Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Believing In Him (part 1)

For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in Him will not be put to shame.” – Romans 10:11  (NET)

Too often, we allow ourselves to shape the words of Scripture to our own particular needs or notions.  It is likely that when the words of the above referenced Scripture are read, there is a tendency to think of it as a promise to individuals that attends belief in Jesus, with that promise of not being “put to shame” somehow connected to being “saved” and therefore on the route to a post-mortem heaven.  Though it is perfectly legitimate to hear this as a promise associated with belief in Jesus, hearing it from the position of individualism, while prizing a “salvation experience,” and looking to it as one of those verses that can be plucked from the Bible to support a propositional “assurance” of salvation (going to heaven and avoiding hell), profoundly misses the point and misconstrues Paul’s purpose for setting forth these words in his letter to the Romans. 

If we are going to correctly apprehend the import of the words of the eleventh verse, they must, of course, be heard within their context.  Though the context is truly the whole of the letter, the immediate context begins with the first words of chapter nine of Romans, as Paul shifts his theological and eschatological gears, focusing in more squarely on the relationship between Jew and Gentile, as he revisits and expounds upon a subject broached ever so briefly in chapter one, and for which Paul laid a bit more groundwork in chapter two.  Chapters nine, ten, and eleven are introduced with “I am telling the truth in Christ (I am not lying!), for my conscience assures me in the Holy Spirit---I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were accursed---cut off from Christ---for the sake of my people, my fellow countrymen, who are Israelites.  To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the Temple worship, and the promises.  To them belong the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever!  Amen.” (9:1-5)  All that follows, for the remainder of this chapter and the whole of the next two, which obviously includes our base text and all that surrounds it, asks to be heard from within the echo of those words.

As is the case for all of Paul’s letters, there is a momentous, profoundly significant issue for the kingdom of God at hand in the church(es) at Rome.  That issue, among others, which contributes to other issues with which Paul must deal in his letter, is that of the relationship between Jew and Gentile, and the basis for Gentiles being included in the covenant people.  We are not surprised by this, as we find this subject being addressed quite explicitly in Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians.  The fundamental issue is how Gentiles, being Gentiles and remaining Gentiles (not Judaizing---adopting the covenant markers of Judaism, which were circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and food laws), were able to receive their entrance into the covenant.  That is, how were Gentiles justified?  How did they receive their justification, which would be defined as their being identified as a member of the covenant people?  Apart from the fact that being a member of the covenant people is what allowed a person to participate in the rule of the kingdom of God through His Messiah, and to participate in the greatly anticipated resurrection, justification was not necessarily an existential concern.  It was not a concern related to an imputed righteousness, with righteousness thought to be some type of foreign quality laid upon a person.  Rather, righteousness was related to a finding of status---a determination of standing---which, quite naturally, was of far greater concern to a people (the Jews, which included Jesus, His disciples, the Apostle Paul, and the other New Testament authors, though Luke was a Gentile) that were, according to Scriptural evidence, almost completely (completely?) unconcerned with the eternal destination of one’s immortal soul, and who did not carry with them the mental images of heaven and hell that, with the help of pagan mythologies, a mis-reading of apocalyptic works such as Revelation, and creative writers such as Dante, have been popularized (and orthodox-ized) over time. 

One thing that simply cannot escape notice when we look at Paul’s treatment of justification in Romans and Galatians (though it is explicit in those two letters, it can be found in Ephesians and Colossians), is his complete failure to mention going to heaven or escaping hell as part of those discourses (with heaven achieved and hell escaped because of the imputation of God’s righteousness, which is thought to be qualitative and foreign).  This makes perfect sense, especially considering that Paul’s focus is the kingdom of God and the new creation that has been introduced into the old creation by the Resurrection of Jesus.  For Paul, “justification” is “salvation,” yet when he speaks of that condition, which is a participation in the people of God and the kingdom of God now that it has come in Christ, which Paul also refers to as his Gospel, there is no talk of what so many have been trained to think is the end of the Gospel, which is getting people to heaven and rescuing them from hell.  A natural response to that is that “kingdom” is a reference to heaven, but asserting such a thing in response is actually a projection of Greek-inspired thoughts concerning the afterlife on to the New Testament; and doing so even though, apart from Luke, all of the New Testament authors were Jewish, and therefore thought of as the kingdom not as a far-off place to which one aspired, but as God’s kingdom come to earth, bringing restoration, renewal, and re-creation.    

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