Words are funny things. We think we have them nailed down, and “bang” something around the word changes and all of sudden things don’t quite mean what we thought they did – or maybe they still do, but we just don’t use that word for that anymore. You know what I mean (and if you don’t, just wait – you will after 40). Romans 1:16,17 actually has two such words, complicated by a rather tricky use of OT quotation (always a more daunting challenge than we might think at first). Sometimes, I might not be so concerned about the particulars of a brief 2 verse clause – except here it really is important. This passage is more than just a bridge, its the opening bracket of an argument that doesn’t close until the end of chapter 3 (the implications of the argument with respect to Paul’s concern is then fleshed out in Israel’s story in chapter 4, but we’ll preview the argument next post). Suffice it to say, if we don’t begin to grasp what Paul’s getting at to begin his argument, we have little hope of putting the pieces of the next few chapters together in any coherent manner.
Our section contains the first of many references to the principle parties in the church that Paul must deal with – Jew and Greek. Keep in mind, as with most of the Jew/Greek references in this letter, in both cases we are talking about people who have faith in Jesus – these are Christians. The passage begins with “For I am not ashamed of the gospel…” Now, usually when I hear the word ashamed I think of being “red-faced,” or “embarrassed.” And so I imagine Paul encouraging us not to be embarrassed about telling people about Jesus – which is fine and good, only this in not what Paul has in view. Paul is not dealing with being embarrassed, he’s talking about being ashamed – two very different things. In Paul’s Jewish way of looking at things, being ashamed means finding that one’s life is wanting, lacking, empty. Paul is saying something to the effect of “the Gospel has not left my life empty/lacking/wanting,” or “Jesus hasn’t left me high and dry” (or something similar). Quite the contrary! Because, as Paul continues, the Gospel is the power of God for salvation… Far from my life coming up short, the Gospel of God (which is Jesus Christ our Lord) ensures that my life measures up! And while there may ultimately be embarrassment in having one’s life come up short, it is a very different thing than simply being “red in the face” about something. So, again, Paul is not talking about being embarrassed, he’s talking about being ashamed.
Now for the tricky part, verse 17. Read the commentaries and the various translations and you get an idea of just how difficult this verse is, because we go all over the board. I don’t have space or inclination to do a comparative commentary, so here’s life according to Jim. “For in it is the righteousness of God is revealed…” now Paul is thoroughly Jewish and makes more allusions to the OT in Romans than any other letter – nothing else is even close and he is dealing in large part with Jewish concerns. I’m convinced that Paul’s principle concern is not with that which is imparted to us, but with that which is implicit to God himself. The term righteousness of God refers to the faithfulness of God with respect to His covenant promises because that’s how the phrase is used in the Septuagint (Greek OT). This concern is certainly in play considering the plight of the Jews as God’s people by the first century CE. Then there’s this “from/by faith for/to faith” or some similar thing (except for the NIV & NLT which go an entirely different direction – which is odd in light of how/why Habakkuk 2:4 is being quoted in the next breath) – what’s going on here? First off, faith is more than simple mental ascent, its closer to our understanding of trust. Its a relational term that implies ongoing action consistent with that trust. Without corresponding action there is no trust/faith. Because it is relational, faith demands an object in which to trust (it does not stand independent of the person in whom we are placing our faith/trust). We don’t get more faith, our faith grows deeper. So from there, I think Paul’s getting at something to the effect of “from the faithfulness of God (to His covenant promises/people) to/for those who walk in faith (or the faithful).” He then goes on to cite Hab 2:4 – which is not Paul simply going through his mental concordance and randomly picking something that fits. Paul is doing much more than simply citing a text, he’s referencing an entire segment of Israel’s story and using it to help give meaning to the present argument/situation. (By the way, this is how most of the NT writers utilize the OT, sometimes they even connect verses from different passages altogether in a means to draw the two portions of Israel’s story together at a particular point. For a really good resource on the use of the OT in the NT, consider downloading the mp3’s of the semester class lectures on this subject by Rikk Watts, professor of NT studies at Regent College – regentaudio.com). This is how Jewish thinkers worked with their texts at this time, they thought in terms of their story – because God is the same yesterday, today and forever, we understand how He’s working today by considering how He worked in similar instances before. So, why Hab 2:4? Well, where was Israel in the story then (you need to go beyond the passage being cited)? The story being referenced is the fact that God is announcing His plans to judge His covenant people through a more ruthless people – the Babylonians. In light of this, the question became “How can God be faithful to His covenant with His people if he is allowing them to be judged by godless invaders?” The answer? God will make His righteousness known to all by ultimately vindicating those who continue to actively place their trust in Him (the just shall live by faith). God remains faithful to His covenant – not by upholding anyone who simply had the good fortune of being born into the right family (by the flesh) – but by upholding those (from whatever family, by the flesh) who continue in faith (who continue to act in concert with their trust in Him). God’s covenant is with the faithful (those who trust in Him), no matter what family they came from (Jew or Greek). This is where Paul ultimately takes the whole argument that begins here and wraps up a couple chapters later.
I think if we begin our reading of the ensuing argument from this perspective, a lot of stumbling points that arise later find their place nicely, and powerfully, within this context.
Pastor Jim Kushner