In the last post, we took a deep look at Romans 9, and I was quite critical of what Paul had to say. However, in many ways, I actually feel sorry for Paul. Let me start by saying I’m no scholar, so my assessment of Paul and his motivations is likely way off. But I definitely get a particular impression of him when I read his writings, and I felt like sharing it.
First of all, I think that Paul really meant well. Just look at how he starts off Romans chapter 9:
I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit — 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
Paul knows that many of his fellow Jews did not follow after Jesus, so he worries about their souls. But he says that if he had the power, he would accept damnation on their behalf, if it would save them. That’s admirable.
I see Paul as a very educated and devout Jew who was struggling with the world in which he found himself. Imagine growing up and believing that you’re part of God’s chosen race, and that he has promised to one day send a Messiah who will save your people and lead them to glory. But in Paul’s time, it would be easy to wonder why this hadn’t happened. The Israelites had lived through captivity by the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman empires. For centuries, they had been passed back and forth among the various world powers, and there was no end in sight.
In addition to the difficulties that came with the idea of a Jewish world power, Paul’s immersion in Greek culture probably made him quite sympathetic to the Greek way of life. Why would God only pursue a relationship with one group of people, when Paul could see that people were largely the same, regardless of their nationality or ethnicity?
In Jesus, Paul could reconcile both of those problems. Instead of viewing the Messiah as a physical ruler that would lead the Jewish nation to power, what if the Messiah was meant to bring spiritual deliverance? That would explain why God had left the Jews under foreign rule, and it opened up the possibility of a relationship with God for all people. As he thought about the Jewish scriptures, he felt that some passages seemed to allude to this very idea.
Of course, this did bring a problem as well. Many Jews had not accepted Jesus as the Messiah, and this made Paul worry about his countrymen. But in Romans 11, he wrote that there was still hope for the Jews — the door was always open for them to accept Jesus and gain their rightful place with God’s people.
There also seems to be some concern with the Problem of Evil. Why did good things happen to bad people? Why did bad things happen to good people? Why were there bad people at all? Why was there so much corruption in the Jewish leaders of his time? I think this is part of what he’s exploring in Romans 9. He’s trying to explain that bad people factor into God’s plan, by giving him opportunity to show his power and magnificence. And by comparison, they make God’s mercy seem even more amazing and extravagant. It’s a distasteful notion to most of us today, but in Paul’s time, a god that operates via “might makes right” probably seemed rather natural.
In a lot of ways, I can see how Paul came to view Christianity as a solution to the inconsistencies he was experiencing from the combination of his Greek culture and Jewish faith. It probably seemed like a convenient way to tie everything together into something more optimistic than the narrow definition of “God’s people” that Paul had grown up with. At least in Paul’s Christianity, there was an opportunity for all people to be saved, regardless of ethnicity.
As I said, I’m no scholar, so my ideas of Paul and his motivations are worth very little. They’re likely a good bit off the mark. But when I read his epistles, this is the impression of him I often get. I’d be interested to hear what you guys think…