The Book Of Romans is widely thought of as one of the most hard to understand biblical texts – and I would agree. I also believe it is one of the most misunderstood actually. I embarked on my study of Romans in around March 2016, but swiftly found myself doing various other studies simultaneously, as I attempted to fill in the historical backdrop necessary to a proper understanding of the book. By May I had completed the studies of the first two chapters, when a variety of circumstances befell me, and I found it necessary to put the studies on hold. Almost two years later, in Feb 2018, I am finally in a position to start up again, and hopefully finish the studies. Standing back from the book has helped me, as really I feel the bigger picture more overwhelmingly than ever before.
The Bible, to me, is really all about God’s relationship with his creation, mankind, (and all the rest of his creation). By understanding the relationship, we are able to understand, to an important extent, God’s mind, and in understanding God’s mind, we learn to understand what he wants for us human beings, that of course being what is best for us. The Bible is not only about Israel, Jesus, and the Church, however a great deal of this relationship between God and man is seen through the particular story of first the Israelite people, and then the Church.
When we come to the Book of Romans, it will make very little sense unless you have a clear picture of other elements of the story of Israel. I have provided several other studies as a prelude to understanding Romans, and I do not want to get into a complete overview of the Bible here. Nevertheless, here is a potted version of Israel’s history, so that you can see how Romans fits in to the overall scheme of things.
Around three thousand nine hundred years ago, God called Abraham, and out of Abraham came Jacob, (through Isaac), and Jacob’s name was then changed to Israel, and he fathered the 12 tribes of Israel. The Israelite people then spent around 400 years in captivity, latterly in Egypt, before escaping and coming to the border of the land God had promised Abraham 400 years previously, modern day Palestine. In 1447BC on Mount Sinai, God gave the laws of Israel to Moses. These defined how Israel was to operate as a society. In 1407BC the next generation of Israelites entered the land, and Israel ceased to be a nation in the wilderness, and became a nation with a land, and a legal system written by God himself. God, it would seem, never actually wanted this kind of arrangement, he wanted a personal relationship with people at an individual level, but the Israelites were not able to handle that idea, and so God gave them a written code to show them right from wrong. Over the next 1500 years the Israelites repeatedly failed God, and also fell into apostasy and worshipped other gods. God had warned them against this, but nonetheless they ended up worshipping the gods of the peoples around them, and this violated the agreement (the old covenant) and appalled God. An example of apostasy would be the worshipping of Molech and the practice of child sacrifice through immolation.
After King Solomon’s death in 931BC God split Israel into two component parts, on account of Solomon’s terrible apostasy. The Kingdom became the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom. The Southern Kingdom was for the tribe of Judah. King David was a Judean, and Solomon likewise. As the Levites had already all left the Northern Kingdom also, and made Jerusalem their headquarters, they were automatically included with the tribe of Judah. (The Levites of course had no land allocation and were originally dispersed throughout Israel). God also allied the tribe of Benjamin with Judah, so they also resided in the Southern Kingdom. The Northern Kingdom was comprised of the rest of the tribes of Israel. Reuben was Jacob’s oldest son, but he had been disqualified from inheriting the birthright, and so Jacob handed it on to both Joseph and Judah. He actually divided the Headship of the family from the birthright, so Judah inherited the Kingship, but Joseph inherited the birthright. This meant that the name of Israel was Joseph’s, (and then Ephraim’s), inheritance. So the Northern Kingdom retained the name of Israel, and the Southern Kingdom became Judea.
Two hundred or so years later God tired of the apostasy of the Northern Kingdom, so he basically de-covenanted them; he divorced them and ended the covenant with them. They were scattered by the Assyrians into foreign lands, with just a tiny few remaining in Israel. At this point the Jews, plus the Levites and Benjaminites, became the only covenanted people, and the sole Israelites left. [However, God did also promise to remarry the divorced Israelites, so the picture is somewhat complicated. This remarriage took place when Christ came. Of this more anon.]
The Northern Kingdom was divorced and scattered in 721BC, which then meant the entire focus of God’s relationship with his covenanted people, from 721BC until Christ, was the Kingdom Of Judah, that is: the Jews, Benjaminites and Levites. When we get to Paul’s writings, we will see that he frequently uses two, three, or even more, definitions of the same entity. However, we really need to understand that generally he refers to Jews, Benjaminites and Levites as Jews, i.e. as citizens of Judah. (The Jews also were Israelites, clearly.)
I suppose we can now safely start talking about the nub of the matter. By dividing Israel into two entities, God handed Ephraim-Israel, (the Northern Kingdom), and Judah, (the Southern Kingdom), very different destinies. Ephraim by being de-covenanted was no longer under the Law. Only the Jews therefore remained under the Law. Ephraim had already been punished for apostasy, and the punishment had been their scattering and removal from the land of Israel, and having no further part in being Israelites, until that time when God would remarry them, which occurred with Christ. The Jews however had not been punished for apostasy, and were supposed to learn from the example of the Northern Kingdom, and get right with God. However that did not happen. They too fell into apostasy, and God sent the prophets to warn them, most notably Jeremiah who was the last call. But they refused to heed the prophets, and in 608BC time ran out, and they came under judgement. Unlike Ephraim, who was de-covenanted, Judah was put under the full force of the Law. This distinction is vital to our understanding of Romans.
I have already explained in great length the timeline of God’s judgement on Judah, in my explanation of Daniel’s 70 weeks. I will re-iterate it here.
In 608BC Judah went into exile in Babylon. (Daniel was amongst the first exiles).
In 538BC King Cyrus ended the exile, and Judah returned to the land. The 70 weeks (490 years) of judgement then began.
The 490 years of judgement are however interrupted, and so they actually last 610 years. Therefore the 490 years runs from 538BC to AD73. This is very important to understand, and anyone who teaches otherwise is simply most likely in error.
This means that the final climactic week of Daniel’s 70 weeks was the 7 years from AD67-73. This was of course the 7 year war when Rome obliterated Judah and Jerusalem. This final week was the culmination of certain things written in the Law. It was the Law exacting justice. Those who believed in Christ had come out from under the Law through the mercy of Christ, but those who rejected Christ cursed themselves as they put themselves under the judgement of the Law.
So when Jesus said that not one jot or tittle would pass from the Law til all was fulfilled, what he meant was that the judgement of Jerusalem and Judah, amongst other things, still remained. The Law was partially fulfilled with the destruction of Jerusalem, although the scattering of Judah is still an ongoing punishment. Likewise when God said to Jesus to sit at his right hand until he had put his enemies under his feet, it meant until Christ’s enemies, (non-believing Jews), had been been brought to the point where they worship him, a process involving punishment; (God’s punishments are not meant to be fruitless, they are designed to repair what is broken or defective). I will do a more fulsome study of this another time. What is most pertinent when we come to Romans is to understand when Paul is writing and who he is writing too.
Written circa AD58, a few years before his death, Paul’s letter to the Romans is really God presenting the case against all of unbelieving Israel under the Old Covenant, that is, the Jews. It is the case for the prosecution, and Paul is the chief prosecutor. If you understand this, and that the letter is directly about apostate Jewry, the people who had rejected the prophets, killed Christ, and still refused to repent, and that God is acting according to his character, which is that he loves justice, and justice demands a proper court procedure, then you will be able to grasp the core purpose of the Book.
Of course this understanding requires the right framework, which is that the Old Covenant expired in AD73, and not before, and that for a period of 40 years the Old and New Covenants co-existed. It is a dangerous thing to claim to be 100% right, but I strongly believe this is the correct way to understand the Law, Daniel’s 70 weeks, and the destruction of Jerusalem.
The underlying point is that for God to fully complete the prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27, it was not simply enough for Christ to come and bring in the New Covenant. Just as Jesus spoke clearly about a coming segregation, it was necessary to purge Israel of any dysfunctional elements, apostates, or ‘deadwood’ in the language of Romans. Daniel was told that 490 years were necessary to bring a new order to Jerusalem and Israel. Until AD73 the new and old orders co-existed; it was only when the bad elements of Judea had been burned in the fire, terrestrial Jerusalem burned to a cinder, and the apostate remnant scattered to the four winds, that Israel was purged, and could now be fully said to be operating in the new covenant. Here, I’ll give you a very simple analogy to explain this. If I said: “China is a Christian county”, but in fact only 70% of Chinese people were Christians, and the other 30% were Satanists, it would be a very muddy description. But if 100% of Chinese were Christians, then it would be a wholly true statement.
The historical record I work with, based largely on Dr Stephen Jones and Matthew McGee’s work, is this (these dates are generally universally accepted to within a year or two anyhow):
Jesus was crucified in AD 33
Establishment of Church in Rome AD 33 – 34
Stoning of Stephen and great Jerusalem persecution circa AD 35
Paul’s conversion circa AD 36
Paul’s letter to the Romans AD 57 – 58
The study will not be exhaustive, but hopefully all the more thorough and focused as a result. I will skim over what I view as peripheral material. My main focus is in fact the first 11 chapters, where the really complex ideas of Paul regarding the Jews are elucidated.
I work with the NRSV, and I would suggest that you too have a version available, as it accurately translates key terms, thus avoiding a lot of confusion.