St. Paul mosaic

Studying Romans 5 1-11

Maybe if more people knew how precious they are to God, people would be happier, and the world would be different. We are studying Romans 5:1-11 for Sunday, July 25, and I hope it will be impossible for any of us to read this text without coming away with an even deeper sense than we already have of how precious people – we – are to God. We’ll see. Here are my notes on this text:
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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is our third in a series of four lessons on Romans, Paul’s letter to the church in Rome in the late 50s CE. We’re already familiar with the particular history of that church, its “mixed membership” of Jewish and gentile Christians, some of the issues they would have been facing at that time, and Paul’s own relationship to the members of that church. [If “members” is the right word – surely in those days there were no member rolls or annual statistical reports.]

We are a bit further on in Paul’s theological argument for how his audience ought to think about their relationship to God through Jesus Christ, and what that means for their relationship to “Israel” and for their day-to-day lives. Last week we read part of chapter 4’s demonstration that Abraham, thought of as a genealogical ancestor of Israel, is a spiritual ancestor and model for all who trust God’s promises.

In the same way that Abraham “believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,”

It [faith] will be reckoned to us [as righteousness] who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

Romans 4:24-25

Having established that, then, in chapter 5 Paul begins to draw out some of the implications of the universal significance of this faith that will be reckoned to Christian believers as righteousness. This elaboration of the implications is where we pick up the argument this week.

This discussion will then lead into a comparison of Adam and Jesus, followed by a more detailed discussion of what this means for “our” [we typically read, “Christians’”] relationship to sin.

This entire text is the lectionary’s epistle for the Third Sunday in Lent year A, opposite Exodus 17:1-7 [Moses gets water from the rock] and John 4 [the woman at the well]. But parts of it show up as well on the Third Sunday after Pentecost year A (Romans 5:1-8), and on Trinity Sunday year C (Romans 5:1-5). Regular churchgoers will likely have heard it in church sometime.
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CLOSER READING: There are some difficult text and translation issues in verses 1 & 2. One is how to translate “we have been justified / made righteous,” which came up last week; this comes up again in verse 9.

Another is whether “we have peace with God” or ought to, as in “let us have peace with God.” This depends on which ancient Greek text the translators choose to honor. Those two statements do strike us as different. But it might be worth thinking about why, and what the practical significance of that difference would be.

Then there is the question of whether or not we should rely on the “ancient authorities” who include “by faith” in verse 2, to read “through whom we have had access [by faith] to this grace in which we stand.”

[And as a grammatical aside, it seems to me people can make an awful lot out of that English pronoun “by,” which appears to be more implied than stated even if we do go with those particular ancient authorities. There’s no pronoun in the text, just a dative case noun, which implies some pronoun. So it appears to me – major caveat – that it would be about as accurate to translate that phrase as “through whom we have had access [by, in, of, on, with faith] into this grace …” Again, how much practical difference this makes may be debatable. The point seems to be that the faith may be an ingredient of the access.]

The consequence of this is that either “we exult / boast” or we need to, so “let us exult / boast” in hope.

That verb “exult / boast” repeats three times in this passage – again in v3, and again in v11. It makes this passage a complex rhetorical unit: a bunch of things we “boast” or “exult” in, the last of which is “God” in v11.

This is easy to miss, because of the long explanation of why we have the hope in which we boast, which takes up verses 6-10. It could be a good exercise to read verses 1-5 and skip right to 11, and then go back and read 5-10.

The verb is used in the New Testament almost exclusively by Paul, by the way. It seems to convey an image of standing with your head held high – “loud and proud” we might say.

As to what we boast or exult in or about, the “sufferings” of the NRSV might be “tribulations” or “afflictions” – it’s a word with the sense of being pressed or squeezed. The “endurance” those things make for is sometimes translated “patience” or “perseverance.” Staying the course. The “character” that follows in turn is sometimes translated “approval” or “probation” or some word that indicates having passed a test. We might think of having been “quality-tested” and having received a high rating. This character or approval or test-passing in its turn leads to hope.

This is something to think about: there’s a process, in which steadfast and patient endurance of difficult circumstances leads to a kind of certification which underwrites confident hope.

A hope which does not shame or disgrace or humiliate us. I attended a lecture several years ago at which the lecturer explained that hope was considered an inferior trait in the ancient world, as it was based on nothing, was nothing more than wishful thinking. Assuming that’s true, that sentiment might explain this statement, which probably seems a little odd to us. It might also explain why Paul felt the need to insert the next 5 1/2 verses, which seem intended to convince us that this hope is not based on nothing.

The love of God – we think, that is, God’s love – has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit – that is, the Holy Spirit here appears as the channel for the outpouring of God’s love. The Holy Spirit has been given to us.

Then, the next sentence comes as an explanation of that: “for.” The Holy Spirit has been given to us because while we were still weak, according to the time being right, Christ died for the ungodly (the impious, the ones who don’t do right when it comes to rites and relationships).

Verse 7 might be a reference to a saying that nowadays we would find in the Mishnah, in the “Chapters of the Fathers,” about the four kinds of people. If it is, it would be making the first kind of person out to be “just” or “righteous” – but clearly in a kind of technical or economically rational or we might even venture to say “legalistic” sense. While the third kind of person, a “good” person, someone might die for. That’s assuming Paul and some of his audience would have been familiar with this part of the Mishnah, which might be reasonable. [This thought came from Jim West, Romans for the Person in the Pew, 55-56.]

It’s certainly the best explanation of this verse I’ve ever heard. Because the statement itself is obviously false. People die for other people who are not good, or just, or righteous all the time. Soldiers do it, primarily. But we could think of other dramatic scenarios, too; usually they involve love. Everyone in that audience would have known that. Surely.

So verse 8. God proves or demonstrates love that belongs to God and is directed towards us, because “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Just spend plenty of time thinking about this verse, and keep coming back to it. We do not even comprehend how precious we are to God, how beloved we are.

Verses 9 and 10 depend a lot on the verb reconcile and the noun reconciliation, which appear all together 10 times in the Bible, all of them in letters of Paul’s, three of them here in these two verses. If we were reconciled to God by Christ’s death, how much more will we be saved in his life.

So: we are boasting / exulting / standing with our heads held high in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have received this reconciliation.

My take on this: If we know God as good, by which we mean loving and accepting and merciful and all of that, and so as more lovable than terrifying, we know it because of the reconciliation – the peace agreement, as it were – negotiated for us through the mediation of Jesus Christ.

There are not enough words in language for it.
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Saint Paul writing

Images: “Saint Paul mosaic,” by Enfo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Saint Paul Writing His Epistles,” Valentin de Boulogne, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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