Filming on a green screen
I’ve always been a big fan a sci-fi films. One of the coolest things I remember seeing as a kid was how they did all of the special effects for Star Wars. All of the models and stop-motion animation was fascinating! Now, of course, they can do just about anything with a green screen and computers. Green screens allow producers to switch out the background behind the actors and place them in completely different surroundings – anywhere they want.
When we study the Bible, we can have a tendency to switch the background and replace it with our own culture and world-view. Doing this, however, can drastically change the message intended by the writer. Paul’s letter to the Romans, and particularly chapter 7, is a classic example of how we can do this. Many scholars and contemporary preachers view Romans purely as a theological treatise – a systematic unpacking of Paul’s understanding of the gospel. Romans is, of course, a magnificent exposition of the glorious gospel of grace, but it is not only that. It is an introductory letter, written by an apostle to a church struggling with Jewish-Gentile relations whom Paul hoped would help him further his apostolic mission to the Gentiles in Spain.
Paul the Apostle
It is important to remember, that while Paul was a brilliant teacher, he was first and foremost an apostle (1:1). His letter to the Romans must be understood in the context of his active apostolic mission. P.J. Smyth tells us that “apostles are gifted to open up new territory to the gospel”. As an apostle, Paul makes his purpose in writing to the Romans plain when he says, “I hope to visit you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey [to Spain]” (15:24). The assistance he was referring to would surely have been financial.
Resolving Racial Tensions
In order to partner with the church in Rome and have their support on his way to Spain, Paul needed to bring solidarity to this somewhat fractured Jewish-Gentile community. I would go as far as to argue that Paul’s whole treatment of the gospel to the Romans is tailored to challenge this disunity by addressing the Jew’s pride in their religious heritage (who had the Law of God, the Covenants, the Glory, the Temple, Adoption as Sons and the Promises (9:4) while at the same time encouraging the Gentile’s to grateful for what they were receiving through the Jews (as branches that were being grafted into the root (11:17-18). From his opening comments in 1:16 this issue permeates Paul’s entire letter to the church in Rome.
How difficult would it have been for a Jewish believer to hear that the Law was no longer the way to God? (2:29, 3:21, 3:28, 4:13, 5:1, 5:20). What kind of questions would they have had? Would they object? Would they support Paul in his mission?
You see, understanding the tensions of the real backdrop of Romans sets Chapter 7 in a very different light. As an apostle on a mission to the Gentiles in Spain, why did Paul include this chapter addressed ‘to the brothers who know the Law’ (7:1)? If we really take time to consider the answer to this question, then wondering whether the ‘Man of Romans 7’ is a believer or not may begin to become a moot point.
Next week we’ll continue by looking at how understanding Paul’s style of writing can further help us come to a right interpretation of this difficult yet essential portion of Scripture.