New Testament

Seeing the Big Picture of Romans 9-11

Hi Dojo readers,

This is a particularly Bible-geekish post. So be warned beforehand.

I recently had a friend ask me for help, as she was preparing to teach Romans chapter 9 in her adult Sunday School class. I shared with her a few suggestions about Romans chs. 9-11, one of which came from my re-reading N.T. Wright’s chapter on Romans 9-11 in his MASSIVE magnum opus “Paul and the Faithfulness of God“. [Seriously, it’s so large that Ben Witherington has written a 93-part review of it. No…I’m not making that up!]

Wright spends around 200 pages just on these three chapters of Romans…but given the amount of ink that has been spilled over the past 2,000 years on that section of the book, his treatment is well worth reading and engaging with overall. But what initially piqued my interest, and has become more convincing the more I read and reread Romans 9-11, is Wright’s suggestion that the entire section is structured chiastically. [For those who are unfamiliar with what a “chiasm” is, you can read a quick intro summary to the concept HERE.]

I wanted to share it with Disciple Dojo readers in a way that visually helps them see Wright’s proposed structure…and thus a potential way to make sense of the overall flow of this most dense (and often confusing!) section of the book. So using the Bible study approach I suggested in a previous Dojo blog post (which I still believe to be the single most effective way of studying overall books of the Bible in the modern age!), I copied and pasted Romans 9-11 into a Word doc and formatted it according to Wright’s suggested structure…using his “Kingdom New Testament” which I have on my Kindle reader. (I thought that was only fitting!)  I’ve color-coded the corresponding sections of the chiasm and indented them as well. I also put all OT quotations in italics. Here it is below for those who are curious. You can judge for yourself whether or not you find it persuasive or a helpful way to read this section of Scripture.

 

Romans 9-11’s Chiastic structure based on

N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, ch.11

(Kingdom New Testament translation)

 

9:1 I’m speaking the truth in the Messiah; I’m not lying. I call my conscience as witness, in the holy spirit, 2 that I have great sorrow and endless pain in my heart. 3 Left to my own self, I am half-inclined to pray that I would be accursed, cut off from the Messiah, on behalf of my own family, my own flesh-and-blood relatives. 4 They are Israelites; the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises all belong to them. 5 The patriarchs are their ancestors; and it is from them, according to the flesh, that the Messiah has come— who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen!

6 But it can’t be the case that God’s word has failed! Not all who are from Israel, you see, are in fact Israel. 7 Nor is it the case that all the children count as “seed of Abraham.” No: in Isaac shall your seed be named.” 8 That means that it isn’t the flesh-and-blood children who are God’s children; rather, it is the children of the promise who will be calculated as “seed.” 9 This was what the promise said, you see: Around this time I shall return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And that’s not all. The same thing happened when Rebecca conceived children by one man, our ancestor Isaac. 11 When they had not yet been born, and had done nothing either good or bad— so that what God had in mind in making his choice might come to pass, 12 not because of works but because of the one who calls— it was said to her, The elder shall serve the younger.” 13 As the Bible says, I loved Jacob, but I hated Esau.” 14 So what are we going to say? Is God unjust? Certainly not! 15 He says to Moses, you see, I will have mercy on those on whom I will have mercy, and I will pity those I will pity.” 16 So, then, it doesn’t depend on human willing, or on human effort; it depends on God who shows mercy. 17 For the Bible says to Pharaoh: This is why I have raised you up, to show my power in you, and so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So, then, he has mercy on the one he wants, and he hardens the one he wants. 19 You will say to me, then, “So why does he still blame people? Who can stand against his purpose?” 20 Are you, a mere human being, going to answer God back? “Surely the clay won’t say to the potter, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ ” 21 Doesn’t the potter have authority over the clay, so that he can make from the same lump one vessel for honor, and another for dishonor? 22 Supposing God wanted to demonstrate his anger and make known his power, and for that reason put up very patiently with the vessels of anger created for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, the ones he prepared in advance for glory— 24 including us, whom he called not only from among the Jews but also from among the Gentiles? 25 This is what he says in Hosea, I will call “not my people” “my people”; And “not beloved” I will call “beloved.” 26 And in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” There they will be called “sons of the living God.” 27 Isaiah cries out, concerning Israel, Even if the number of Israel’s sons are like the sand by the sea, Only a remnant shall be saved; 28 For the Lord will bring judgment on the earth, Complete and decisive. 29 As Isaiah said in an earlier passage, If the Lord of hosts had not left us seed, We would have become like Sodom, and been made like Gomorrah

30 What then shall we say? That the nations, who were not aspiring toward covenant membership, have obtained covenant membership, but it is a covenant membership based on faith. 31 Israel, meanwhile, though eager for the law which defined the covenant, did not attain to the law. 32 Why not? Because they did not pursue it on the basis of faith, but as though it was on the basis of works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 as the Bible says: Look: I am placing in Zion A stone that will make people stumble, A rock that will trip people up; And the one who believes in him Will never be put to shame.

10:1 My dear family, the longing of my heart, and my prayer to God on their behalf, is for their salvation. 2 I can testify on their behalf that they have a zeal for God; but it is not based on knowledge. 3 They were ignorant, you see, of God’s covenant faithfulness, and they were trying to establish a covenant status of their own; so they didn’t submit to God’s faithfulness. 4 The Messiah, you see, is the goal of the law, so that covenant membership may be available for all who believe.

5 Moses writes, you see, about the covenant membership defined by the law, that “the person who performs the law’s commands shall live in them.” 6 But the faith-based covenant membership puts it like this: Don’t say in your heart, Who shall go up to heaven? (in other words, to bring the Messiah down), 7 “or, Who shall go down into the depths?(in other words, to bring the Messiah up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we proclaim);

9 because if you profess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

10 Why? Because the way to covenant membership is by believing with the heart, and the way to salvation is by professing with the mouth. 11 The Bible says, you see, Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, since the same Lord is Lord of all, and is rich toward all who call upon him. 13 All who call upon the name of the Lord,” you see, will be saved.”

14 So how are they to call on someone when they haven’t believed in him? And how are they to believe if they don’t hear? And how will they hear without someone announcing it to them? 15 And how will people make that announcement unless they are sent? As the Bible says, How beautiful are the feet of the ones who bring good news of good things.” 16 But not all obeyed the good news. Isaiah asks, you see, Lord, who has believed our report? 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing comes from the word of the Messiah.

18 This might make us ask, Did they not hear? But they certainly did: Their sound went out into all the world, And their words to the ends of the earth. 19 But I ask, did Israel not know? To begin with, Moses says, I will make you jealous with a non-nation; And stir you to anger with a foolish people. 20 Then Isaiah, greatly daring, puts it like this: I was found by those who were not looking for me; I became visible to those who were not asking for me. 21 But in respect of Israel he says, All day long I have stretched out my hands to a disbelieving and disagreeable people.

11:1 So I ask, has God abandoned his people? Certainly not! I myself am an Israelite, from the seed of Abraham and the tribe of Benjamin. 2 “God has not abandoned his people,” the ones he chose in advance. Don’t you know what the Bible says in the passage about Elijah, describing how he pleads with God against Israel? 3 Lord,” he says, they have killed your prophets, they have thrown down your altars; I’m the only one left, and they are trying to kill me! 4 But what is the reply from the divine word? I have left for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 In the same way, at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer by works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. 7 What then? Did Israel not obtain what it was looking for? Well, the chosen ones obtained it— but the rest were hardened, 8 as the Bible says: God gave them a spirit of stupor, Eyes that wouldn’t see, and ears that wouldn’t hear, Right down to this present day. 9 And David says, Let their table become a snare and a trap, And a stumbling block and a punishment for them; 10 Let their eyes be darkened so that they can’t see, And make their backs bend low forever. 11 So I ask, then: Have they tripped up in such a way as to fall completely? Certainly not! Rather, by their trespass, salvation has come to the nations, in order to make them jealous. 12 If their trespass means riches for the world, and their impoverishment means riches for the nations, how much more will their fullness mean! 13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Insofar as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I celebrate my particular ministry, 14 so that, if possible, I can make my “flesh” jealous, and save some of them. 15 If their casting away, you see, means reconciliation for the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? 16 Take another illustration: if the first fruits are holy, so is the whole lump. And another: if the root is holy, so are the branches. 17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you— a wild olive tree!— were grafted in among them, and came to share in the root of the olive with its rich sap, 18 don’t boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember this: it isn’t you that supports the root, but the root that supports you. 19 I know what you’ll say next: “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” 20 That’s all very well. They were broken off because of unbelief— but you stand firm by faith. Don’t get big ideas about it; instead, be afraid. 21 After all, if God didn’t spare the natural branches, there’s a strong possibility he won’t spare you. 22 Note carefully, then, that God is both kind and severe. He is severe to those who have fallen, but he is kind to you, provided you continue in his kindness— otherwise you too will be cut off. 23 And they, too, if they do not remain in unbelief, will be grafted back in. God is able, you see, to graft them back in. 24 For if you were cut out of what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will they, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree. 25 My dear brothers and sisters, you mustn’t get the wrong idea and think too much of yourselves. That is why I don’t want you to remain in ignorance of this mystery: a hardening has come for a time upon Israel, until the fullness of the nations comes in. 26 That is how “all Israel shall be saved,” as the Bible says: The Deliverer will come from Zion, And will turn away ungodliness from Jacob. 27 And this will be my covenant with them, Whenever I take away their sins. 28 As regards the good news, they are enemies— for your sake! But as regards God’s choice they are beloved because of the patriarchs. 29 God’s gifts and God’s call, you see, cannot be undone. 30 For just as you were once disobedient to God, but now have received mercy through their disobedience, 31 so they have now disbelieved as well, in order that, through the mercy which has come your way, they too may now receive mercy. 32 For God has shut up all people in disobedience, so that he may have mercy upon all.

33 O, the depth of the riches And the wisdom and knowledge of God! We cannot search his judgments; We cannot fathom his ways. 34 For Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has given him counsel? 35 Who has given a gift to him Which needs to be repaid?36 For from him, through him, and to him are all things. Glory to him forever! Amen.

Biblical thoughts on the Death Penatly debate

A few years ago during Presidential campaign season, two issues arose at around the same time which really got me thinking about the issue of Capital Punishment in our society, and more particularly, how Disciples of Jesus should view it.

The first was the rousing ovation that Texas Governor Rick Perry received during the Republican Primary debate after stating that he had ZERO reservations about the hundreds of people executed during his tenure as Governor (which I found very disturbing). The second was the controversy surrounding Troy Davis, who was executed in my birth-state of Georgia not long after. The controversy had arisen as a result not only of multiple witnesses changing their testimony, but also there being no actual physical evidence of Davis’ guilt.

In both instances, as well as countless others like them throughout our country's history, Christians have been divided on the issue--some praising capital punishment as the God-ordained right of a government to punish those guilty of the most heinous crime with ultimate temporal justice, and others pointing to Jesus’ own teachings on the need to “turn the other cheek” and “pray for those who persecute you” as in essence overturning the whole concept of capital punishment entirely in the age of the New Covenant. Who is right? Is there a consistent Biblical view when it comes to capital punishment? Or is the follower of Jesus left to simply pick their favorite proof-texts based on their political and/or emotional makeup?

I confess, Dojo readers, that I find myself somewhere in the middle on this issue.

Firstly, I do not believe that Jesus ANYWHERE overturned ANY spiritual truth contained in the Hebrew Scriptures (or “Old Testament”, as most Christians refer to it). Jesus came to FULFILL Torah, but not by ABOLISHING it:

 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Mat 5:17 NRSV)

So the Christian must take VERY seriously the purposes and teachings of the Hebrew Bible, even though as a Covenant it was completed by Jesus at His death and Resurrection. With Pentacost, the Mosaic Covenant ceased to be binding on God’s people as it came to its God-ordained completion and the New Covenant, marked by the giving of the Holy Spirit upon all God’s people, was inaugurated:

“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt– a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
(Jer 31:31-33 NRSV)

Peter himself declares this to be the case in Acts 2, and the entire New Testament (which literally means “New Covenant”) is testimony to the fact that we live no under the Covenant of Sinai, but under the Covenant of Golgotha.

[For more on this basic fact of Christian theology, see my video: “Do Christians Keep the Ten Commandments?” which can be viewed HERE.]

However, everywhere in the New Testament, the Apostles and even Jesus Himself appeal to the Hebrew Scriptures as reflecting the nature and character of God, and cite it authoritatively even to those who were never under its Covenant (i.e. Romans, Galatians, etc.). The message is clear: We learn of God’s nature primarily through His self-revelation to His people in Scripture…and for the earliest Christians, that Scripture consisted only of the Old Testament.

Therefore, contrary to some claims by anti-death-penalty Christians, it is not callousness, bloodlust, or hatred that leads pro-death-penalty Christians to uphold capital punishment. Often, it stems from a desire to take God’s self-revelation through His Scriptures very seriously (without, as the common charge goes, taking it completely literally).

Jesus Himself upheld the nature of God and His Word to His people through upholding the Old Testament during His life. In fact, Jesus’ teachings pushed past the outward, surfacey, lip-service adherence to Torah that many of his contemporaries had adopted and called Israel back to observing the HEART of the Old Testament’s teachings. Jesus rightly recognized that the Spirit who Inspired the Old Testament was the same Spirit who was soon to be poured out on the New Covenant Israel–both Jews and Gentiles united in Jesus as Messiah–and He was preparing His people to live out the intention of Torah by placing it, as Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Joel had foretold, in their hearts and minds rather than on tablets of stone kept in a sanctuary ark.

Thus, nowhere do we find Jesus repudiating the Old Testament concept of the death penalty.

The most common passage used to argue that Jesus overturned the death penalty is John 8’s account of the woman caught in adultery, as popular Christian author/speaker Shane Claiborne recently did. However, there are a number of reasons NOT to see this as such:

First of all, and most importantly, the entire episode was NOT originally part of the Gospel of John. This always comes as a surprise, and to many a shock, when I teach on it in "Bible for the Rest of Us" [Coming Soon!!]. But go ahead, read the footnote in your Bible regarding John 7:53-8:11 for yourself. Even conservative and Evangelical scholars readily recognize that this passage is not part of the Gospel. For instance, the translator note on this passage in the NET Bible alerts the reader to this fact:

“This entire section, 7:53–8:11, traditionally known as the pericope adulterae, is not contained in the earliest and best MSS and was almost certainly not an original part of the Gospel of John. Among modern commentators and textual critics, it is a foregone conclusion that the section is not original but represents a later addition to the text of the Gospel.”

So it is not legitimate theologically to build a doctrine based largely upon a passage of Scripture that is not, in fact, a passage of Scripture.

Secondly, even if John 8’s account of Jesus rescuing a condemned adulteress from the death penalty WERE Scripture, it still does not overturn the death penalty under Torah…precisely because the entire “trial” of the woman was a blatant violation of Torah itself! Here’s why:

1) According to Torah, in order for adultery to be punished, BOTH parties had to be present and on trial (Lev. 20:10)…yet in John 8, only the woman in brought to Jesus. There is no mention of the man whatsoever.

2) According to Torah, capital cases had to be tried by an official Judge of Israel (Deut. 25:1). This was a mob of religious laypersons bringing an accused person before an itinerant prophet/teacher. Nothing under Torah would allow such a “trial” to be valid.

3) Under Torah, a person could not be put to death except on the EYEWITNESS testimony of AT LEAST TWO WITNESSES (Num. 35:30, Deut. 17:6). Furthermore, witnesses in capital cases were liable to be punished with the same penalty the accused was being tried for if they were found to be lying. This is what the Commandment “You shall not bear false witness” actually means (rather than a blanket prohibition on lying in general). And under Torah, such eyewitnesses were to take an active part in administering the death penalty by ceremonially casting the first stone (Deut. 17:7). The fact that in this story all of the accuser dropped their stones and walked away shows that none of them bothered to press Jesus on the issue because none of them were in fact willing to stake their life on upholding Torah law.

However, I must again stress the fact that this entire account is NOT part of Scripture, and therefore we cannot read into it much detail either way.

The other line of argument Christians who oppose the death penalty often take is to quote Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”
(Mat 5:38-41 NRSV)

This is argued as clear proof that Jesus overturned the “eye for an eye” law of Torah (Exod. 21:23-24; Lev. 24:19-20; Deut.19:21). However, this is not an iron-clad prooftext by any means. Why not? Because Jesus is speaking about PERSONAL reaction to PERSONAL provocation or oppression by others. He is not speaking about the role of Israel’s government in administering Torah; He is speaking to Jews who are living under Roman occupation and suffer daily harassment and provocation, which leads to in-fighting, a vengeance mindset and all personal/family pride within an honor-and-shame society such as 1st century Palestine in fact was. At that time (and throughout history!) people would justify using all manner of retaliation against their enemies by appealing to the Lex Talionis (Law of retaliation, i.e. “eye for eye”) found in Torah…totally ignoring the fact that Torah’s “eye for eye” law was put there to LIMIT retaliation and CURB acts of vengeance. In the rest of the ancient Near East, it wasn’t “eye for eye”; it was “life for eye”! In other words, if you injure or insult me, I kill you and possibly your family!  In its original context, “eye for eye” was put in place to keep Israel from being a retaliatory, vengeance-based culture.

In fact, according to Torah, the primary purpose of the death penalty was prevention, not retaliation. Over and over we read that Israel was to use the death penalty (justly and never without 2 or more witnesses who staked their own lives on their testimony!) to demonstrate the seriousness of capital crimes, particularly premeditated murder (manslaughter did not carry a capital sentence) and to serve as a reminder that life is SO PRECIOUS that only God has the right to take it…and God authorized the government of Israel to act as His agent in carrying it out. And in his letter to the Roman Christians, Paul seems to imply (if not directly state!) that this is also a function God has granted even to pagan governments, so long as they are using it justly:

 “…rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.

Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them– taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
(Rom 13:3-8 NRSV)

This is why, according to Scripture, one cannot properly call capital punishment “murder.”  The word “murder” is never used to describe capital punishment in the Bible. Thus modern Christians who oppose the death penalty for whatever reason should not give in to the temptation to deem all capital punishment as “murder”, no matter how rhetorically effective it may seem.

In fact, many Christians who support the death penalty in theory do so PRECISELY BECAUSE they believe in the sanctity of life. They point back to Genesis, back before Torah was even given, before there were even such a people as the Israelites, before Abraham was ever born…to the time of Noah. God flat-out declared:

 “For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life.

Whoever sheds the blood of a human,
by a human shall that person’s blood be shed;
for in his own image God made humankind.

And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.””
(Gen 9:5-7 NRSV)

This is the very first mention of capital punishment in all of Scripture…and it comes at God’s command as a sign of how sacred and valued all human life is to be seen as.

In theory, the death penalty is God’s idea.

However…

I say all of this fully realizing that our society does not uphold the standards by which God originally intended capital punishment to be carried out. Torah ABHORS the idea of false witnesses, lack of eyewitness testimony, and corrupt or inept Judicial systems when it human life is on the line. God Himself takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked”…yet all too often proponents of capital punishment seem to delight in it!

In our society you never hear of rich, famous, or powerful people receiving the death penalty. It is neither consistent or fair in how it is applied. Furthermore, it is “sanitized” so that it becomes nothing more than a “medical procedure” that is done behind closed doors. A “problem” is swept away out of sight of all except a handful of witnesses. This is a far cry from any Biblical concept of capital punishment as having the purpose of acting as a deterrent to a watching society. Capital punishment is a HORRIBLE thing. It is ALWAYS a tragedy. It is NEVER supposed to be cheap, clean, or emotionally-uninvested. I have a feeling if capital punishment (as well as abortion!) were witnessed by more people in society, it would have FAR fewer supporters.

As mentioned before, with the arrival of the New Covenant, things did change in many respects. Thus, I can recognize that Spirit-filled followers of Jesus could oppose capital punishment altogether, and I respect their position. I am somewhat persuaded by the argument that restoration and reconciliation are what we should strive for at all costs.

But unlike many opponents of the death penalty, I cannot outright entirely condemn a practice that God Himself instituted, both before and under the Covenant at Sinai, and I reject sloppy Biblical interpretations that pit Jesus against the Hebrew Scriptures He upheld until His death and saw Himself as bringing to fulfillment. Jesus is “the Word made flesh”…thus we do Him a severe disservice when we suggest that He offers a “more Godly” teaching than what God Himself set forth for His People under the prior Covenant. The Old Testament may contain things that we have a hard time reconciling as Godly and in harmony with the message of Jesus…but Jesus Himself never hinted at having such difficulties Himself. Thus, we must remain very humble in how we approach the Old Testament. It is every bit as Inspired as any New Testament teaching, even the stuff printed in red letters!

In short, I see the purpose–the Biblical and Godly purpose–of the death penalty in a society…but I do not see any society, especially our American one, that practices it in a way that measures up to its intended standards of justice. Therefore, I oppose it in practice under our current system. And until our system is completely reformed, the death penalty is not a valid option.

All other arguments based on logistics, economic concerns or victims’ rights, while they may be compelling in many respects, must take a back seat to the issue of justice for the accused when life and death are at stake.

In cases of the death penalty, we can’t afford to get it wrong.

Yet as history has shown, sadly, we have gotten it wrong time and time again.

I welcome readers’ thoughts in the comments section below. Feel free to share, discuss, challenge or critique me on this. As I said at the outset, I’m not completely settled on the issue. I’m merely voicing where I stand in light of what I find in Scripture and what I see in our society.

JM