6.2 – The Purpose of the Letter (Romans 15)

Home Learning Hub Reflections in Romans 6.2 – The Purpose of the Letter (Romans 15)
“We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbour for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’ For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:1-4)

Paul quoted here from Psalm 69:9, a passage with a similar message to the Servant Songs of Isaiah. Paul added that these passages, that show the endurance of Christ, are also there to teach us. We are the carry the same manner in the world as Christ did, seeking to heal others, rather than to please ourselves. This encouragement is to give us hope, when things look like they are against us.

In the context of Paul’s message to the Jews and gentiles, this means that instead of us standing for ourselves and our own party, those of us who think we are superior, for any religious reason, should include and care for the weak. We should receive the one we think is religiously inferior and look for their healing. It is in behaving like this, that we find our own transformation and our own healing as well. And when our community reconciles this way, our world begins to look like Isaiah’s new creation.

To live in this way is to replicate the love and faith-fullness of Christ, whose faithfulness consisted in the fact that he did not please himself, but his neighbour instead. This is the essential matter Paul is addressing in the whole letter of Romans, the matter that draws Jews and gentiles together as one family, according to the promises of God to Abraham.

“The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” (Romans 15:3, Psalm 69:9) A beautiful description of the atonement. The scapegoating of the religious, economic and political communities against God, which is always brought down upon the weak, came down upon Jesus in his sufferings, throughout his life and death. “He was numbered among the transgressors and made intercession for them.” (Isaiah 53:12) He took his part with the afflicted, not with the afflicter, and in doing so he showed them God’s solidarity, love and forgiveness, instead of the punishment or neglect others brought against them… and drew them back to God. This is how the Jews should serve the gentiles, and visa-versa. That is, it should be no surprise to us, that if the community marginalize a certain group of people, like the Pharisees did the “sinners,” then showing any form of solidarity for them, will bring the community’s sanctions against ourselves as well.

This is what Paul said we should be willing to bear, to glorify God. God seeks to restore the weak, the poor, the rejected. So, Jews and gentiles should receive each other, despite their countrymen’s attitudes and persecution. In Christ we receive those others reject, even though this may invite sanction upon ourselves.

“That together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Romans 15:6-7) Again, this is the pinnacle of the letter. If we can glorify God together as one people, then we can be “the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus” to the world. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

That is, our lives show God’s righteous and just plan, that in the cross he has brought the nations together in love and healing. This one church in Christ, shows God’s righteousness to the world. It shows God has kept his promises to Abraham, by making us one people through his cross and Spirit, defeating our pagan violence and greed, through one Lordship of Christ and an obedience of love.

This, not a colonial expression of Christendom, is what the scripture means by God’s announcement to the pagan powers, “As I live says the Lord, to me every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that I (Yahweh, Jesus) am Lord.” (Isaiah 45:23, Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10-11) It refers to our inner transformation of love, the cross life that Jesus lived, that made him, rather than the Roman Caesar, Lord. It is through this servant life that his kingdom rules the world. (Matthew 20:25-26)

“Because God has welcomed us in Christ, we should welcome one another.” This is the full extent of the theology in the letter of Romans. On the cross, God showed his love and forgiveness to the world, forgiving us for our hostility against him, in condemning him and nailing him to the cross. This is how we should forgive and receive each other, no matter the social propaganda against other groups. We should resist the cultural tradition about other groups, that we are told to separate from, and instead embrace them into one love, shown to us in Christ.

“For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” (Romans 15:8-9) Such beautiful text. Christ served the Jews, to show them God’s faithfulness to forgive them and to bring in the gentiles to one family, as he promised the patriarchs. This is “God’s righteousness” that Romans 1:17 spoke of us, revealed to us in our relationships with each other, through the gospel.

“As it is written, ‘Therefore I will praise you among the gentiles, and sing to your name.’ And again, it is said, ‘Rejoice, O gentiles, with his people.’ And again, ‘Praise the Lord, all you gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.’ And again, Isaiah says, ‘The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the gentiles; in him will the gentiles hope.’” (Romans 15:9- 12)

These aren’t just concluding remarks to the letter of Romans, but they explain the whole point of Paul’s writing, what his theology of justification is all about: bringing the gentiles into God’s family, to be one with a restored Israel in Christ. This was written about the gentiles, so the Jews would accept them, just as God has accepted the Jews in their fall, in Christ. In accepting each other, we can then go on showing love to each other, as a witness of God’s faithfulness to the world.

The way in which the Messiah rises to rule the world is through this one new family. His isn’t a rule of violence, but a rule of family care, which renews our hearts and eventually transforms our communities. It is a rule of shema. It is termed “a rod of iron” because this cross, this love, can utterly route out God’s enemies from our own character and through us transform the powers of the world. (Psalm 2:9)

The “rod of iron” is a metaphor of conquest, but the conquest is a conquest of the Servant through the cross of self-giving love. This is what many of Paul’s countrymen didn’t understand. This “righteousness of God,” that should be displayed through enemy service, rather than by establishing a superiority over their enemies, is the righteousness that many did not want to submit themselves to. They couldn’t see how Old Testament promises of conquest were metaphors of the Suffering Servant.

In concluding comments, Paul defends his ministry to the gentiles and this also is part of the reason for his writing, so the gentiles he has brought to Christ aren’t dismissed by the Jews as invalid believers but are accepted. (Romans 15:14-21) In Romans 15:22-33 Paul explains how he would like to come through Rome on his way to Spain, for the Roman believers to join with him in prayers and support for his mission westward, to areas that have not yet heard the gospel. This was Paul’s missionary desire, to always take the gospel to regions where it was not known. In making Rome a new base for his westward missions, he needed the Roman church to be united between the various groups, because this acceptance and unity in Christ was Paul’s message to new fields. If this love didn’t work in Rome, there was point preaching it in Spain or beyond.