Sunday, February 8
Romans 8:28-39: In this section Paul brings to a close, and to something of a climax, the second part of the Epistle to the Romans (chapters 5-8), on the theme of the Christian existence of those who have been justified in Christ.
In verse 28 there is a textual problem respecting the word "God," because the extant manuscripts are variant on the matter. Depending on which manuscripts are followed (and sheer antiquity is not an adequate guide here, because the manuscripts come from various ancient Christian churches, and some textural mistakes seem to have been introduced rather early), the meaning of the passage is either "in everything God works for good with those who love Him," or "God makes everything work together for the good of those who love Him," or "everything works together for the good of those who love God." All of these readings testify to GodŐs providential control of events in the lives of those who love Him.
That is to say, this verse introduces the theme of divine providence, by which God brings mysterious influences to bear on the direction of history. Paul now inaugurates this theme. He will continue it through the rest of this chapter and then in chapters 9-11 apply it directly to the historical situation that the early Christians were facing, namely, the rejection of the larger masses of the Jewish people with respect to the Gospel. Why did that happen? PaulŐs response will be: Because God had in mind some greater good which would ensue. God is the Lord of history. He knows everything ahead of time. Knowing everything ahead of time. He quietly and mysteriously arranges circumstances in order to bring about the greater good.
Thus, Paul will continue the ancient theme of GodŐs providential ability to bring good out of evil. This thesis, which will form the substance of his argument in chapters 9-11, is a common one in the Old Testament. It is obvious, for instance, in the stories of Joseph. Paul will appeal to its presence in the stories of Esau and Pharaoh.
GodŐs foreknowledge of the future is the basis on which He is able to arrange for those circumstances which will influence the course of events. The English biblical word for this is called "predestination," which means "arranging things ahead of time."
Those who love God (or however else verse 28 is to be interpreted, as we saw above) are the "predestined" (verse 29), "those who are called according to His purpose" (verse 28). These "predestined and called" are not a separate category of Christians. The terms refer to the body of those who constitute the Church, the Christians who have responded to GodŐs initiatory love and call (1:6; 1 Corinthians 1:12).
This statement of Paul has nothing to do with anyoneŐs alleged predestination to heaven or hell. It is not a statement of theodicy. Although God certainly knows all things ahead of time, including each personŐs eternal destiny, He does not predetermine those that lie within human freedom. In the words of John of Damascus, "We should understand that while God knows all things beforehand, He does not predetermine all things. For He knows beforehand that are in our power, but He does not predetermine them. For it is not His will that there wickedness should exist, nor does He choose to compel virtue" (De Fide Orthodoxa 2.30).
What, then, does Holy Scripture mean when it asserts that God "predestines"? The verb itself, proorizo, means "to arrange ahead of time. In the biblical context, where this verb appears with "foreknow" (proginosko, to know ahead of time), the verb signifies the providential arrangements by which He brings people to the grace of the Gospel. That is to say, predestination embraces the mysterious influences that God brings to bear on history, so that all things work together for the good of those who love God. This is very clear in the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. God made use of the sins of JosephŐs brothers to predestine the deliverance of JosephŐs family.
Predestination in the Bible has no reference to any alleged divine decree whereby some people are consigned to heavenly life and others to everlasting damnation. On the contrary, God wills all men to be saved. Indeed, in the Bible, predestination does not refer to any divine decree at all. It is a description, rather, of GodŐs providential activity in history.
Nowhere, therefore, does Holy Scripture hint even faintly at a personŐs "predestination to hell." In fact, this repulsive idea does violence to the Bible, in which predestination is always a category of grace, never of punishment. It pertains invariably to the divine call, not the rejection of that call. It is always a description of the divine favor, not disfavor. It certainly does not include GodŐs arrangements to have someone damned. (People do that by themselves, with some help, of course, from Satan.) In His providential guidance of history, God makes use of manŐs sins. He never prearranges for those sins; He does not, that is to say, predestine those sins. Even less does He predestine anyoneŐs damnation. Damnation was never GodŐs idea.
Moreover, the Bible never speaks of predestination except in relationship to ChristŐs relationship to the Church. The foreknowledge and predestination of God is PaulŐs way of describing the priority of divine grace in redemption and justification. The initiative is GodŐs, not ours. We foreknew nothing; we prearranged nothing. God has done it all. He knows and He determines, ahead of time, what form His work in history (including the history of each of us) will take. Those who truly experience His grace are aware of themselves as known by God (1 Corinthians 8:3; 13:12), loved by God (1 John 4:19), chosen by God. Paul is describing the experience of life in the Christian Church.
Christians, then, are "predestined to be conformed (symmorphous) to the image (eikon or icon) of His Son." That is to say, believers are summoned to share in ChristŐs own relationship to the Father, so that Christ "might be the firstborn among many brethren." By divine grace, the infinite favor of God, they participate in the SonŐs knowledge and love of the Father (Matthew 11:27), who regards them as His children, the younger brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ (John 2:17). It is because these justified Christians have become, by virtue of their justification, "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4) that they can, in utter truth, look into the face of God and say, "Our Father." They partake, already, of the divine glory (verse 30).
The purpose of these reflections, Paul says, is to bring hope and reassurance into our hearts. God will never back away from His grace and His call. For this reason, there is no force in heaven or on earth or under the earth that can separate us from the love of God in Christ (verses 31-39). God is permanently on our side. He will never betray us.
Moreover, if God has already given us His beloved Son, He will certainly give us everything else (verse 32; 1 Corinthians 3:22-23; Philippians 3:21). Paul has heard accusations brought against his converts, because the latter did not observe the works of the Mosaic Law. Paul will tolerate none of this criticism. These Christians have been justified through the grace of God received in faith, he says. Who dares to bring an accusation against them? (verses 33-34) And PaulŐs defiance here includes Satan, that ancient accuser of the brethren.
Even less, then, will we be accused by Christ, whose blood purchased our redemption from the slavery of sin and death. Here Paul briefly mentions the LordŐs exaltation to the heavenly sanctuary, where He abides as our mediator and intercessor forever (verse 34; Hebrews 7:25; 9:24; 1 John 2:1; Revelation 5).
Those sufferings that Christians must sustain in the maintenance of their faith (verse 36) will not separate them from the love of Christ. PaulŐs tone here is exhortatory as well as declaratory. That is to say, he declares that God will never be unfaithful to us, and he gently exhorts that we be never unfaithful to God.
The situation of the justified Christian may be likened to that of a man in a poker game, who has been dealt the royal flush. He did nothing to gain the royal flush. He did not work for it. He received it on the deal. He holds it in his hand. As long as he holds on to those cards, he cannot possible lose, for no hand is greater than the royal flush. The one thing he must never do is to discard. All he must do is sit tight and keep a firm grip on those cards. No one, in heaven, on earth, or under the earth, can take them away from him.
Monday, February 9
Romans 9:1-13: Paul now commences the third part of this epistle, chapters 9-11, in which he applies the principle of the divine predestination to an actual theological problem addressed by the early Church: How can it be that the greater part of the Jewish people, whom over many centuries God had prepared with such persistent care for the coming of His Messiah, failed to recognize the Messiah when He came. Several sources in the New Testament address this thorny question in some form.
In most sources the New Testament writers recognized that IsraelŐs failure, its "falling away," had itself been prophesied in the Old Testament, chiefly Isaiah. This approach to the problem is clearest in John (12:37-41), but we find it in other authors as well (Matthew 13:10-15; Mark 4:10-12; Luke 8: 10; Acts 28:23-28).
Paul goes further. IsraelŐs failure, he say, was not only prophesied but also providential. Foreknowing IsraelŐs defection, He predestined that defectionŃHe prepared it ahead of timeŃto serve as the occasion and the impulse for the justification and salvation of the Gentiles. He did this by His mysterious providential guidance of history. Such is the argument of Romans 9-11.
Although the verb "predestine" does not appear in these chapters (nor is the noun "predestination" found anywhere in the New Testament), the development of PaulŐs thought here surely extends his teaching on predestination in chapter eight. As we proceed through these next three chapters, therefore, it will be important to bear in mind our earlier reflections on divine predestination in chapter eight. Otherwise we run the risk of regarding PaulŐs historical illustrations, such as Esau and Pharaoh, as examples of eternal loss. This would be not only an unwarranted inference but a mammoth distortion of PaulŐs thought. It may be the case, of course, that both Esau and Pharaoh have been condemned to hell, but there is nothing about this question in Romans 9-11. Esau and Pharaoh serve as examples, rather, of GodŐs mysterious ability, based on His foreknowledge, to bring good out of evil.
Thus, the moral obtuseness of Esau and the hardened heart of Pharaoh are predestined, are arranged ahead of time, to be the occasions of grace for Jacob and Israel, before any of these had been born or had performed any good or evil act (verse 11). The latter two are made vessels of elections, recipients and containers of GodŐs blessing, whole the former two become "vessels of wrath prepared for destruction" (verse 22). All of this, says Paul, was predestined, was arranged ahead of time, by God in His wisdom and mercy.
Paul begins his argument by establishing the principle that mere physical descent does not make someone an Israelite. (He will use the words "Israel" and "Israelite" in this section, because his major Old Testament prefiguration is Jacob, whose other name is Israel.) Consequently, the Jews can make no special claims on God merely by the fact that they are AbrahamŐs descendents (verses 6-10). Even GodŐs election of Israel was not prompted by any merits on the part of Israel. This is proved by GodŐs promise and mysterious intervention to bring about the conception and birth of Isaac (verses 8-10). As we have seen, that predestined intervention was a clear illustration of GodŐs ability to give life to the dead and call to being those things that did not exist (4:17).
Even regarding the descendents of the promised Isaac ("our father"), God distinguished between Jacob and Esau, before either was form or had made any moral choice (verse 11). GodŐs own choice, prior to either manŐs choice, fell on Jacob. He loved Jacob, that is to say, before Jacob ever loved Him (verse 13; 1 John 4:19). GodŐs historical choice of Jacob/Israel prefigured His predestined election of the Gentile Christians, who had done nothing to merit GodŐs favor (verse 12). This biblical example, Paul contends, foreshadowed the present situation of the Gentile believers. God had used EsauŐs defection, which He foreknew, as the occasion to make Jacob His chosen vessel in the history of salvation.
As for Esau himself, he got exactly what he deserved. His own place in biblical history was to be shoved off to the side, a vessel of dishonor (verse 21). Instead of inheriting the Promised Land, which should have been his birthright, he was obliged to become merely a desert chieftain (Malachi 1:2-3). Contemning his own inheritance, he made the choice himself (Hebrews 12:16).
In other words, EsauŐs conduct and its results served as an historical foreshadowing of what occurred to the greater part of the Jewish people in PaulŐs time. They had shunned their true inheritance, which thus passed to the Gentiles. They became the castaways of salvation history, the ChristiansŐ elder brothers, shoved off to the side. They could not blame God for this. They themselves, like Esau, had made the choice. As Paul will argue in the next section, the responsibility was theirs.
They "hate" of verse 13 is, of course, a standard hyperbole in Holy Scripture (Luke 14:26). God hates nothing that He has made. That understood, the real mystery is not how God could hate Esau. The real mystery is what prompted God to love Jacob. This we do not know. He has mercy on whom He has mercy, and He shows compassion to whom He shows compassion (verse 15). That is GodŐs business, not ours. We are content to know that God treats no man unjustly. Esau got what he deserved, and Jacob didnŐt. Our trust, as Christians, is that God will not treat us as we deserve.
Tuesday, February 10
Romans 9:14-24: GodŐs predestinations, His predetermined adjustments to the unfolding of history, are not arbitrary. They are founded on the divine foreknowledge. "Predetermination is the work of the divine command based on foreknowledge," wrote John of Damascus in the eighth century (De Fide Orthodoxa 2.30). GodŐs sovereignty over history is no detriment to manŐs ability to make moral choices. It is chiefly manifest, rather, in GodŐs ability to bring good results out of manŐs bad choices.
For this reason, GodŐs election frees no man from his moral obligations. GodŐs ability to bring good out of evil does not warrant anyone to do evil. Nor should it lessen any manŐs efforts to do good. "Now if men in their choices choose what is best," said John Chrysostom, "much more does God. Moreover, the fact of their being chosen is both a sign of the loving kindness of God and of their own moral goodness. . . . God Himself has rendered us holy, but we must continue to be holy. A holy man is someone who partakes of the faith; a blameless man is someone who leads an irreproachable life" (Homilies on Ephesians 1).
The man whom God rejects has no just case against God. God causes no manŐs failure. Even though the Scriptures speak of GodŐs hardening of PharaohŐs heart (verses 17-18; Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 9:12), this is a metaphor describing GodŐs providential use of PharaohŐs hardened heart. Pharaoh himself is the only one responsible for his hard heart (Exodus 7:14,22; 8:5,19,32). PharaohŐs sin cannot be ascribed to God, as though God had decreed that sin. God foreknew that sin and determined ahead of timeŃpredestinedŃhow to employ that sin to bring about His own deliverance of Israel from Egypt. There is no unrighteousness in God (verse 14).
Like Esau, PharaohŐs role or place in salvation history is negative. It represents a resistance to grace that God employs to show even more grace. The resistance to grace, on the part of Esau and Pharaoh, are providentially subsumed into GodŐs plan of deliverance, being used as the contrary force (the "push backwards") in a process of historical dialectic, much as a man steps on a rock, the friction and resistance from which enable him to go forward. This is what Paul sees happening among the greater part of the Jewish people of his own day. Their resistance to GodŐs mercy has served only to enhance and extend that mercy, for God does nothing except in mercy.
It is fallacious, therefore, to argue that GodŐs ability to bring good out of evil should oblige Him not to blame those who do evil (verse 19). Paul had earlier refuted that line of argument (6:1,15).
To someone who would argue this way, Paul responds, "So who put you in charge of history?" God takes into His hands the raw material of history, "the same lump" (verse 21), and shapes it as He wills. He forces no one to be evil; He compels no man to be a vessel of wrath and dishonor, but God does have His uses for vessels of wrath and dishonor.
On this image of God as a ceramic potter, cf. Isaiah 14:9; 29:16; 45:9; 64:8; Wisdom 15:7; Sirach 38:39-40; Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycum 2:26. God is fashioning His purpose from the common clay of human history. Jeremiah 18:1-11, far from regarding this image as an excuse for human failure, employs it as a summons to repentance: "Behold, I am fashioning a disaster and devising a plan against you. Return now every one from his evil ways, and make your ways and your doings good" (18:11).
"Prepared for destruction" (verse 22) means "ready for the dump." Some vessels, after all, are not worth keeping. After they have served their purpose, they are no longer part of the process of salvation history. Such were Esau and Pharaoh, who serve no other purpose in Holy Scripture than as examples of men who resisted God. Doing evil, they thus served their purpose in GodŐs redemptive interventions of grace, and now they have been tossed out on the ash bin. This lot they brought upon themselves, as is clear in the biblical accounts of them.
The vessels of honor, on the other hand, the "vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory" (verse 23), share in the everlasting exaltation that marks GodŐs work of deliverance. These are taken from among Jews and Gentiles (verse 24).
Wednesday, February 11
Romans 9:25-33: In chapter eleven Paul will make two initial points about IsraelŐs defection with respect to Jesus. First, not all the Jews fell away from the faith. A remnant of them believed and became Christians. These formed the original nucleus of the Christian Church. A significant part of this original nucleus were the "saints" in Jerusalem, for whom Paul manifested a singular solicitude, as described in the Acts of the Apostles. Indeed, in this very epistle he wrote of the collection that he had organized for the financial relief of the saints at Jerusalem (15:25-27). These were a very important part of the remnant of which he will speak in Romans 11:4-5.
Second, the defection of the greater part of the Jewish people became the occasion of the evangelism and conversion of the Gentiles. We find this pattern everywhere in LukeŐs description of PaulŐs ministry in the Acts of the Apostles, and it is spelled out as a theorem near the end of that book (28:25-28). Paul will write of this theme in Romans 11:7-11.
Prior to dealing with either of these themes, however, Paul here lays their biblical foundations, showing that both facts had already been prophesied eight hundred years earlier. The prophecy of IsraelŐs remnant he finds in the words of Isaiah (verses 27-29), and the prophecy of the calling of the Gentiles in the words of Hosea (verses 25-26).
Both of these prophets, delivering their oracles in the context of the downfall of Samaria to the Assyrians, faced a situation analogous to that addressed by Paul. That is to say, the crisis in Samaria, culminating in the tragic events of 722 B.C., brought to pass two things. First, the emergence of a faithful remnant, who resisted the apostasy of the Northern Kingdom. Second, a transferal of the heritage of the Northern traditions (Elijah, Elisha, Hosea) to the South, which then experienced a new spiritual vitality under Hezechiah.
In both of these particulars, that earlier situation, interpreted by Hosea and Isaiah, found its parallel in PaulŐs own time, when a remnant of the Jews remained faithful, and the former glories of the Hebrew people (9:4) would be preserved in the Christian Church.
In verses 30-33 Paul commences the case that he will pursue in chapter ten, namely, that IsraelŐs falling away was not caused by God but by IsraelŐs stubborn resolve to be justified by the works of the Law. We recall once more that Paul had experienced IsraelŐs crisis in his own life and vocation. Pursuing a righteousness according to the Law, Paul had been seduced by the sin that abode in his own heart, even in his own "members." Driven by his zeal for the righteousness of the Law, Paul had hardened his heart against the beckoning Christ. In the dramatic circumstances of his conversion, he was made aware that the sin abiding within him had made use of the Law so that sin became exceedingly sinful (7:13). This was his own experience of the reign of death: "For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me" (7:11). Endeavoring to be justified by the works of the Law, he found himself persecuting the Son of God (Acts 9:5).
Thursday, February 12
Romans 10:1-13: Like chapter none, the present chapter begins with an expression of PaulŐs sorrow over the contemporary falling away of Israel. These present verses indicate that that defection was not inevitable. In His merciful providence, God dealt with it, but He in no way caused it (as by some divine decree, for example). On the contrary, God made easy the path to faith (verse 9).
IsraelŐs defection was not caused by God; it was caused by Israel. Paul still prays for the salvation of the Jews, nonetheless (verse 1; cf. 9:1-3). As Paul knows from his own experience (Galatians 1:13-14; Philippians 3:9), they are zealous for God (verse 2). Their failure has not been in zeal, but in knowledge, epignosis, for they have been "ignorant of GodŐs righteousness" (verse 3). Thus, they resist the Gospel, as Paul himself had done.
"Christ is the end of the Law" (verse 4) in two senses. First, as the historical moment in which the Law lost its obligatory nature (Galatians 3:23; Ephesians 2:15; John 1:17). The new dispensation in Christ accomplishes what the Law could not. The era of the Law is over.
Second, "Christ is the end of the Law" in the sense of being its theological goal, its telos. The Law was given on Mount Sinai, only with a view to the coming of Christ, in whom it is fulfilled (3:31; 8:4; Matthew 5:17).
The Law is concerned with what man does. The Gospel is concerned with what God does. Faith is concerned, not with the Law, but with the Incarnation of GodŐs Son ("to bring Christ down") and His Resurrection ("to bring Christ up from the dead"). These are the things that God does. Faith is concerned, not with what we can do for God, but with what God has done, and promises to do, for us. In the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ (and, of course, everything in-between), God has reconciled the heights and the depths. Man is required only to believe and to confess what God has done in Christ (verse 9).
In this confession of faith we observe the primacy of the Resurrection, by which Christ put death to death (4:25). Putting there our trust, says Paul, we will be saved (verses 9,10,13ŃWe note the future tense for salvation). This salvation will be complete when our own bodies are raised from the dead at ChristŐs return (6:5).
We observe also that faith is not restricted a mere internal assent. It is social in nature. It must also be spoken. It arises from the heart and issues through the mouth (verse 10). It is not simply an impulse or a disposition. It is dogmatic; it is creedal; it is propositional. Its earliest and most basic tenets are contained in the formulas "Abba, Father" (or "I believe in one God, the Father Almighty") and "Jesus is Lord" (or "and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God"). From the very beginning some expression of this creedal confession has been required of Christians at baptism, the rite in which the believer sacramentally dies and rises with Christ.
Friday, February 13
Romans 10:14-21: Israel, says Paul, is without excuse. It was to Israel that the Gospel was first addressed, but they did not believe. This assessment refers, not only to the preaching of Jesus and the first apostles, but also to PaulŐs own experience. As the Acts of the Apostles describes it, PaulŐs custom, on first arriving at any new city, was to take the Gospel first to the local synagogue. In most of the recorded instances, however, the message was rejected by most of the Jews who heard it. By and large, Paul discovered, his more receptive audiences tended to be made up of Gentile seekers who had attached themselves, in varying degrees, to the synagogue. These, together with small remnants of Jews in each city, became the Christian Churches of Cyprus, Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, and so on.
The proclamation of the Gospel is the ministry of preaching, and this involves the authority of the preacher who is "sent" (verses 14-15; Acts 13:1-4). This "sending" has to do with apostolicity, a word derived from the Greek verb, apostello, "to send." The sending forth to preach is the commission of the Church, a commission that the Church received from Christ (Matthew 10:5-15; 28:16-20; John 20:21). The transmission of this authority is known to Christian history as the "apostolic succession," which means "the succession of those who have been sent." It is the succession itself that transmits that authority, the single identity of the apostolic ministry from one age to the next. The authoritative proclamation of the Gospel is derived from that historical succession, which is an essential component of the Church. All legitimate mission, therefore, is rooted in succession. The Gospel authority is transmitted through the Spirit-guided handing-on of the being of the Church.
Paul indicates the social and ecclesiastical nature of faith by insisting that "faith comes by hearing" (verse 17). Even Paul himself, to whom Jesus had spoken directly, was obliged to go to the Church in order to submit himself to her authority and be instructed by Her Tradition: "Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do" (acts 9:6).
What the Church preaches is "the word of Christ" This expression seems to have a twofold meaning. First, it signifies the word received from Jesus through the Tradition preached in the Church (and in due course transmitted into Holy Scripture in the form of Gospels and Epistles). Second, it means that word of which Christ is the very content. These two meanings appear to be but aspects of one reality.
Small wonder if the Jews rejected Christ, says Paul; they had already rejected Isaiah (verse 16). Indeed, they had already rejected Moses (verse 19; John 5:46).
In verse 18 Paul saying that the Gospel is as cosmic as the cosmos. He sees in GodŐs revelation in nature a foreshadowing of His revelation in the Gospel, for the universality of GodŐs witness in the works of Creation is to be matched in the universal character of the GospelŐs proclamation.
The citation from Deuteronomy in verse 19 introduces the motif that will dominate the end of the next chapter, IsraelŐs providential "jealousy."
[Due to length, the Reflections for Saturday, February 14, will be posted with next week's Reflections on Friday evening.]