As the saying goes, we all make mistakes — especially when it comes to our walk with God. But there are five major mistakes we likely all make when reading the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. You know, that difficult book in the Bible wherein Paul sets forth his theology rather systematically?
Part of what makes Romans hard to read is that we come to it with our twenty-first century minds. When we fail to appreciate the differences between Paul’s worldview and our own, we miss out on a key tool that would help us understanding what Saint Paul really said.
Mistake #1: We fail to read Romans as a letter written to a church.
When we don’t read Romans for what it is — a letter to a corporate body of believers — we fail to appreciate that Paul is not writing about what God has done for each of us individually. Rather, Paul is writing about what God had done and was still doing for the community of believers living in Rome. This point is so obvious, yet most readers of the Bible miss it.
Some scholars understand certain passages to be about the community, but again and again they fail to recognize that the entire letter is about God’s relationship with his people — the church.
A misunderstanding of what Paul means by “the old man,” for example, has led many Christians to think that it refers to our inner private life that has been marred by sin, raising a whole host of pastoral problems. However, once one understands the reference to be about the community we once in Adam belonged to, and the new man is the new community that in Christ we now belong to (see Ephesians 4:22 and Colossians 3:9), we can see it as a description of the body of unredeemed humanity (a corporate reading).
The term is seen to be about the behaviour of the community rather than an exhortation to never ending introspection.
Mistake #2: We fail to read Romans typologically.
Typology was a very common method of teaching in the ancient world that Paul (and other apostles) employed. Paul had come to see Israel’s experience as a type or a picture that foreshadowed the salvation of the church — a rehearsal of the real thing. Unless we understand this, it’s almost impossible to piece together Paul’s overarching arguments.
Imagine a complex jigsaw puzzle with many pieces. Without a picture on the lid of the box — showing how the completed jigsaw should look — it would be almost impossible to put together. The doctrines of the New Testament are just like those jigsaw pieces, and the typology Paul uses from the pages of the Old Testament are the picture that guides us to correctly arrange the pieces in their correct order.
For example, Israel’s historical exile was a picture (or type) of humankind’s alienation in sin. Since Israel had been promised a Davidic deliverer who would lead her out of bondage in Babylon, Paul relocates the promises made to Israel and applies them to the deliverance of humanity from bondage to Satan by the true Son of David, Jesus.
Israel’s history had been typological of humanity’s condition and also of the response of God to that need.
Mistake #3: We think Paul’s anthropology is the same as our own.
Contrary to popular belief, human nature does not consist of “body, soul, and spirit” — at least not in Paul’s mind. This Hellenistic (Greek) view is so natural to our thinking that we fail to see that it had no part in Paul’s (Jewish) understanding of humanity. For Paul, as for any other Jew, human beings are single units, each part of a larger whole — the community.
Hence when Paul writes of the “body of sin” in Romans 6, it is not a reference to our sinful body with its sinful nature, as many tend to read it. (By the way, I’m not disagreeing with the doctrine of the Fall here). Rather, following from Romans 5, Paul is speaking of two different communities. The one community is “in Christ”; it is the “body of Christ.” The other community is in Adam, and this is the “body of sin.”
Mistake #4: We miss the importance of Passover as Paul’s model for Christ’s death.
Many Christians understand the importance of the Passover for Paul’s theology, as they read in 1 Corinthians 5:7, “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us.” But they fail to realize that this is equally as important in our understanding of his letter to the Romans.
In Romans 8, Jesus is described as the “firstborn of many brothers.” The firstborn in a Jewish family was hugely significant, because he was appointed the redeemer. If a family member got into financial trouble, suffered injustice, or died leaving financial dependents, the firstborn had to act as the redeemer and secure the well-being of his troubled relatives. To enable him to do this, the firstborn needed extra resources, and so received twice as much inheritance as his siblings when the father died.
In the original Exodus of Israel from Egypt, when the Passover lamb died, it served as a substitute for the one who should have died. Who was that? It was the firstborn! In Paul’s theology, Jesus is both the Passover and the firstborn, redeeming his “brothers” through his death on the cross. Hence, Christ acts as the firstborn on behalf of many brothers.
He has redeemed the whole creation, delivering it so that his “brothers” might once again assume their rightful place ruling over God’s creation as Adam was called to do.
Most theologians understand the early church’s description of Christ as the firstborn (see Colossians 1:15-18) to have its origins in Wisdom literature. The result of making this assumption is a false understanding of how Christology developed. When we see that the background to Paul’s use of the expression is rooted in Passover, these misunderstandings are swept away.
Mistake #5: We miss how Paul merges atonement theology with Passover theology.
Many scholars fail to see Paul’s Passover imagery in Romans, instead focusing on his calling the death of Christ the propitiation (or satisfaction of God’s wrath) for our sins (Romans 3:25). This is because the original Passover sacrifice was not intended to remove the sin of the people — Israel never thought of themselves as being in slavery in Egypt because of their sins. It was not a sacrifice intended to take away wrath. Consequently, the idea of using the Passover as the thematic background for Paul’s argument is rejected by scholars. The term propitiation is more commonly related in the Old Testament to the Day of Atonement. It is the imagery of this latter sacrifice which is used to unlock Paul’s meaning in this passage.
However, Day of Atonement imagery simply does not fit in with Paul’s arguments elsewhere in this passage — so what is going on?
The problem can easily be resolved if one understands that the prophet Ezekiel predicted a day in which the Passover would be celebrated by the Davidic prince (the Messiah) who was to come, in which the prince would offer a sacrifice to atone for sin (Ezekiel 45:18–23).
In Paul’s mind, the idea of atonement and the death of the Messianic redeemer in the Passover offering have become similarly merged. This allows us to see how Paul is still thinking in terms of the Passover/New Exodus at crucial points in the text, which in turn helps us to understand the consistency of his arguments.
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