Paul’s View of the Law: Romans (12:1-15:13 and Conclusion)

Romans 12:1-15:13

Rom 12:1-15:13 is properly the exhortation (exhortatio) or hortatory section of the letter, which also contains parenetic material, i.e. practical instruction on ethical and religious matters (cf. Gal 5:1-6:10, which has a number of similarities with this section in Romans). Most of Paul’s teaching related to the Old Testament Law (Torah) is found in chapters 1-11; therefore, what remains of note in 12:1-15:13 may be dealt with more briefly, in summary fashion. I divide Rom 12:1-15:13 according to the following outline:

  • Opening Exhortation (12:1-12)
    Active (v. 1): “Make your bodies stand alongside [i.e. before] (God)…”
    Passive (v. 2): “Be changed in shape… in making the mind new again…”
  • Unity—Illustration of the Body (of Christ) (12:3-8)
  • Love—The ‘Love command’ (12:9-13:10)
    —vv. 9-13: Show love to one another
    —vv. 14-21: Show love to your enemies
    Excursus (13:1-7): Respect and obey governing authority
    13:8-10: Love as fulfillment of the Law
  • Appeal—to live in the light and not in the darkness (13:11-14)
  • Instruction—regarding the “weak” and the “strong” (14:1-15:6)
    Threefold exhortation regarding those “weak” in faith/trust:
    —vv. 1-12: “Receive (them) toward you…”
    —vv. 13-23: “Do not judge…”
    15:1-6: “We ought to bear their weaknesses…”
    —including a doxology for unity in Christ (vv. 5-6)
  • Exhortation to unity for Jews and Gentiles in Christ (15:7-13)

Romans 12:1-2

Here in this brief introductory exhortation, Paul makes use of language and imagery drawn from the sacrificial (Temple) ritual, applying it—spiritually and symbolically—to the life and person of the believer. As such, the Law is ‘fulfilled’ in a spiritual (or ethical) sense. Note especially:

    • the body (sw=ma) as a living sacrifice (qusi/a)—the noun qusi/a (and the verb qu/w) refer specifically to the sacrificial offering and its slaughter (cf. Hebrew jbz)
    • the mind (nou=$) conformed to the will of God (cf. the “Law of God” in Rom 7:22, 25)

Both of these are summarized as latrei/a, a term used for ritual service, but which Paul characterizes here as logiko/$. This adjective is nearly impossible to translate in English—literally it means “of the word/account [lo/go$]”, but used primarily in the more abstract sense “of reason”, i.e., “reasonable, rational”, etc. The mind, in particular, is that aspect of human nature which is able to recognize the will of God (cf. Rom 7:13-25). In any case, for Christians, religious “ritual” is understood according to the “inner person”—i.e., the mind, as renewed by the Spirit, in conformity with the will of God—but extending to the external body, as one lives out the Christian life.

Romans 13:8-10

Rom 12:9-13:10 is on the theme of love, which believers are to demonstrate to one another (12:9-13), and also to one’s enemies (12:14-21). This is sometimes referred to as the “love command”, based on Jesus’ incorporation of Leviticus 19:18 as part of the two-fold “Great Commandment” (along with Deut 6:4-5). According to Jesus’ teaching, especially as presented in Mark 12:28-34, “no other command is greater than these”, being far superior to all sacrificial offerings. Already in early rabbinic tradition (contemporary with Jesus), Lev 19:18 was considered to be a kind of epitome or summary of the entire Law, and so it was in early Christianity. Note how Paul frames the matter in Rom 13:8-10:

    • “the one loving the other (person) has (ful)filled the Law” (v. 8b)
    • —the commands (esp. the fundamental ethical commands [Exod 20:13-17]) are “summed up under the head in this (one) word [Lev 19:18]” (v. 9)
    • “…love is the filling/fullness [plh/rwma] of the Law” (v. 10)

Paul says virtually the same thing in Galatians 5:14 (cf. also Gal 6:2; 1 Thes 4:9; Col 3:14; 1 Tim 1:5). For other passages in the New Testament related to the ‘love command’, see James 2:8-12; John 13:34-35; 15:9-17; 1 John 2:5, 7-11; 3:10-24; 4:7-12, 19-21; 5:1-3. Interestingly, while love for one’s enemies is clearly part of Jesus’ teaching (see esp. Matt 5:43-48 par), it is not normally associated with the exhortation to love in the passages listed above—there the emphasis is on showing love to one’s fellow believers.

Romans 14:1-15:6: On the “weak” and the “strong”

Paul’s instruction regarding the “weak” and the “strong” is actually an exhortation and advice for how the “strong” ought to behave toward the “weak”. By “strong” (oi( du/natoi, lit. “the [one]s with power”), Paul seems to mean believers who trust fully in the freedom they have in Christ, while the “weak” (o( a)sqenw=n, “the [one who is] lacking strength”), refers primarily to the believer who (still) feels obligated to follow certain religious/ritual practices. Paul classifies himself with the “strong” (cf. 15:1). It is likely that the “weak” include Jewish believers who feel under some obligation to observe dietary restrictions, Sabbaths and holy days, and so forth. However, Paul’s instruction here should by no means be limited to this context, for he uses very much the same line of instruction in 1 Cor 8-10, where Gentile believers are entirely in view (cf. also Gal 4:8-11). In any case, this passage certainly emphasizes the relative unimportance of ritual/ceremonial elements of the Law, such as:

    • dietary restrictions (14:2-4)—though he is not referring specifically to laws of kashrût here
    • observance of special (holy) days (14:5-6)

Paul would seem to consider such things as part of the old order of the world to which Christians have died, and are no longer bound to follow (Gal 4:1-11; Col 2:16-23; cf. also Gal 2:19; Rom 7:6, etc).

With regard to the Old Testament dietary and purity laws, Paul declares quite clearly that these have been removed—that is to say, nothing is “clean” or “unclean” in itself (cf. Mark 7:14-23 par; Acts 10:9-16; 11:5-10), though a person  might still feel compelled to regard it so. This is an important principle (cf. also in 1 Cor 8), which leaves any such regulation or restriction as a matter of personal conscience (to put it in modern terms), not to be imposed on another. The following principles also may be drawn out of the passage:

    • What should guide the believer is the Spirit, not regulations (from the Law), Rom 14:17
    • The one serving Christ is acceptable to God, Rom 14:18
    • Religious service is defined by faith/trust (not observance of the Law), Rom 14:23

Romans 15:7-13

In this appeal for unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ we have a summary of a major theme that has run all throughout the letter. This is important because, in Romans (as in Galatians), Paul is forging a new religious understanding and identity—one that is Christian, and not Jewish (that is, not limited to Israel). Of course, Paul does not use the term “Christian” yet, but one may combine two of his favorite expressions—(a) the ones trusting, using the participle of the verb pisteu/w, and (b) “in Christ” (e)n Xristw=|)—to form the distinct concept of believers in Christ. In Christ, Jews and Gentiles are equal and united (Gal 3:26-28, etc)—there is no distinction whatsoever, and the Old Testament Law (Torah) plays no role at all. On the other hand, as Paul has discussed in chapters 9-11, Gentile believers are not to consider themselves in any way superior, having been grafted into a (spiritual) tradition stretching back to Abraham. In this regard, it is interesting the wording Paul uses in verse 8: “I count (the) Anointed to have become a servant of circumcision [dia/kono$ peritomh=$]…”, which probably should be understood in terms of Jesus’ birth and life (in the flesh) and his Israelite heritage (cf. Rom 1:3; 9:5; Gal 4:4)—elsewhere Paul uses the expression “of (the) circumcision” to refer to Israelites and Jews in the ethno-religious sense. Consider the structure of verses 8-9:

    • a servant of circumcision…
      over [u(per] the truth of God
      —unto [ei)$] the making firm [i.e. confirmation] of the promises of the Fathers
      —and (unto) the nations giving esteem/glory to God
      over [u(per] mercy

For an interesting parallel (in Gospel tradition) regarding Christ’s life and work in relation to both Israel and the nations, see Luke 2:29-32 (esp. v. 32, cf. Isa 42:6; 49:6; 52:10; 60:3).

Conclusion

In Romans, Paul presents what is by far his most thorough and complex treatment of the Law. In several respects, he has gone beyond the arguments utilized in Galatians, to offer a more ‘systematic’ and multi-layered presentation. I would summarize the main areas of expansion and exposition as follows:

  • God’s (impending) judgment against humankind will be based specifically in terms of deeds (“works”) committed, and according to the Law.
  • Jews and Gentiles both are “under the Law”—even Gentiles, who are unfamiliar with the Torah, experience the Law (of God) through the witness of creation (1:18ff) and the testimony of their own inner conscience (2:14-16; 7:13ff).
  • Jews and Gentiles are thus on equal terms before God, in that they—all human beings—are (enslaved) under sin.
  • The Law and Sin are interconnected—the Law brings knowledge and awareness of sin, while sin “uses” this knowledge to bring human beings into even greater bondage.
  • Sin is depicted (personalized) as a ruling, enslaving Power, and human beings are in bondage under him; however, this is according to God’s own purpose, so that He will be able to show mercy and favor (grace) to all people. God’s Favor itself is personalized (in Rom 5:15ff), and works in a manner antithetical to that of Sin.
  • God’s work in Christ—his sacrificial death (and resurrection)—destroyed the power of sin, and, with it, the binding force of the Law as well.
  • Believers experience freedom from the enslaving power of sin through trust in Christ, and, in particular, by identification with (and participation in) his death—through this death, believers effectively die both to sin and the Law. As such, the Law no longer has any binding force over believers (Rom 7:1-6)
  • It is in the mind and the “inner man” that human beings recognize the Law of God—a larger concept than the Torah, and synonymous with the Will of God. However, under the power of Sin (in the “flesh”), human beings are not able to fulfill this Law; only after being freed from sin’s power, and through the work of Spirit, can it be fulfilled.
  • Indeed, it is through the Spirit that believers live in conformity to God’s will (and no longer by observing commands and regulations of the Old Testament Law). This is demonstrated principally by the love that believers show, both to each other, and even toward one’s enemies; this love itself fulfills the Law.

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