.” The advantages of verse and chapter divisions for Bible reading and study are well-known. However, the chapter division here has had detrimental effects on the exegesis of this passage.

Although seemingly a very minor change, it puts undue emphasis on Paul’s supposed change of topic, prompting the interpretations of many that this is Paul’s comprehensive theology of church and state relations, ignoring the passage’s context and the historical situation of the original audience, who would have heard this epistle read without the explanation of a chapter division or sub-heading.

Romans 13:1-7 is most naturally read as the unpacking of the principles of 12:9-21, in the context of how Christians in Rome should behave in relation to the powers that governed the society in which they dwelt. It answers the implied question (after reading 12:9-21): “Paul, if we are to do these things (love genuinely, pursue harmony and peace, do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good, etc.), how should this apply in regards to our relationship with the rulers of our city and empire?”

The specific rules that governed the theocracy of ancient Israel no longer held sway for the international and multi-ethnic body of Christ. As noted above, the situation in Rome, although relatively peaceful, was still quite tense within and outside of the church. Jews and Gentiles were struggling to remain unified in the Messiah in spite of their cultural differences.

Furthermore, Jews in Rome, only recently allowed back into the city, may have been culturally stigmatized as superstitious and unwanted. Tensions were building because of indirect taxation. And Jews in Palestine were growing more and more rebellious.[16]

It is not therefore hard to imagine why Paul felt the pastoral need to apply the principles of 12:9-21 to the realm of society and government. A “perfect storm” was brewing underneath the surface, one that could put the Christians in Rome at odds with not only each other but with the Roman Empire itself very quickly if the believers there tended towards promoting social unrest, perhaps due to an over-realized eschatology that would want to usher in the kingdom of God by overthrowing Roman rule. If the Christians in Rome made a wrong move, evil could quickly overcome them.

While a full analysis of the argument of the text at hand is beyond the scope of this essay, a brief trace of the thought-flow of Romans 13:1-7 will aid in comprehension of its contextually-appropriate meaning. The general command to submit to the authorities is found in 13:1a, and is reiterated in 13:5.

The first reason for this submission is that the authorities have been appointed by God (13:1b). Logically, then, those who oppose the authorities oppose “the ordinance of God” (13:2b). The consequence of disobeying the general command is therefore God’s judgment[17] (13:2b).

The second reason for submission is that the rulers are servants of God to commend good and to administer retribution to evil, although these two verses can also be seen as support for the claim that those who resist the authorities can expect judgment on earth[18] (13:3-4).

Paul then restates the main thesis of 13:1-4 in 13:5, urging his readers to submit because of “wrath” (they would face judgment if disobedient) and “conscience” (they would be opposing God’s ordinance). He then closes this paragraph with an appeal to the readers’ current practice of paying taxes in submission to the government (13:6), urging them therefore to continue respectfully in what they have already been doing (13:7).[19]

When unhindered by the chapter division, it is easy to see how Romans 13:1-7 relates to 12:9-21. The genuine love commanded in 12:9a would be quite hard to apply to the impersonal institution of the Roman government. On the other hand, it would have been quite easy for the rebellious attitudes of the Jews in Palestine to seep into the Roman context, prompting the Roman Christians to rebel and try and institute the kingdom of God in opposition to Roman rule.

Paul steps in and applies the principles of non-violence, non-retribution, and enemy love (12:14, 17, 18-20) to the context of government and society. In order to “overcome evil with good” (12:21) when it came to the Roman powers, the believers in Rome were not to rebel violently or cause unnecessary civil unrest, but to submit to the governing authorities (13:1a) with the acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty over the said powers (13:1b).

It would be a mistake, however, to go to the other end of the spectrum and argue that Paul is urging his audience to give unthinking and critical approval of everything the Roman government did. As mentioned above, Paul was more than willing to critique governments and empires for the sake of God’s kingdom and the cause of Christ.

It would also be a mistake to argue that Romans 13:1-7 is a justification for the active participation in government activities (political office, warfare, etc.) both ancient and modern. Although God is still sovereign over modern nations, Paul’s argument here does not address the issue of active Christian participation in government because that was not on the radar of first-century Christian life in the Roman Empire.

Instead, Paul’s main point is that his readers should not revolt, but that they should instead stay out of trouble by obeying the authorities and participating in the basic constructs of their society (i.e. paying taxes).

The argument for placing 13:1-7 in the overarching context of Paul’s focus on genuine love in 12:9-13:10 is strengthened by his return to the topic of love in 13:8-10. After the sobering instruction to not rebel but to stay out of trouble and obey the governing authorities, Paul reminds his audience of the importance of love, not only of enemy (of which it could be strongly argued that the governing authorities were a subset!), but of neighbor.

This returns the Roman Christians’ focus to love as the central virtue of Christianity and the “fulfillment of the law” (13:8, 10). They were to faithfully follow Jesus the Messiah King, seeking to bring in his kingdom. But it was unthinkable to Paul to effect God’s kingdom in a way that ran against the grain of that kingdom of love, justice, and peace. Therefore, in the middle of exhortations to genuinely love one’s enemies and neighbors, Paul urges his audience to humbly obey their governing authorities so that they might remain faithful to their King’s calling as they went about his work in the city of Rome.

(For more on the book of Romans, check out my summary of the book’s argument/story.)

Conclusion

Through the ignorance of the historical background of Paul’s epistle to the Romans as a whole and his instructions in Romans 13:1-7 in particular, the passage at hand has been grossly mis-read and mis-applied in numerous ways since its original composition. Instead of an argument for unthinking obedience to, approval of, and participation in governments past and present, Paul here argues for the Christians in Rome not to revolt against the empire in an attempt to fully usher in God’s kingdom, but to submit humbly to the Roman authorities as they sought to overcome evil with good.

Having an understanding of both the historical background and the context of this passage in the overall argument of the epistle yields an appropriately nuanced view of Paul’s pastoral concern for his audience expressed in these seven controversial verses. Although it is tempting to take this passage out of context and use it to justify opinions on everything from immigration to just war theory, the same hubris that Paul implicitly rebukes in these verses must be resisted if the Scriptures are to be heard and appropriated well.

While some may wish that Romans 13:1-7 had more to say regarding the relationship between church and state, the passage certainly cannot say less than the main points briefly described above. Romans 13:1-7 is not a condensed theology of church and state, but a specific historically-conditioned pastoral address to the Roman believers, diverting them from rebellion and urging them towards humble submission in order to protect their testimony and thereby enhance their effectiveness in God’s redemptive mission.

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

Bibliography

(Links are affiliate links.)

Bray, Gerald, ed. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Romans. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publisher, 1998.

Carter, T. L. “The Irony of Romans 13.” Novum Testamentum (BRILL) Vol. 46, no. Fasc. 3 (July 2004): 209-228.

Dunn, James D. G. Romans 9-16. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1988.

Ehrensperger, Kathy. “A Subversive Reading of Paul: A Response to Stubbs, ‘Subjection, Reflection, Resistance’.” In Navigating Romans Through Cultures: Challenging Readings by Charting a New Course, edited by Yeo Khiok-khng (K.K.), 198-202. New York: T & T Clark International, 2004.

Kim, Seyoon. Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008.

Milliman, Robert. “Love and War: Romans 13.1 – 7 in the Context of 12.9 – 13.10.” November 13, 2011.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998.

Stein, Robert H. “The Argument of Romans 13:1-7.” Novum Testamentum (BRILL) Vol. 31, no. Fasc. 4 (October 1989): 325-343.

Stubbs, Monya A. “Subjection, Reflection, Resistance: An African American Reading of the Three-Dimensional Process of Empowerment in Romans 13 and the Free-Market Economy.” In Navigating Romans Through Cultures: Challenging Readings by Charting a New Course, edited by Yeo Khiok-khng (K.K.), 171-197. New York: T & T Clark International, 2004.

Witherington III, Ben. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004.

Wright, N.T. Paul for Everyone: Romans: Part Two. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

—. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.

Notes

[1] A full analysis of the legitimacy of an anti-imperial Pauline hermeneutic far exceeds the scope of this study. Wright (2004: 82-88 and 2005: 69-79) emphasizes what he sees to be Paul’s anti-imperial themes throughout his writings, and I am indebted to him for the concept of Jesus’ vs. Caesar’s lordship. For an even-handed overview and analysis of this topic, consult Kim (2008), who makes the case that a strong anti-imperial Pauline hermeneutic is difficult to maintain. Despite Kim’s conclusions, however, it seems unwise to completely ignore the implications of Christ’s lordship on both Roman believers in the first century and on North American ones today. The fact that Romans 13:1-7 is such a stumbling block to those in the anti-imperial camp and such an “anomaly” when compared with the implications of Paul’s anti-imperial passages (such as 1 Thess 5, alluded to by Wright  [2005]) seems to necessitate a nuanced approach that hears the arguments of those on both sides of this theological debate.

[2] The commentaries and resources consulted in this study provided A.D. 57 as a consensus view of the date of composition of Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

[3] (Kim 2008: 37), who points to P. Stuhlmacher, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Commentary, trans. S. J. Hafeman (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 198-208; J. A. Fitzmyer, Romans AB 33 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 662-63. Also, consult Dunn (1988: 768-69).

[4] Ibid., 37.

[5] The background information in this paragraph comes from the helpful discussion in Witherington III (2004: 304-6).

[6] Consult the discussion in Kim (2008: 37) for a helpful counterbalance to the optimistic portrait painted by Witherington III (2004: 304-6). I am also very much indebted to the discussion as the source of the historical information in this paragraph.

[7] Cf. Witherington III (2004: 307): “That Paul could say very different and negative things about the state when the state was malfunctioning at the end of Claudius’ reign seems clear enough from 1 and 2 Thessalonians, particularly in 2 Thessalonians 2.” And also consider Wright’s (2004: 86) insistence that Paul had the ability to critique human government: “…in those stories (his visit to Philippi in Acts 16, for instance, or his trial before the Jewish authorities in Acts 23), that precisely when the authorities are getting it all wrong and acting illegally or unjustly Paul has no hesitation in telling them their proper business and insisting that they should follow it.”

[8] Passionate Aside: The main problem, then, in applying this passage today, is a very narrow vision of what God’s kingdom entails. That is, “obey your government unless it tells you to do something contrary to the Word of God” is a common enough teaching in the church today, but our vision of God’s redemptive mission is so emaciated that it causes us to miss glaring issues of concern (immigration, warfare, racism, etc.) in our society today. We rape the Scriptures when Romans 13:1-7 is used to justify such ignorance of and even the active participation in streams of society, culture, and policy which go against the grain of God’s kingdom.

[9] (Wright 2005: 78-79), emphasis mine.

[10] I am indebted to Dr. Robert Milliman and his blog-post Love and War: Romans 13.1 – 7 in the Context of 12.9 – 13.10 (2011) for the initial idea of examining this passage in its context to avoid mis-readings of the text which have been used to justify everything from totalitarian regimes to Christian service in the military.

[11] Schreiner (1998: 678) provides these examples of textual and conceptual links between the two passages. Dunn (1988: 758) also mentions the phrases ekdikew / ekdikoV (12:19; 13:4) and pantwn anqrwpwn / pasin (12:17-18; 13:7) to provide evidence for a link between the two passages, before demonstrating links between Romans 2:7-11 and 13:3-4 in order to refute the claims of some that this passage is a non-Pauline insertion.

[12] I appeal to Dr. Chris Miller’s class notes from BENT 4110 – Romans and Galatians (Spring 2012), and also Wright’s work on Romans (2004) to prove this point, for a complete discussion of this common theme exceeds the scope of this essay. However, for an overview of this theme in Romans, Dunn (1988: 705) cites Rom 1:16-17; 2:15, 17, 28-29; 3:20, 29; 4:16; 9:8, 12; 11:6, 30-32.

[13] Dunn (1988: 705) sees chapters 12-15 as providing a replacement to Lev 18:5 (“this do and live”) as the rule of life for the people of God: “…‘the walk in newness of life’ as over against the walk in the ordinances of Israel’s law (6:4), the service in newness of Spirit as over against oldness of letter (7:6), the obedience of faith in accord with the Spirit fulfilling the requirement of the law unconfused with Jewish ‘works’ (8:4).”

[14] Ibid., 706.

[15] All Bible quotations, unless otherwise noted, come from the NET Bible.

[16] Here I summarize my conclusions from “Historical Background” above.

[17] Schreiner (1998: 679) notes that there is considerable debate as to whether this refers to the eschatological judgment of God or to judgment imposed by earthly rulers. He appeals to the structure of the text (gar in 3a) to conclude that the latter option is more likely.

[18] Ibid., 680.

[19] I am indebted to Moo (1996: 794) and Schreiner (1998: 680) for this overview of the passage’s argument.

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!

The Good News of Christmas

After reading The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited by Scot McKnight, who makes the claim that the gospel is the saving story of Jesus as Messiah, King, and Lord as the completion to the story of Israel, I started to notice some profound gospel messages in the Christmas carols we often sing during this season.

I have found that several of these carols go much deeper (much more biblical) than the personal salvation “gospel” of sin-management that we often preach and sing about. What’s tragic is that, even though these carols are quite possibly the best-known Christian songs, their familiarity (and the fact that we only break them out for 1/12th of the year), makes it quite easy to ignore their substance.

Christians, my brothers and sisters,

instead of allowing Fox News to persuade us that the “War on Christmas” is being fought in the stores when people say “Happy Holidays,”

instead of thinking that our Messiah’s main “sorrow” in December is that more people are not saying “Merry Christmas” more often…

…let us examine ourselves. How guilty are we of reducing our “King,” “everlasting Lord,” “Prince of Peace,” “Sun of Righteousness,” and our Messiah into an individual savior whose birth, life, death, and resurrection accomplishes nothing more than getting us into heaven when we die and helping us to manage our personal sins in the meantime?

Perhaps we should be more concerned with our emaciated versions of the gospel than with how we are greeted when entering and exiting our society’s temples to consumerism and greed. 

Please join me in attempting to look through the unfortunately and undeservedly trite familiarity of this song to see its portrayal of the gospel:

Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ, by highest Heav’n adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display Thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
O, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.

May your hearts and minds be set upon Jesus the Messiah, King, Lord, Savior, and Prince of Peace.

And may you all, in doing so, have a very Merry Christmas.

~Josh