Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (the short version)

I shared this with my subscribers in May of 2021, but now I’m making it available here for everyone.

Romans Is Pro-Torah

Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is among the most pro-Torah books of the entire New Testament, but it is commonly taught as if it’s one of the most anti-Torah!

Many people understand Romans 14 to say that all of God’s instructions concerning clean and unclean meat and the weekly Sabbath are no longer relevant to the Christian. They say that those who still cling to such distinctions are “weak in faith” because they aren’t trusting in Yeshua’s death and resurrection to fulfill all of the requirements of the Law. They make a point, in direct contradiction to Paul’s instructions according to their own understanding, of berating any brother who disagrees, shaming them, and even banishing them from their fellowships.

This chapter is almost always taken as a complete literary unit that stands on its own without reference to the surrounding text, to the rest of Scripture, or to historical context. In that light (or lack of light), it’s easy to make any passage say something contrary to its intended meaning. But after reading thirteen chapters of Paul repeatedly tell his readers that keeping the Law is a good thing–avoid sin, uphold the Law, live righteously, obey the commandments, etc.–does it really make sense that he would suddenly switch tack and say the exact opposite?

Since Paul didn’t write anything in this letter about pork or rodents, but he did write about vegetarianism, it makes much more sense to assume he is addressing eating meat versus eating only vegetables. And since he made no mention of the Sabbath or any other of God’s appointed days, doesn’t it make more sense that “one person esteems one day as better than another” in the middle of a conversation about food is about which days of the week are best for fasting?

To many readers today, that seems like a silly argument–and it is!–but it was a serious controversy in the first century, and Christians were still debating it decades later when the Didache was written. Some religious groups fasted on one day of the week and some on another. This Christian fasted on Thursday so that people wouldn’t think he was part of that new cult from Persia, while that Christian fasted on Wednesday so people wouldn’t think he was a Jew. When you could be ostracized, beaten, or even killed for being associated with the wrong religion, your choice of a fasting day becomes a much bigger issue than it might seem in today’s America.

Did this ever come up as a possible explanation for Romans 14 at Wednesday night Bible study? Probably not.

Romans, Chapter by Chapter

In order to get a more accurate understanding of what Paul was trying to communicate, I have written this brief survey of the book, with short summaries of each chapter.

The next time you read Romans, refer back to this survey to keep each chapter in the context of the whole letter, and I hope it will aid you in understanding some difficult texts and in refuting the antinomian lies we have all inherited and even internalized to some extent.

Chapter 1 – The righteous live by faith, but the unrighteous ignore the Law of God and their own consciences in order to do what they please. By consistently behaving contrary to what they know to be right, they eventually destroy their ability to make that distinction at all and earn the enmity of God and the condemnation of his Law.

Chapter 2 – God is just to condemn those who behave wickedly and to rescue those who behave righteously regardless of their ethnic origins. It isn’t enough to say the right things, you must also do them. All those who obey God out of love and faith are living up to the name of Yehudah (meaning “praised”), whether they are born into Israel or not.

Chapter 3 – The Jews have a great advantage in that they have inherited the Scriptures, but everyone is accountable to God for his own sin, and everyone sins. Fortunately, we are not made right with God by the merit of our works, but by our faith in the redemption purchased by Yeshua (Jesus). We don’t obey God’s Law in order to earn salvation, but because we have faith in him.

Chapter 4 – The covenant of salvation was given to Abraham for his faith, not for his obedience. Circumcision is not a condition of the covenant, but a sign of it, and his heirs also receive the covenant without regard to their prior obedience. If the covenant depended on obedience, we would all be lost, and now we too can inherit Abraham’s covenant through our faith in God.

Chapter 5 – Yeshua’s death enabled our reconciliation with God. The world was condemned by the sin of one man and saved by the obedience of Yeshua. The Law magnifies our individual sins, but it also magnifies the grace of God which rescued us from death earned by sin to eternal life earned by his righteousness.

Chapter 6 – Through his death, Yeshua rescued us from the eternal death we deserved because of our sins. The only appropriate response is to repent from all sin and live according to God’s Law. If we go on living in sin, we will be enslaved again to it. He set us free from slavery to sin in order to become slaves of righteousness to God. We obey God’s Law in response to his free gift of eternal life.

Chapter 7 – Through the physical death of Messiah, we died spiritually to the condemnation of the Law. Through his resurrection, we are enabled to live and bear fruit in righteousness. The Law defines sin, but our old sinful natures gravitate to that which is opposed to God, turning the Law that was meant for life into death through our disobedience. The Law does not bring death, but our violation of the Law does. Even while we believe in God and long to obey him in our hearts, a part of us is always in rebellion, drawing us back into slavery to sin.

Chapter 8 – Yeshua released us from the condemnation we deserved, enabling the Spirit of God to live in us, manifesting in a mind focused on the Spirit and living righteously rather than on the flesh and living according to its sinful desires. The flesh constantly pulls us back, but we have been made children of God and only have to cry out to him. His Spirit helps us and intercedes for us, gradually transforming us to be more like Yeshua through our trials and conflicts. We may suffer all kinds of external trials, but none of these things can ever separate us from the Love of God.

Chapter 9 – God’s promises to Israel are certain, but not all who are descended from Israel are counted as Israel. Believing gentiles are counted by God as his people, and only a remnant of natural Israel will be saved. Those Israelites who tried to earn their salvation through the Law will lose it because they didn’t obey through faith.

Chapter 10 – Messiah is the goal of obedience to the Law for all who obey in faith. The Law promotes a better life, but it is only through faith and submission to Yeshua that we are truly saved. The natural descendants of Israel can’t appeal to ignorance because all of Scripture points to Yeshua.

Chapter 11 – God has not rejected natural Israel. He will always preserve a remnant of those who believe in him rather than in their own obedience. Some natural branches of the tree of Israel have been cut off and believing gentiles have been grafted in, but God can as easily cut off those gentiles again and graft the natural back in. The whole tree of Israel will be saved by this process of cutting out the bad and grafting in the good, but God’s promises to the descendants of Israel can never be revoked, and he will forgive those who repent. We have all sinned and God shows mercy to us all equally.

Chapter 12 – God showed mercy to forgive your sins, so don’t live as if you’re still part of the world. Don’t be proud in your salvation or in the spiritual gifts that God has given. We are all one body and we are all important to its health and function. Work for each other’s good. Live in harmony with everyone as much as possible with humility and without prejudice. Respond to animosity with kindness, forbearance, and honor.

Chapter 13 – Submit to whatever authorities are over you where you are and give them the respect and honor due their position. All of God’s Law can be summarized in the single commandment, love your neighbor as yourself. We are living in dark days, so live in the light, by living in obedience to God’s commandments and showing love to each other. Live like Yeshua lived rather than giving into the sinful desires of your flesh.

Chapter 14 – Welcome those whose faith is not as strong as yours and don’t berate them for their weaknesses. Don’t get caught up in worthless arguments over whether to eat meat or be a vegetarian and on what day to fast completely. Live according to your own consciences, not condemning each other for differences of opinion. Our lives are no longer our own, but we all live and die for the sake of God. None of us are perfect, and we will all answer for our own failings. Be considerate of each other’s opinions and don’t tempt or offend a brother contrary to his conscience. Food and drink are relatively minor issues in the Kingdom of God. It’s not a sin to eat meat or drink wine, but don’t do it if it creates a problem for a brother.

Chapter 15 – We should make allowances for the weaknesses of our brothers. We should learn from the example of Yeshua and from the Scriptures and may God help us to live in unity. Messiah became a servant for all, both Jew and Gentile. Overall, you’re doing well, even if you need some correction. I will visit you when I can after I go to Jerusalem but pray for my deliverance from unbelievers there.

Chapter 16 – Be generous and welcoming to the men and women who serve the Kingdom in their various capacities and give my greetings to all those in your community who also work faithfully for the Kingdom. Do not allow anyone to cause division among you but remain faithful to God in the preaching of the Gospel and obedience to his commandments.

Conclusion

Paul’s Letter to the Romans is very clear in some ways and very cloudy in others. Chapter 14 is especially confusing for many Christians for two reasons: 1) They have inherited an antinomian (anti-Law) view of Jesus and Paul, and so they interpret everything in that light, and 2) At least half of the conversation is missing, so it’s easy to fill in the gaps with what we’ve been taught rather than what Scripture actually says. Reading our own assumptions into a text is known as eisegesis, and it’s always a bad idea.

Paul’s original readers understood the full context of his words because he wrote them in response to a controversy they were experiencing at that moment. In order to understand what he intended for them to get out of his letter, we need to separate what we think he meant from what he actually wrote. Once we are able to do that, we are free to consider his words within the context of the whole of Scripture (not just the New Testament or Paul’s other letters) and of the controversies that we know were an issue at the time (not just the controversies we’ve been told were an issue).

Taken at face value, Romans 14 isn’t really that difficult to understand and isn’t anti-Torah at all.

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