Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Romans on the Radio

I am about to record a new series of talks for broadcast on the Radio.  They pick up where the last ones left off!

I am also teaching Christian Ethics this term at our Theological College so they reflect some of my thinking about that.


Of all the works of theology that have been written since the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, none have been as important or more influential than a letter St Paul wrote to Christians in Rome in the mid-50s AD and which is preserved in the New Testament.  The Church’s greatest theologians have all been massively influenced by it and there is still a constant flow of books all seeking to interpret, explain, and apply it.  It is frequently read in Church services all over the world. 

St Paul wrote the letter to a Church he had not yet visited.  He hoped soon to do so, however, but was concerned about the reception he would receive from these Christians, most of whom had only heard about him and never met him.  This was a problem because Paul wasn’t universally popular; indeed, he was anything but.  Paul believed that God had given him a special job to do as a Christian apostle and that was to take the Christian message to Gentiles, that is, non-Jews, throughout the Roman Empire

This was not quite as straightforward as it might sound.  Apart from being a demanding task in its own right, the Church at this time was still trying to make its mind up whether it wanted Gentiles to be members at all and, if they were to be allowed to join the Church, on what basis they should be admitted. 

It is very easy today to forget that the Church started as small sect within Judaism in Palestine.  The first followers of Jesus being themselves Jewish, as was Jesus himself, not unreasonably assumed that their message was mainly for other Jews.  It proved, however, to be extraordinarily popular with those who heard it who weren’t Jewish, and it was not long before Gentiles were asking how they could join the Church.  At first, the Jewish believers were reluctant to let them in at all as it would mark a significant change of focus, but it soon became plain that this wasn’t going to work.  And so the Church had some serious thinking to do! 

Some thought that it was very simple.  Gentiles could join the Church if they also lived as the Jewish believers did obeying the Old Testament commandments.  God hadn’t changed his mind, they believed, and what God had required of people in the Old Testament still applied to anyone who wanted to serve him.  Yes, Jesus was God’s Son and believing in him was essential, but you still had to keep the Ten Commandments. 

The reason Paul became so unpopular was he suggested an alternative and that was that the Gentiles did not have to keep the Old Testament Law, and while it was ok for Jewish believers to go on observing it if they wanted to, it wasn’t this that established a relationship with God, a relationship which would ultimately save them.  This was explosive stuff.  Jews had died in the past because of their obedience to the Law and the last thing the Jewish believers wanted was for fellow Jews to think that the new faith in Jesus was an attack on the Law and all their history.  All sorts of rumours circulated about what Paul did or did not teach and believe.  

Paul believed that Rome was going to become an important base for his work in the future.  It was vital then for him to explain just what it was that he taught and to clear up any mis-understandings that might arise from it. 

Paul begins by declaring where he stands on the issue of who can become a member of the Church.  The Christian message is for everyone who has faith in Jesus whether Jew or Gentile.  It is faith in Jesus, he declares, that matters most not your birth or behaviour.  It is a very simple message, but one that many people found it hard to accept then and still find it hard to accept today.

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