Romans continues to occupy an important role in understanding the core of Christian existence. It has been [and likely will continue to be] approached in a variety of ways. The view suggested to the reader for consideration was not created by the author. He takes no credit for the information. The view/approach presented in this chapter is consistent with the focus of this writing.
Christianity began in Jerusalem as a Jewish movement [Jews and proselytes] (Acts 2). In its early days, it remained a Jewish movement (Acts 2-8:3). Even when Christianity was exclusively a Jews/proselyte movement, there were serious problems (Acts 6:1-6).
Christianity grew numerically at a rapid rate in the beginning (Acts 5:14; 6:7). As it grew, problems increased. Its message found receptivity among peoples who were not Jewish [the Samaritans, the Ethiopian eunuch (?), Cornelius]. Even in this initial receptivity among people not considered to be part of the Jewish community, Christianity was overwhelmingly Jewish in membership—so much so that the gentile world at this time made no distinction between Jews and Christians.
The Messiah was promised to Israel. The Christian gospel declared the Messiah was a Jew called Jesus. The movement that honored Jesus as the Messiah began in Jerusalem, the earthly spiritual center of Judaism. If a person wished to learn about Jesus the Messiah, go to a synagogue [gentiles were welcome to attend Israelite Sabbath meetings at the synagogue (Acts 13:16, 44)]. Consult an Israelite who believed Jesus was the Christ.
Remember, Paul had permission from Jewish authority to go to Damascus synagogues to arrest men and women who believed Jesus was the Christ, bind them, and bring them to Jerusalem for trial before the Jewish council (Acts 9:2). When Paul and Barnabas shared the gospel on the island of Cyprus, they began by sharing their message in synagogues (Acts 13:5). Even when Paul and Barnabas taught in gentile areas, they began their efforts in an area by going to synagogues (Acts 13:15-17).
The Edict Given By Claudius
In the reign of Emperor Claudius, some riots broke out in Rome’s Jewish community. Suetonius in Lives of the Caesars said the cause of the riots was the preaching of Chrestus. Many believe this was a Jewish disagreement concerning the identity of the Christ. In response to the riots, Claudius issued an Imperial decree expelling all Jews from Rome. Acts 18:2 referred to that decree and declared the decree was the reason for Aquila and Priscilla’s presence in Corinth. The indication of Acts 18:2 was that the decree was ‘recent’. When Claudius issued the decree, he did not distinguish between Christians and Jews who did not believe Jesus was the Christ. To Claudius, it was a Jewish problem. Expel the Jews and eliminate the problem. Because Claudius expelled only Jews does not mean there were no gentile converts. It may indicate how emotional the issue concerning Jesus’ identity was among the Jews.
An Imperial edict was in force only as long as the emperor who issued it lived. When Claudius died in 54 AD, the decree ended. After Claudius’ death, Jews [including Jewish Christians] migrated back to the city of Rome, the economic heart of the Roman Empire. By the time Paul wrote Romans, Aquila and Priscilla had returned to Rome (Romans 16:3).
This evidence serves as the basis for these conclusions. (1) Before the expulsion, the controlling impetus of the Christian movement in Rome was Jewish. The riots were the result of disagreements among Jews in Jewish synagogues about considering Jesus the Messiah. (2) During the period of the expulsion, Christianity continued to exist and grow in Rome as a result of the faith of gentile Christians. (3) Many Jewish Christians returned to Rome expecting to assume their primary role of leadership in the Christian community. (4) Jewish Christians expected Christianity to be primarily Jewish in expression and form as it was before they were expelled from Rome. (5) However, gentile Christians did not extend to them the leadership role in gentile congregations. Gentile congregations were stable and growing. They enjoyed Christianity having a gentile expression and form instead of a Jewish expression and form. (6) Thus Paul’s letter to the Romans provides 21st century Christians a unique window into the first century church. It is unique because it was directed to a specific situation when a sudden ethnic shift occurred from the Christian Jewish expression/form to Christian gentile expression/form.
Please note the abundant evidence that Jewish Christians expected gentile congregations to exist under their influence or ‘umbrella’. When a gentile congregation came into existence in Samaria, the apostles sent two apostles, Peter and John, to visit that congregation (Acts 8:14). When a gentile congregation came into existence in Antioch, Syria, the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to visit that church (Acts 11:20-22). When the same gentile congregation needed a ruling on the highly controversial subject of gentile salvation, it asked for a ruling from the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:2). Judaizing teachers traveled to the Galatian gentile congregations to convince them to accept Jewish circumcision and Jewish ways. Most Jewish Christians expected gentile congregations to accept and follow basic Jewish forms.
The letter to Christians in Rome provides opportunity to ‘see’ gentile Christians when they were not required to follow Jewish forms. Romans 16:4 spoke of gentile churches in Rome. These congregations knew their indebtedness to Aquila and Priscilla, Jewish Christians who [like Paul] did not impose Jewish forms on gentile Christians. They did not expect gentiles to be proselytes in order to be Christians. It also mentions ‘the church that is in their [Aquila and Priscilla’s] house’. Gentile congregations no longer needed to be centered in synagogues in the Jewish community. Churches could be centered in gentile houses.
Paul’s Golden Opportunity
In as far as Paul’s existing letters are concerned, Paul’s letter to Christians in Rome provided him a unique opportunity to address the issue of the salvation of gentiles who believe Jesus is the Christ. He could affirm the basic elements of the gospel he took to the gentiles. (1) Salvation was a universal need, a need that included Israel. (2) God’s intent always included the salvation of the gentiles. (3) Saving the gentiles did not mean God categorically rejected the Jews. (4) God’s love for Abraham’s descendants remained. (5) Conversion to Christ ‘looks and functions like this’. In short, Paul could present the theological basis of the good news he presented to the gentiles and affirm what gentile acceptance of Christ should ‘look like’ in Rome.
Remember, Paul wrote to them, not us. The more accurately we understand Paul’s message to them, the more accurately we will apply his message to us. Today’s Christians must be concerned about understanding Paul’s message, not about making Paul’s message conform to our focus
It is affirmed that Romans 1-11 and Romans 12-15 are a single message, interlinked with each other, and must not be separated. Simply stated, this was Paul’s message to Christians [Jewish and gentile] in Rome: (1) according to the scriptures given to Israel, this is the reason gentiles can be saved by placing their faith in Christ; (2) this is what salvation ‘looks like’ in Rome’s environment when a person follows Christ. Paul used the opportunity produced by a unique situation and set of circumstances (1) to present the gospel he declared to gentiles and (2) to affirm what acceptance of the gospel ‘looked like’ in the circumstances of the Christian community in Rome.
Note The Emphasis In The Application Section
Regardless of your reaction to previous material, for a moment accept a challenge. Seek to place yourself in a specific mindset prior to considering the information in Paul’s application section in Romans [beginning in chapter 12]. Instead of immediately asking yourself, “What does this mean to me?” ask instead, “What did Paul’s words mean to them?” Each of us must seek to understand the meaning to them before we determine the application of Paul’s words to us.
Realize Paul’s instructions created major conceptual struggles for them in their circumstances as those instructions often do for us as we live in our 21st century world. The conflict over ‘who can be saved’ and the mechanics of ‘how’ raged. Many Jewish Christians [and Jewish people in general] said, “Unless gentiles submit to the religious rite of circumcision, they have no hope of salvation.” Many gentiles said, “We do not like Jews, and we do not like them telling us we have to adopt their ways and follow their rules to place faith in Jesus as the Christ.” It was not a one sided matter! All groups concerned about (1) the identity of Jesus as the Messiah and (2) the salvation of people who were not Jewish in ancestry had emotional opinions and reactions to core issues in those two matters.
In this letter, Paul wrote to Jewish Christians and gentile Christians in Rome. He responded to powerful issues and strong feelings in a way that many of them [Jew and gentile] considered unthinkable. We must ‘see’ how ‘unthinkable’ Paul’s concepts were to them if we seriously hope to make application of those concepts to us. In Paul’s message, the only winners are Jesus Christ and God!
Neither Jewish Christians nor gentile Christians would like Paul’s concepts! Jesus Christ was not about some group ‘winning’! Jesus Christ was about understanding God’s intent! When Paul made application of theological understandings [chapters 1-11] to life in the Christian community in Rome, neither Jewish Christians nor gentile Christian would say, “Aha! We told you so!” The reaction was more likely, “Paul, do you really mean that? Are you serious about those concepts?”
Paul’s transformation statement in the first two verses of Romans 12 is among the most recognized statements Paul wrote. As a reminder, do not forget this was a letter when Paul wrote it. There were no chapters and verses [they primarily were added to aid people in locating material]. When Paul wrote the letter, the material in chapter 12 would logically and immediately been connected to the material in chapter 11. Chapter 11 stressed the inter-relationship and inter-dependence of Jewish believers in Christ and gentile believers in Christ. Immediately after stressing inter-relationship and inter-dependence, Paul reminded both of their commitment to transformation.
To most of those Christians, the concepts of chapter 11 were mind boggling! The Christian community in Rome: “We as Christians are supposed to recognize our inter-relationship and inter-dependence?” Paul: “Yes! And when you recognize your inter-relationship and inter-dependence, you will understand a reality that is even deeper—the significance of transformation!”
The focus of transformation was God’s will, not ‘defending their turf’. For Jewish Christians, they must realize transformation involved God’s universal concern for all people. They must recognize the scope of God’s intent was much, much larger than merely the nation of Israel. Gentile Christians must realize an entirely new concept of deity. This new understanding would result in profound changes in (1) their lifestyle and (2) the way they looked at others. God’s mercy was to be the source of motivation for each group. Spirituality was to be focused in physical reality. The focus was to determine God’s will. Neither fully had determined God’s will!
If they (1) were transformed (2) by God’s mercy and (3) determined God’s will, what would they understand? They would understand that even though they were profoundly different, their diversity did not destroy Jesus Christ’s unity. Though they were different in many ways, both Jewish Christians and gentile Christians were part of the same body (verses 3-8). Though the groups [and sub-groups] were quite different, they all served in the best interests of the entire body. “Therefore, instead of defending your uniqueness in an effort to ostracize and exclude, learn your ‘gift’ and use it well to serve God’s will.
Stop tormenting and excluding each other! Focus on the proper treatment of all who are in Jesus Christ! It is being in Jesus Christ that makes people part of Christ’s body. ‘Your conflict sends the wrong message to people in Rome! Christians are not to be identified with hostility and fighting among themselves within their own community! Christians are to be known for doing good—even to those who are truly enemies! Stop treating each other in an unchristian manner as if people in the same body consider each other enemies!”
‘Did all of you not learn anything from the expulsion? (verses 1-7) If hostility and rejection had dire, bad consequences then, are you deceived into thinking that hostility and rejection are the route to winning respect and acceptance in Rome now? How can you possibly think that attitudes and behavior that wearied Claudius will now win Nero’s tolerance and respect? You must demonstrate that you are an asset to Rome, not a source of trouble!’
‘Jewish and gentile Christians, you must understand that being in Christ is not a matter of ancestry OR past idolatry (verses 8-10). Gentile Christians are not spiritually inferior! Everyone, allowing God to teach you how to love will fulfill every moral, ethical teaching of the ten commandments. The Christian who loves according to God’s will separates himself/herself from adultery, murder, stealing, greed, and kindred emotions and acts. Learning from God how to love fulfills God’s will.’
‘All of you, wake up! [verses 11-14] Jewish Christians, do not place your confidence in your ancestry and rites! Gentile Christians, do not feel inferior because of your former lifestyle in idolatry! Focus on behavior and a lifestyle that reflects the Lord Jesus Christ, not a lifestyle that focuses on ungodly behaviors and desires.’
As the context is examined regarding the Jewish Christian versus the gentile Christian controversy in this chapter, approach the information with these basic insights. (1) The context does not focus on feelings. It focuses on relationship with God. The context is not about deferring to the feelings of weaker Christians. The context is about not destroying any Christian’s relationship with God. Galatians 6:1-5 focuses on being considerate of another Christian’s feelings. Romans 14 focuses on destroying another Christian’s relationship with God.
(2) The majority of ‘weak’ Christians passed judgment on the behavior of ‘strong’ Christians. The majority of ‘strong’ Christians looked upon ‘weak’ Christians with contempt. The ‘weak’ Christians were Jewish Christians [including proselytes] who rejected any Christian who did not live by Judaism’s forms and rituals. The ‘strong’ Christians were gentile [non-proselyte] believers and Jewish believers who had abandoned Judaism’s forms and rituals. These Christians understood the significance of God’s accomplishments in Jesus Christ.
(3) The focus of the three issues was on (a) what food could be eaten [consult Leviticus 11]; (b) observing holy days; and (c) drinking wine. In these matters ‘weak’ Christians condemned ‘strong’ Christians, and ‘strong’ Christians looked with contempt on ‘weak’ Christians. A significant spiritual flaw existed in both the ‘weak’ and the ‘strong’ Christians. The flaw was evident in the arrogance of both groups.
When we use our convictions to reduce everything to ‘black-and-white’ views that stand in stark contrast to each other AND (2) when we use our convictions to exclude other believers in Jesus Christ from God, we need to read and think about Paul’s instructions to Jewish and gentile Christians in Romans 14.
Consider the contrasting characteristics of both the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak.’ The ‘strong’ (1) ate meat from Rome’s meat markets without asking questions; (2) considered every day alike—acknowledged no holy days, and (3) drank wine. The ‘weak’ (1) were vegetarians; (2) observed holy days, and (3) did not drink wine. The ‘strong’ lived a life based on confidence in God’s accomplishments in Jesus’ death and resurrection. The ‘weak’ lived a life based on worry. The ‘strong’ lived in gratitude for what God did in Jesus. The ‘weak’ lived in terror of their concept of God’s nature.
To be ‘safe’ the weak ate no meat [who could tell if the meat was offered to an idol?]. They observed holy days [had not Israel observed such days in all the centuries they were faithful?] They drank no wine [Roman citizens used wine is a means of honoring idolatrous gods!]
In an understanding of God’s accomplishments in Jesus, the ‘strong’ ate meat without questioning, considered each day alike, and drank wine because it had no spiritual significance.
Paul clearly addressed two distinct groups of Christians in this chapter. Paul classified the two groups as weak Christians and strong Christians. His designation of ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ is opposite of 21st Century Christian designations. Today it is often a matter of faith to declare those Paul called ‘weak’ to be conscientious, sacrificial, devout Christians who dare live by their commitment.
Note Paul’s statements and observations:
(1) They are to accept each other without passing judgment on each other (verse 1).
(2) God accepts each of them (verse 2-3).
(3) God can make Jewish Christians and gentile Christians who radically differ in behavior ‘stand’ (verse 4).
(4) Each should live gratefully as he or she considers what is appropriate to Christian behavior (verses 5-6).
(5) Neither must ever forget that Jesus Christ made both groups a part of the body (verses 7-9).
(6) God saved none of them for the purpose of passing judgment on or holding in contempt others who were in Christ (verses 10-12).
(7) The challenge Christians faced: refuse to cause Christians who are not like ‘me’ to fall away from God (verse 13).
(8) It is true that no food is unclean of itself [radical thinking for Jewish Christians!] (see Acts 10:10-16, 28; 11:1-3)
(9) However, there are higher Christian principles involved (verse 14).
a. A Christian must not violate his conscience (verse 14).
b. Love will not destroy a person for whom Christ died (verse 15).
c. Even if something is right, a Christian will not use it for evil purposes. Causing a Christian to leave God is evil (verse 15-16).
(10) God’s kingdom is focused on righteousness, peace and joy, not on eating and drinking [festival meals in Judaism and idolatry?] (verse 17)
a. God honors the commitment to create peace among Christians (verse 18).
b. Jewish Christians and gentile Christians, pursue peace! (verse 19).
c. Seek to build each other up rather than seeking to change each other! (verse 19)
d. Understand God’s work! Do not destroy God’s work! Do not make things a matter of ‘right and wrong’ that God does not make a matter of ‘right and wrong’ (verse 20).
e. Jewish Christians and gentile Christians, value a brother in Christ! (verses 20-22)
(11) Allow each Christian to honor his or her own conscience in his or her Christian lifestyle! (verse 23)
“This is God’s intention and priority: the ‘strong’ do not exist to please themselves, but to bear the weakness of those without strength.” A dedication to ‘what is right’ never excuses causing a person without strength to abandon his or her relationship with God. “If this commitment seems unreasonable, remember two things. (1) Remember the sacrificial example of Jesus Christ. (2) Remember God’s ultimate objective: Jewish Christians and gentile Christians glorifying God with one accord” (verses l-6).
The application: Jewish Christians and gentile Christians, accept each other. ‘Celebrate God’s promise keeping and God’s mercy—all of you benefited from both! Experience the joy of believing so that all of you may grow in hope’ (verses 7-13).
Verses 14-21 focused on Paul’s commission to teach gentiles. Verse 22 began a declaration of Paul’s personal plans to continue his commission. Those plans included taking a gift from gentile Christians to Jewish Christians to promote the inter-relationship of the two groups. In verses 30-33, Paul requested their prayers and personal concern for his work.
Jewish Christians and gentile Christians must realize both their existences fulfilled God’s intent. Even though each group was significantly different, through God’s work the body remained intact. Unity was not uniformity.
Chapter 10 Chapter Twelve