(If you prefer, you can download this week’s set of devotions as a PDF below)

Introduction

We are diverging slightly from the Sunday Lectionary readings for the next few weeks. The reason for this is that the Sunday Readings from 14th June to 13th September follow sequentially from Romans Chapter 5 through to Romans Chapter 14. We will slightly modify and extend the lectionary readings so that we reflect on Romans chapters 1 & 2 on 7th June, chapters 3 & 4 on the 14th June, then chapter 5 on the 21st June. On the 28th June we will synchronise again with the Sunday lectionary and follow the Sunday lectionary readings though to the 13th September (Romans 14). I will then extend the Romans readings to preach on the last two chapters on 20th and 27th of September.

Four months reflecting on the one book of the Bible?  If there is a single book in Scripture (apart from the gospels) that can merit such intense scrutiny, it is Romans. At different points in Christian history, understanding Romans has been the engine for significant renewal in the Church. In the fourth century it was reading Romans that led to the conversion of Augustine, who became one of the significant shaping influences of the church in the 5th century. In the 16th century Luther and Calvin were influenced by Romans as they led the Protestant Reformation. So many of these and other leading Christian thinkers wrote commentaries on Romans. Every generation should re-appropriate the book of Romans and see what it says to their age.

I am not a Biblical scholar, just a ‘common-or-garden’ preacher. I come to the book with the questions of someone trying to live and lead in the Christian faith in the early 21st century. I find that some of the great questions of the present day (such as ‘What is the gospel?’, ‘How do the various religions live together?’, ‘How shall we live in conditions of Empire?’, ‘How do church and state relate?’) are directly addressed by Paul in his letter to the Romans. It is well deserving of our reading, reflection and prayer!

Accordingly, the Daily Readings from the lectionary will be reshaped to support this extended engagement with Romans. I will give notes on Romans passage by passage, chapter by chapter. We will retain the Psalm for the day, and where possible, the Old Testament Readings. The New Testament readings will be from Romans and, space permitting, other related readings from the Gospels or other NT writers.

I have re-written the links to take you to the amended readings for the day in bibIegateway.com where you are able to select in the header of the website which translation of the text you prefer. The notes will refer to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). I hope you enjoy this journey in Bible study!

Monday, June 1, 2020Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; Joel 2:18-29; Romans 1:1-7

Pentecost season begins with a selected reading from Psalm 104. A strong theme of Creation emerges this week in Psalms 104 and 8, and in the readings from Job.  Ps 104 and Ps 103 are similar. Both are hymns of an individual (note the use of I / me / my throughout). Psalm 104 is an extended hymn of praise in creation, but the lectionary has selected the latter part of the Psalm. The earlier part of the Psalm (vss 1-23) opens with praise of the God who is above all worlds (vss 1-4), telling of God’s conquest of the primeval flood and establishing of the earth (vss 5-9), springs and brooks (vss 10-12), Yahweh’s rain refreshes the earth (vss 13-18), God brings night and daybreak (vss 19-23).

Vs 24 is a summary statement of the abundance of creation which leads into a brief celebration of God’s creation of the seas (vss. 25-26). Vss 27-30 expresses how all life depends upon the Lord and vss 31-35 are a brief hymnic conclusion.

The power and beauty of nature and God’s goodness in creation shine right through this Psalm. The reason that this Psalm is read in Pentecost is probably vs 30 about sending forth your spirit (Hebrew: breath) to create and renew the earth. Note how modern sensibilities are reflected in the suppression of vs 35a from the reading: announcing the judgement and sweeping away of sinners and the wicked is hardly polite for modern Christians!

Joel 2.18-29 is well known as the source of the quote that Peter uses for his sermon on Pentecost. This is the very first Old Testament text (vss 28-29) that any Christian preacher invokes in the service of the gospel! For that reason alone it deserves to be better known.

The preceding passages of Joel have told of a devastating locust plague (Joel 1.4), also presented through the metaphor of military invasion (Joel 2.1-11). Vss 2.12-17 are a call to conversion and penitence and then comes our reading for today, announcing salvation.  The promise of restoration after agricultural devastation is clear in vs 19.  Is the locust horde the ‘northern army’ referred to vs 20?

What is lovely in our social context is vss 21 and 22 where an oracle of salvation is directed to the hearing of the soil (!) and the animals of the field.  In vss 23-27 the people are addressed in words of comfort and salvation appropriate to those recovering from social and agricultural devastation.

The announcement that God will pour out my spirit on all flesh follows in vs 28-29.

Romans 1.1-7 is the opening section of the book of Romans. The common form of biblical epistles or letters is almost like a modern inter-office memo:-

From:  Name, and position held

To: Addressee, location, description of these persons

Salutation:  Word of greeting

Missing from the ancient epistle is the Memo heading of Subject: (we have to work that out for ourselves from the context and language of the document!) but there are one or sometimes two extra elements at the beginning of the letter – a thanksgiving and sometimes a blessing.

Here we have the ‘From:’ line extending from vss 1-6 and both the ‘To:’ line and the ‘Salutation’ in vs 7.

The From: is the longest in any of Paul’s letters and has been carefully structured. Paul describes himself as a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God (vs 1). Note that he doesn’t emphasise his apostolate but opens with servant of Jesus Christ with the rather humble called to be an apostle before saying set apart for the gospel of God. The phrase ‘gospel of God’ occurs 7 times in the NT: twice in Romans, once in 2nd Corinthians, three times in 1 Thessalonians and once in 1 Peter.

Paul then takes a detour to say some things about this ‘gospel of God’, the main points of which are:-

  • promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, (vs 2)
  • the gospel concerning his Son (vs 3a)
  • who was descended from David according to the flesh (vs 3b)
  • and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness (4a)
  • by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, (vs 4b)
  • through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name (vs 5)
  • including yourselves who are called to belong to Christ Jesus (vs 6).

All of this is included in expressing just who is writing the letter! Right from the outset Paul is asserting his authority and grounding some of the essential themes of what is to follow. His message is anchored in the prophets and the Scriptures (vs 2) and it relates to the gospel of the Son (vss 3a, 4a) and his resurrection (4b), to whom you also are called to belong (vs 6).

An interesting construction is vss 3b and 4a where there is a contrast between Jesus’ descent from David according to the flesh and his being declared to be the Son of God according to the spirit of holiness. There is no sense here of the eternally co-existent Logos of the opening of John’s gospel. Some have seen here an almost ‘adoptionist Christology’ where Jesus is just a human being who was ‘adopted by God’ at some point in his earthly life. This is an interesting overtone, especially given the specific mention of ‘waiting for our adoption’ in Romans 8.23. What is clear from the earliest parts of Romans is that Paul is wanting to straddle the divide of Jews and Gentiles (… to the Jew first and also to the Greek… 1.16). This double pedigree of Jesus descended from David according to the flesh (the Jewish connection) and declared Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness is not about dividing Jesus or setting his human pedigree against his divine nature. It is about Jews and Gentiles finding their point of connection and unity in a multi-faceted understanding of the richness of who Jesus was. Paul is making this plain before he’s even finished introducing himself!

The To: line is deceptively simple: To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints. This is clear and direct and allows no room for whatever diverse identities may be within the Roman Christian community. There are only two things that define you: you are God’s beloved, and you are called to be saints.

What follows is the Salutation: which is again simple and direct. Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

By the time this opening has concluded a great deal of territory has been staked out. In ‘addressing the envelope’ of this letter Paul has managed to mention God (4x), Father, Son (2x), Lord (2x), Christ (4x), and Jesus (4x). He has carefully stated (but humbly not overstated) his authority as servant, apostle (mentioned twice!) and ‘one set apart’. The twofold statement of Jesus’ nature is an interesting piece of theologising to have placed ‘right up front’ and having made this complex and impressive opening he then uses a simple and safe salutation.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; Ezekiel 39:7-8, 21-29; Romans 1:8-15

For the Psalm, see Monday.

The Ezekiel reading has been chosen to follow Joel (I suspect) because of vs 29, when I pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord God. Ezekiel is written into the situation of Exile (see vss 23, 27, 28). What is here announced is that going into captivity or exile was the punishment of the Lord because of the nation’s sin (vss 21, 23-24) and that the time has come for God to restore the nation’s fortunes (vss. 25-29)

Romans 1.8-15: After the opening address and salutation, Biblical letters usually have a form of thanksgiving and sometimes blessing. In modern times we usually just use ‘Dear….’, unless of course we are writing to thank someone, or butter them up so we can ask something of them, or are so desperately in love that we have to sing their praises, and the writer’s devotion, for the next page and a half! (Does anyone write love-letters anymore or has the text message – with emoji’s – supplanted them?)

Paul starts with a thanksgiving that their faith is proclaimed throughout the world vs 8. This may have been subtle flattery (always wise when addressing people in centres of empire) but he goes on to assert his unceasing prayers for them (vs 9). Note here that he again describes himself as a servant. That he has been wanting to come to them for some time is clear (see vss 10, 11, 13, 15) but he very careful in how he describes his purpose which is to share some spiritual gift to strengthen you before immediately softening that to so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine (vs 12). 

In closing Paul describes his indebtedness to both Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. Is he describing here (wise/foolish) some factional labels within the Roman church or is this echoing the argument of 1 Cor 1.18ff? He closes with his declared eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome (vs 15).  This declaration summarises what he has been saying in the preceding verses, but it also sets the stage for the beginning of his argument in the following verses.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; Numbers 11:24-30; Romans 1.16-32

For the Psalm, see Monday.

The Numbers reading continues the theme of the Lord ‘pouring out the spirit’ on the people (vs 29). What is interesting here is the notion of ‘spirit’ as some kind of substance that can be ‘taken off’ Moses and put on other people (vs 25). The presence of prophecy as a sign of the spirit’s presence (vs 25) occurs in various parts of the Old Testament. That such a sign can be a one-off experience has informed some views of Pentecost that ‘speaking in tongues’ was a limited sign and not a usual experience for the people of God.

The story of Eldad and Medad reflects issues around authorisation of religious experience and activity (vss 26-29). These men were among those registered to be part of the new leadership group (see vss. 16-23 for the story of the Lord taking initiative to broaden the leadership group of Israel and lift some of the burden on Moses). However, they had not gone out with the other elders to meet the Lord and receive the spirit. Moses affirmed their experience and action (vs 29). We see similar issues emerging among the disciples in the time of Jesus (see Mark 9.38-41).

Romans 1.16-31 is a long and densely constructed passage that opens with a summary statement (vs 16-17) that really stands as a ‘heading’ over the whole book of Romans, followed by an analysis of the sinfulness of humankind that sets the scene for the argument of the following chapters.

Vss 16-17 is the summary statement to which we can come back time and again as we grapple with the meaning of Romans. This is the theme, and the concepts named here will be unpacked in the chapters to come.

Paul opens with the statement For I am not ashamed of the gospel. How should we interpret this?  Is Paul using litotes (an ironic form of stressing his pride in the gospel) here? Or is the proper emphasis in reading the text ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel’, with the implication that some people are ashamed of the gospel – or perhaps think we should be ashamed. This is a key interpretive issue. My view (which I will present in next Sunday’s sermon) is that, taken together with the questions expressly asked in Rom 2.4, and implied in Rom 3.26, a perfectly sound reading of Romans is that serious questions are being asked whether the gospel is really ‘good news’, or a shameful, scandalous message that no moral or fair person could accept.

Paul then states the essence of his view of what the gospel is: it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” (vs 16b-17). As a formula, this is tightly woven and introduces a number of key concepts that will be expounded and explored in chapters to come. These key concepts include 

  • ‘everyone who has faith’, 
  • ‘the righteousness of God’, 
  • ‘the Jew/ the Greek’, 
  • ‘faith’ (as a concept) and 
  • ‘the righteous living by faith’. 

Every one of these concepts is laden in our good Christian minds with assumptions and understandings that a lifetime of listening to evangelical preaching has stored up in us. Part of the task of understanding Romans is to critique these inherited understandings and see whether an alternative reading of the text is possible. Again, we will have to hammer out our understanding of these concepts as we explore future chapters, coming back time and again to ‘test’ our reading of these 2 key verses.

If this reading is correct, Paul’s purpose in Romans is to explain and defend the gospel against a background of serious and sustained critique.

Paul then outlines a theology of human sinfulness, and how all human beings are sinners. This passage is celebrated by some as the clearest condemnation of same-sex relationships (vss. 26-27) in the New Testament. I believe this is a fundamental misreading of the text. Paul opens with The wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and wickedness… (vs 18) and then proceeds to analyse human sinfulness in four sections. This is one of those times when the gaps or spaces in the text (between vss 23/24, 25/26, 27/28 – NRSV) are a helpful and accurate guide to the logic and grammar of Paul’s argument.

The first section (vss 19-23) is a general statement of human waywardness, grounded in a form of natural law theory that God’s greatness and goodness are evident in nature, so no human being has excuse for not acknowledging God. The basis of our waywardness is found in idolatry, futility and senselessness. This is the most general level of his argument.

He then applies and develops this general principle is three succeeding sections, each of which begins with the formula therefore/for this reason/and so …. God gave them up to… The parallelism of this structure is quite clear and there is a new beginning in each of vss 24, 26, 28.

The first of these three sections names the sin of human beings as the lusts of their hearts and the degrading of their bodies (vs 24). Vs 25 grounds this failing in the practice of idolatry. Note that this section says nothing at all about same sex relationships!! This is a general critique of human lust and bodily degradation, shared (or potentially shared) by all human persons.  The little paragraph space in the NRSV text between vss 25 and 26 is so important to observe here – especially for those who are quick to blame those terrible gay people for their sinfulness. Sorry guys, vss 24-25 seem to apply to all of us in a general way, or, if it is only some of us in view, it is certainly not just gay people that these verses are describing.

That comes in the second of the three sections (vss 26-27). This appears pretty clear – except that vs 26b might refer to lesbianism, but also might not. What does exchanging natural intercourse for unnatural mean? Is this done with men? Or with women? Vs 27 seems clearer (men with men).  Again, we cannot know what received in their own persons the due penalty for their error might mean. At the height of the AIDS crisis many critics bandied this phrase about, but that cannot have been Paul’s meaning. Did he refer to some form of humiliation or shame? Whatever our questions, Paul here clearly presents (some) same-sex relationships as sinful behaviour.

The third section presents a wide range of sins and sinners (vss 29-31), similarly ‘given up’ by God to a debased mind and to things that should not be done (vs 28). The list is fascinating, including gossip and foolishness, disobedience to parents, being haughty or boastful, or envious. God’s decree? That all such persons deserve to die! Is it just me, or does Paul here sound just a little ‘over the top’? 

Whatever your feeling on that point, Paul has undoubtedly argues that ALL human beings are sinful and stand under the judgement of God. Far from highlighting the particular sinfulness of gay people, Paul enlists them as a popular example of sinner (all good religious people agree about that!!) before throwing the net as wide as he can with his last catalogue of sins. All of this is laying the foundations for the dramatic argument that opens chapter 2.

Thursday, June 4, 2020Psalm 8; Job 38:1-11; Romans 2:1-10

Psalm 8 has been one of my favourite Psalms since I was a child. Having been brought up on Australian ballads (…where he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended/ and at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars…) and appreciating the beauty of nature, this Psalm has a great beauty and power of expression which always moves me.

Psalm 8 is a praise song of an individual. The structure has an opening and closing refrain that is largely the same, (vss 1, 9)  except that (unusually) the second half of the opening refrain (you have set your glory above the heavens) is not repeated in the ending – possibly because the focus of the Psalm appears to be humankind and the ordering of the earthly creation rather than the heavens. This refrain may have been intoned by the whole community whereas a lone cantor spoke vss 2-8.

The setting of the psalm may well have been a night ritual of some kind (cf. Ps 134, Is 30.29 ff, 1 Chron 9.33). Anyone who has spent time in the rural regions of poorer countries without electricity will know how the night brings deep darkness to such societies – with the exception of full moon nights. This is why many Buddhist countries in Asia have a monthly night worship festival that coincides with the full moon. Within Israelite society there appear to have been minimal night festivals. Compare that with our own societies where in the 19th and twentieth centuries evening services became common – although the Protestant night ‘gospel service’ has diminished in recent times.

The voice of the Psalm is framed first and last in the second person (you / your – vss. 1-2, 5-9) with a first person voice in vs 3 – leading into the critical verse which expresses the overarching theme of the psalm – vs 4 – what are human beings that you are mindful of them?

Vs 2 is unique in all the Old Testament – there is no other text that expresses a similar theme. What is the bulwark that is founded out of the mouths of babes and infants? One possible interpretation of this verses is that if there were a night setting for a cultic ritual, children may have played a role in the event. This verse is quoted by Jesus in Mt 21.16 at the end of the day of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

Vss 3-8 echo the creation story of Genesis 1, (especially the creation of humankind and the granting of ‘dominion’ over creation to humankind). Vs 3 evokes the setting and the sense of wonder that viewing the night heavens creates in a person, before the artful segue into the main theme of the psalm – the place of human beings in the created order (vs 4).

This is explored in vss 5-7. What is interesting here is the distinction made between sheep and cattle (vs 7a) and the beasts of the field, birds and fish and whatever passes along the paths of the sea (vss 7b-8) – a distinction between the animals of domestic farming and the realm of the wild. In the Genesis account there is mention of cattle in the intra-divine dialogue about the creation of humanity (Gen 1.26) but not in the commission given to humanity by the voice of God (Gen 1.28). The Psalm recognises a distinction between the realm of ‘farmed/husbanded’ nature and wild nature.

The creation stories of Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 arose in a world of scattered nomads and primitive societies with limited technology. Despite the poetic and powerful evocation of the beauty of the night sky and humankind’s exalted place within the ordering of creation – poetry we can and should savour and celebrate – can we blithely accept the teaching this Psalm in a world where human technology and lifestyle is threatening the existence of the rest of creation? It is not just the living elements of creation (the plants and animals – the biosphere), but the very foundations of creation in oceans and atmosphere (the geosphere) than are at risk. Can we read Genesis 1 without remembering Genesis 2 and 3, let alone Genesis 11?  Can we sing Psalm 8 without also singing Psalm 51 at the same time?

Job 38.1-11 begins the wonderful answer of God to Job’s repeated requests for a chance to argue things out with God – Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind… Since chapters 1 and 2 of the book when Job was struck with disease, disaster and distress out of a clear blue sky, he has badgered God for an explanation and a chance to present his own defence. His friends have spent 33 chapters trying to talk him out of it, but Job wants ‘his day in court’ and finally, in chapter 38, he gets it!

The Lord’s answer to Job is to make Job to reflect on the knowledge and power than the Lord has shown in creation. After accepting Job’s challenge (vs 2-3) the Lord asks Job what he knows about the foundation of the earth and how it was established (vss 4-7) and then about the sea and how its limits were set (vss 8-11).

Romans 2.1-10 is the sequel to Paul’s careful analysis of human sinfulness in chapter 1. After listing three different kinds of sinners in chapter 1, chapter 2 opens with the emphatic Therefore ….  All I have written in chapter 1 feeds into this conclusion: you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. ‘Whoever you are’ (rather inclusive), you have no right to judge other people because, as I have just shown you, you are doing the very same things (that is – you fall somewhere in those groups I described). Far from picking out gays, or idolators, or murderers, for particular opprobrium, Paul has swept us all into the same basket and said – you have no basis for judging others.

The first defence of those who love to judge is then trotted out: “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” (vs 2) In other words, “You can’t criticise us or stop us from judging others – it’s in the Bible!’

Vss 3-4 are Paul’s answer to this. He argues that they may be right, but if God is going to judge the others, won’t God also judge you? (vs 3) He then asks a question that I find quite devastating: Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience (vs 4a)?  Asked slightly differently this question is ‘Are you so in love with judgment that you despise the grace of God?’  

For all those who have ‘moral concerns’ about other people and their acceptability before God this is an incisive and unsettling question. It is THE question that anybody who condemns gay people should to pose for themselves. Vs 4b takes it further: isn’t God’s kindness meant to lead US to repentance, not give us cause to rail against and condemn other people?

Vss 5 and 6 focus on the consequence of this judgemental attitude – that you are storing up wrath for yourself, and reinforcing the key point For he will repay according to each one’s deeds…

The deeds that form the raw material of God’s judgement are not specific moral judgements or laws, or values but patiently doing good [in order to] seek for glory and honour and immortality (vs 7) for those who are rewarded with eternal life. An adverse judgment awaits those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness (vs 8). Note the rebuke here of those who claim that their judgmental attitude is in accordance with truth (vs 2).

Vss 9 and 10 bring this calculus of divine judgement back into the key framing of Romans 1.16b – the Jew first, and also the Greek. This framing is central to Romans. Judgement belongs to God, not to humankind. God will exercise that judgement not according to the minutiae of moral rules and laws but in view of honour and goodness and glory on the one hand, and self-seeking, ignoring of ‘the truth’, and wickedness on the other. Judgement will be in an even-handed way treating Jew (first) and Greek with complete impartiality.

Friday, June 5, 2020Psalm 8; Job 38:12-21; Romans 2:11-16

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Job 38 continues with God demanding of Job his knowledge of the mechanics of the opening day (vs 12-15). The poetry here, as in so much of Job, is beautiful: the morning ‘taking hold of the skirts of the earth’ so that the wicked shall be shaken out of it (vs 13). Daylight stamps the earth like a seal on soft wax, like a dye transforming a garment (vs 14). Vs 15 is an interesting metaphor – day-time withholds light from the wicked and breaks their uplifted arm.

It is worth reminding ourselves of the essential structure of Hebrew poetry and it’s basic form of the couplet – two successive lines (usually a single verse) where there is a parallelism of theme between the first and the second lines of the couplet. Sometimes the second line repeats the theme of the first (synonymous parallelism), sometimes it expresses to opposite idea (antithetical parallelism) sometimes it develops the first line further.

Vss 16-18 take us back into the sea. Whereas vss 8-11 dealt with setting the limits and bounds of the sea, these verse invite Job to ‘wander in the depths’, of the sea, of the experience of death, of the broad expanse of the earth.

Vss 19-20 invite Job to share his knowledge of the mysteries of light and darkness, where they come from, how they led out from, and back to, their home.

From vs 21 I take great comfort. A lovely Christian lady I know well – a truly good person – says that sarcasm has no place in a Christian’s life and mind. I can be very sarcastic, and I often feel guilty about it, and I suspect she is right. But here, in this verse, the Lord lays on the sarcasm with a trowel: perhaps there is hope for me yet?

Romans 2.11-16 opens with a statement that reinforces what has just been said in vss 9-10: For God shows no partiality.  This is a key statement and a major theme of chapters 3 and 4. Buried deep in chapter 3 is a related statement: it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous … (3.26). God had something to prove? God had to prove that he is righteous (as in fair, just, impartial…)?  You can see this undercurrent running through the book. Having despatched the human tendency to judge others in 2.1-10, Paul now turns to ‘defending’ (or explaining?) how God’s judgement works. His argument is very logical. Those who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law and those who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law (vs 12) – perfectly symmetrical and even-handed. 

Then comes a vital point in the argument: it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. (vs 13)

This means that the obverse of vs 12 has a marked asymmetry! Where a Gentile does what the law requires they are a law to themselves (vs 14). Please note that Paul’s use of this phrase is the opposite of what we mean when we say someone is ‘a law to themselves’: we mean they are renegade, lawless!  

In vss 15-16, this is expanded in the concepts of a law written on their hearts, and the witness of their own conscience which will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. (vs 16)

This is pretty strong stuff. No claiming of the name of Jesus. No being part of the people of God. Just the Gentile whose conscience may perhaps excuse them on the day of God’s judgement, exercised through Jesus Christ (vs 16).

As a young student minister I got into a great deal of trouble over this verse. I refused to say to some forceful questioners in my congregation that ALL Buddhists and ALL Muslims were destined for Hell. I quoted this passage in my defence, arguing that even St Paul was willing to admit that conscience might excuse someone who had never heard the name of Jesus or studied his teaching. At the very least, I wanted to leave the decision to the Lord himself as to whether any of those billions of people might be allowed into heaven. I didn’t feel it was really appropriate for me to declare what the Lord should or should not do! Alas, my questioners formed the definite view that I was utterly unfit for the Christian ministry and I went into the final Baptist Assembly vote to approve my ordination unsure whether there would be a dissenting speech in the Assembly exposing my snivelling weakness on this vital theological point!

Saturday, June 6, 2020Psalm 8; Job 38:22-38; Romans 2.17-29

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Ah, the glories of Job. By now, the Lord is on a roll! He asks Job about the storehouses of the snow and the hail (vs 22) and how the light is distributed (vs 24). 

Vss 25-27 ask about the mechanics of rain and the thunderbolt, and God’s profligacy in sending rain into the desert where no-one lives (vs 26), to satisfy the waste and desolate land (vs 27). Here is an important point for the theology of the environment – God’s ways care for the waste and desolate lands, not just the ones that human beings value and live from!


Vss 28-30 ask Job more about the mysteries of the rain, the frost and the ice on mid-winter waters. Vs 28 runs directly counter to the theology of the fertility gods where the rain is precisely understood as the blessing and ‘seed’ of a ‘fatherly’ heavenly being.

With dizzying rapidity, vss 31-33 then take Job into the heights of the heavens and asks whether he can order the constellations of the stars, or establish their rule on the earth, a reference to the idea that the stars govern our lives and destinies (still with us as the practice of astrology).

Vss 34-38 are somewhat more complex. The opening line asks if Job can command the clouds (lift up your voice to the clouds) to send down a flood. Can he send forth lightning (with the rather charming detail of the thunderbolts lining up and saying to Job ‘Here we are’)? With another lightning fast (ba-boom!) transition, the Lord takes him into the intricacies of the mind and human wisdom and consciousness.

Vs 37 is delightful: the Lord weaves together the speaking to the clouds and flooding rains motifs of vs 34 with the mind and wisdom motifs of vs 36: Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? / Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,

In this whole passage (vss 22-38) the Lord has lifted up Job’s eyes to the snow and the hail and the rain, and the mystery of light, and then the stars and the constellations and back to the clouds and the lightning and the mysteries of the human mind – and can that mind do something as ‘simple’ as even numbering the clouds?

This beautiful synthesis of all this mysterious natural wonder at work in the weather (that the Lord is making plain Job doesn’t have a clue about) then congeals around Job’s feet:-

when the dust runs into a mass
    and the clods cling together?  (vs 38)

Romans 2.17-29 addresses directly those who pride themselves on their Jewish heritage and value their relationship to God and to the law. It falls into two main parts.

Vss 17-24 stresses the law. Vss 17-20 tease out the self-understanding of the skilled practitioner of the law. The hinge of the argument is vs 21 – you that teach others, will you not teach yourself? The assumption of vss 21b to 23 is that a teacher is a hypocrite, committing the sins against which he is teaching. Here Paul is re-asserting the point of vs 13 – that it is not the hearing (or the teaching!) of the law which matters, but the doing of the law. Commentator Brendan Byrne says of this passage:-

Within an established rhetorical pattern, he is attempting to drive home the point that possession of the law has not prevented Jews from failing to abide by its key moral precepts as formulated in the Decalogue (Byrne, 1996, 98)

The passage ends with the statement that such failure to perform the doing of the law leads to the Gentiles blaspheming the name God because of you (vs 24).

Vss 25-29 deal not with ‘the law’ as such but with circumcision, the sign of the covenant between God and God’s people. Again, the contrast is made between circumcision being not an outward sign but something embodied in the keeping of the law. The clearest statement of Paul’s thesis is vs 27 where the physically uncircumcised who keep the requirements of the law will condemn you that have both the written code and circumcision but break the law.

The possessing of the law, and the status of the circumcised, mean nothing in the eyes of God: what matters is the doing of the law. In the final verse Paul redefines Jewish identity as matter of the heart, an inward, spiritual reality.

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