Paul’s Letters to the Romans
Bible Study with Jairus – Romans 2
The first paragraph (verses 1-16) of Romans 2 discusses Paul’s criticism of self-righteous people. For example, verse 1 says, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (NIV). While paragraph 2 (verses 17-29) discusses Paul’s criticism of Jews who boast in the law. For example, verse 17 (NIV) says, “Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God,” but in verse 23 (NIV), Paul also criticized them as “someone who brags in the law but has dishonored God by breaking the law.”
These words sound harsh. How do you think you would feel if you were a believer in Rome, opened Paul’s letter, and only read up to the second chapter? Why did Paul scold the Roman believers in this way? It’s possible Paul is not berating only Roman believers, but others as well. But Paul did not mention any names, so we have no way of knowing. However, in verse 24, Paul quoted the Old Testament and said, “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (NIV). Here is it is clear he is criticizing the Jews. There were many Jews in the early church, and there were also many Jews in the Roman church. So, it would be difficult to say that Paul was not criticizing the church in Rome.
Imagine if person A wrote a letter to person B and criticized person C. It might be because both person A and person B don’t like person C. But this type of exchange would be out of character for Paul. There was no need for Paul to write a letter to one person and criticize another. Paul did criticize some people such as Alexander in 2 Timothy 4:14, but he made it clear by mentioning his name. The reason why Paul wrote certain letters to a group of believers was mainly to suggest corrections to some problems these believers were facing. For example, Paul wrote 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians, which were aimed at addressing the problems of the Corinthian church he founded.
The Intention of Paul’s Letter
But a man in our Bible study asked, “How could Paul write such a serious and critical letter to the church in Rome if he had never been to Rome before?” I replied that in chapter 16, Paul mentioned that he greeted a dozen people he knew at the Roman church. In Romans 16:3, Paul mentioned Priscilla and Aquila because, as it is recorded in Acts 18, when the Jews were forced to leave Rome, they saw Paul in Corinth. Paul was a tentmaker like they were. After they met, Acts 19 recorded that Paul decided to go and visit Rome. And Romans 16:5 also mentioned that there was a church in Priscilla and Aquila’s house. In other words, Priscilla and Aquila were a couple of the leaders of the Roman Church. We don’t know how many people there were in the Roman church, but at least some church leaders were familiar with Paul.
In Romans 16:7, it even mentioned that two people had been in prison with Paul. These two people were Andronicus and Junia. Paul said, “They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was” (NIV). This shows that there were apostles in the Roman Church. These apostles were not only in Christ before Paul, but they also had been in prison with Paul and were inmates. So they also had friendships with Paul. Paul may have learned about the Roman church when he was setting up tents with Priscilla, Aquila or when he was with Andronicus and Junia in prison. This could have led him to be so burdened that he wrote 16 chapters of Romans to them. One of the reasons we mentioned in our previous study was the dispute between the Gentiles and Jews in Rome, and even the Jews were forced to leave the city.
As we mentioned last time, during Paul’s time, the letters might have been written on parchment. To write so much content was not as convenient as having a computer, email, or paper like we do today. Since it is not very convenient, it must have been a heavy burden.
Disputes Between the Jews and Gentiles
Acts 18:2 says, Because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome, Aquila had brought his wife Priscilla who had recently come from Italy, and Paul went to see them. Historical records prove that the Jews and the Gentiles at that time had a lot of disputes which caused so much turmoil that Claudius ordered the Jews to leave Rome. From these records, we can see the historical background of the Roman church. We can speculate that the conflict between the Jews and the Gentiles was not only outside the church but inside as well. For example, Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 1:22 (NIV), “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,” demonstrates Paul’s observation of this. Paul met Priscilla and Aquila in Corinth. Corinth was also where he wrote the book of Romans and made the decision to visit Rome. This verse may reflect Paul’s observation of the Roman Church – Both the Jews and Gentiles had something to brag about. Paul continued in 1 Corinthians 1:23 (NIV), “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” These were also some of Paul’s thoughts on the subject.
We believe that the church in Rome, like other early Gentile churches, consisted of Jews and Gentiles. If both Jews and Gentiles were present, it would lead to a lot of conflicting ideas. For example, let’s take a look at the story recorded in Galatians 2. Peter used to eat with the Gentiles, but after certain men from James arrive, he dares not to eat with the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. Thus he pretended. Even Barnabas joined him in his hypocrisy. There was a lot of pressure among the Jewish Christians to follow the rule of circumcision as this was in accordance with the Jewish law. Similarly, we can guess that such difficulties also existed in the Roman church. The Jews hoped that the saved Gentile Christians would be able to accept circumcision or become Christians who also observed the law. It was not easy for the Jews to deal with the Gentiles. Many of them were not subservient to the thoughts of the Jews. Since the Jews could boast about their own law, the Gentiles, especially the Greeks, could also boast about their wisdom and philosophy.
Navigating Cultural Differences
Some of the problems in the church were specific to their culture and setting, while other problems were the type even churches today could experience. I will cite some examples of what I have encountered in the church. I am Chinese, and in the Chinese churches in the United States, there are often people from Taiwan and mainland China. Many people from the mainland believe that Taiwan belongs to China; they advocate unification, while many Christians in Taiwan want independence. But most of the time, when these believers meet together, they don’t talk about politics. They only talk about spirituality and how to love and serve the Lord, so they live in peace. But there are always people who don’t follow this rule. Once, I saw a dispute occurring between a person who advocated for unification and a person who advocated for Taiwan’s independence. It ended very unpleasantly. This is an example of a problem in the modern church.
Witness Lee, the leader of the Local Church Movement, placed great emphasis on teaching how to “live out Christ.” No matter what the circumstances, one should not live according to one’s own culture and religion, but according to the life of Christ within us. I heard a story where Witness Lee was with some American Christians, and they were eating cheese. Witness Lee said he would also eat a slice. An American Christian sister immediately said, “I thought that the Chinese do not eat cheese.” Witness Lee immediately replied, “Sister, I am not Chinese.” Witness Lee was indeed Chinese from Shandong, China. This story was told by an American Christian brother. He said that this was a great shock to him as he respected Witness Lee very much and believed that Witness Lee was a model of “living out Christ.” He was not living by the life of a Chinese, but by the life of Christ within him. The American brother sighed as he couldn’t honestly say, “I am not an American” at the time because he felt that he was still living his life based on American culture.
Although the Local Church Movement teaches “living out Christ,” there are similar conflicts between members of many American churches and Chinese churches. For example, many Chinese Christians often cook Chinese food when serving meals. Some Americans like Chinese food, so it goes over well. But some Americans do not like Chinese food, so they complain and say things like, ” there is too much Chinese food.” I have been in the Local Church Movement for 13 years, so I have experienced things like this many times. An American believer told me that one of the biggest problems of the Local Church Movement was it included too much Chinese culture. Because the Local Church Movement originated in China, the founders are Chinese, and many members are also Chinese. Naturally, it would be heavily influenced by Chinese culture. As a Chinese, I certainly don’t like to hear this, and I clearly saw that this American Christian was living his life according to American culture. Chinese culture emphasizes collectivism, respect for authority, and respect for the elderly. American culture emphasizes individualism and does not emphasize respect for authority or the elderly, which is reflected in the church.
Unity in Christ
I remember when I was in graduate school, we were taking a course called “Organizational Culture.” We had an assignment that required us to observe an organization in order to study the organization’s culture. I suggested my group observe our church. Three of my Chinese students, including me, came to our church to observe and write our research paper. Our approach was for each of us to write down our own observations, and through the different observations, we would compare the organization’s culture and draw our conclusions.
Half of the people in our church were Chinese, while the other half were American. I was a member of the church, and I represented the internal point of view of the church. The other two members of my group were not believers. I invited them to come to our church, but they were not interested. Therefore, when writing this observation for our class, our perspective was naturally different. I had written the characteristics of the Local Church Movement from the Church’s perspective. The church is love and light, and the brothers and sisters are in oneness. The Local Church Movement advocates living out Christ and not living according to culture. So when we sing, we all sing the same song, but each of us sings in our own language. This shows that although we have different cultures, we are all one in Christ.
But their observations were different. They had come to a conclusion that although the church advocates unity in Christ, they still live according to their own culture. The example they cited was when a Chinese church leader came to the dinner table, several of our young Chinese Christians stood up and gave him a seat. They, therefore, concluded that this church was deeply influenced by Chinese authoritarian culture as it is not a common phenomenon for young people to stand up and give seats to the elderly in the United States. So they believed Chinese people in these churches were unconsciously influenced by Asian authoritarian culture. I disagreed with this observation because I believe that it’s done out of love and respect for one another. But then another thing occurred that made me rethink my point of view. A retired white believer often attends our meetings. He is 80+ years old already and walks a bit slowly. I once offered him a seat, and he thanked me and said, “That’s very kind of you. At my age in the United States, young people think that I’m a hindrance and just want me out of the way. But the young Chinese are not like that.” Hearing what he said, I realized that American culture and Chinese culture are indeed very different in dealing with the elderly.
I am not saying this to deny the teaching and practice of “living out Christ” of the Local Church Movement. On the contrary, I think that it is a wonderful concept and it is needed by many churches. I remember one morning in 2008, I went to see a doctor in a hospital in Baltimore. I was singing some Bible verses composed by a man in our church using a familiar Christian melody. I was practicing “live out Christ” while waiting for the doctor. While I was humming the song, I felt very joyful. An African American woman next to me asked if I was a Christian and asked why I was so happy. I said, “I am a Christian. I am practicing according to the teaching of Witness Lee of living out Christ in any case such as while waiting for the doctor.” She told me that she had heard and read Watchman Nee’s books, but she had never heard of Witness Lee. After returning home, she started to read Witness Lee’s works according to my recommendation. Later, she wrote several times to thank me. She said that she had been in a Pentecostal Church for decades, but she had never heard anyone teaching to “live out Christ.”
Living Out Christ
In today’s culture, where racial tension is rising in American society, “living out Christ” instead of “living according to culture” and “living according to race” may be a good solution. If every Christian can live according to the life of Christ in us instead of living according to our natural flesh, religion, culture, and race, it can naturally become the answer to all kinds of conflicts in the world. But if all the church members are living according to their race, culture, and not the life of Christ, it is difficult to imagine that the world will have an answer to this problem. In other words, such a serious situation of racial tension in American society is actually a reaction of the situation of the church members who are living according to flesh, culture, religion, and race. Looking at the American church, Christians in the United States are still not doing enough to let Christ’s life fill them and reveal His life through them. The church is the soul of our society. If we are not mature in Christ, we will see this reelected in the society we live in.
Of course, there are also positive interactions occurring as well. For example, when we see white Christians and African American Christians kneeling and forgiving each other, it sets a good example. If we can all do this, it will slowly have a positive impact on society. The reason I said the church in the US is not mature in living out Christ is not to criticize or neglect these positive examples. Rather it is my observation that the church needs to grow in Christ, and many Christians in the US should go deeper in the life of Christ. In other words, they need to live out what God tells us through the Bible.
After sharing these personal experiences and observations, we went back to Romans 2 to discuss the problems that the Roman church may have faced and also discuss Paul’s burden. My guess is that many Jewish Christians in the Roman church at that time did not live out the life of Christ but lived according to the Jewish religion, law, and tradition. Not only that, but they may have also required some Gentiles to follow their traditions. Many Gentile Christians had not even completely broken free from sin. Therefore, Paul was particularly burdened with writing to the church in Rome to criticize this situation.
Living a Victorious Life In Christ
When you read Romans 1 and 2 again after our analysis, it will make more sense to read it within the context of what was going on at the time. In Romans 1, after praising the Romans’ faith and gospel work, Paul began to talk about the wrath of God against the unrighteous (Romans 1:18-32), which describes the various sins of man. For example, idolatry (Romans 1:23), sexual impurity (Romans 1:24), homosexuality (Romans 1:26-27), and at least 21 kinds of unrighteousness (Romans 1:29-32) such as evil and greed. In this situation, it is difficult for anyone to believe that these verses are not talking about the sins of the Gentiles. I‘m sure that you will agree that this is also the picture of today’s society.
In Romans 2, it seems that Paul’s remarks changed. He began to criticize the Jews. He first criticized the sins of the Gentiles, then the mistakes of the Jews.
Ephesians 5:8 (NIV) says, “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light”. In this verse, Paul said to the believers, “We used to live in the darkness and also in sin, but today we are light in the Lord. We should live a life of light and as children of light.” This sentence can also be applied to the Gentile believers in the Roman Church. This must mean there were Gentile believers who although they had been saved, were not living this life of light. These are all foreshadowings. In Romans 7, Paul was distressed. “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (NIV, Romans 7:19). So much that in Romans 7:24 (NIV), he sighed, saying, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” But in Romans 8, he said, “Because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set me free from the law of sin and death.” (NIV, Romans 8:2). In other words, what Paul had written in the book of Romans was based on his own experience and how he overcame his flesh and sin. Having freedom in Christ and in the Holy Spirit is to live out the life of Christ. This is what I meant by “living out Christ” earlier.
One of the purposes of Paul’s letters to the Roman Church was to tell them how he was he able to live a victorious life in Christ through the process of overcoming the flesh, religion, and the traditions of the Jews. His goal was to help both the Gentile and Jewish Christians in Rome overcome sin, religion, and unhealthy cultural norms that would hinder them so they could have freedom in Christ. Instead of sharing this profound wisdom from the start, Paul started by sharing the most basic concepts first and slowly built them up. It wasn’t until Romans 8 that he shared the burden on his mind.
Living by the Law
If the sins of the Gentiles weren’t exposed, it would be difficult for them to repent. Similarly, if how the Jews who were living according to the law weren’t exposed, it would be difficult to persuade them to live out the life of Christ. Therefore, after exposing the sins of the Gentiles in Romans 1, Paul began to expose the limitations of the Jews who were living by the law in Romans 2. Paul said that they should not pass judgment on one another or be self-righteous. The Bible says, “God will judge you in the same way you judge others, because you who pass judgment do the same things (NIV, Romans 2:1)”. This indicates there was probably judgment going on between the Jewish believers and the Gentile believers in the Roman Church. Paul went on to say that God would judge the Jews as well as the Gentiles. “There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (NIV, Romans 2:9). God does not show favoritism (NIV, Romans 2:11). All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law (NIV, Romans 2:12) For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (NIV, Romans 2:13).
In other words, it isn’t really necessary to live according to the requirements of the law in our daily life. According to the language of the New Testament, we should live out the life of Christ every day to manifest His love and sacrifice for us. The law of the Gentiles, who did not have the law, is their conscience (Romans 2:15). As long as they live according to their conscience, they are keeping the law. This verse is also a timely warning for Jewish Christians who may have felt superior because God gave the law to the Jews. Although the Jews had the law, the Gentiles also had one. God let their conscience act as their law.
In verses 17-20, Paul began to criticize such Jews. He said, “Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth”. Then starting in verse 21 he said, “you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’” Then Paul talked about circumcision and how the law was not merely an external guide, but a matter of the heart and the Spirit, not just a written code (NIV, Romans 2:25-29), and this concludes the chapter.
Living out Christ Impacts Society
If I were a Jewish Christian in Rome, I might have been offended by Paul’s words! Even yesterday, my wife and I discussed some situations of racial conflict in the United States. I said that many of the participants are Christians. When you belong to a specific race, and you want to talk to other people of another specific race, especially those who are hurt, about living out Christ and not living according to race, culture and religion, they will definitely not listen. They might even get offended. My wife jokingly said, “So God will raise Paul to talk about this issue to the Jews. He was a Jew, and it would be easier for him to talk with other Jews. The Jews at that time would probably have a hard time listening to similar criticism from Gentle apostles.” I said it is true that Paul’s work seemed to be effective. We did not see the records of negative responses from the Church in Rome or the Jewish believers there. Paul’s Gospel of Romans still speaks to us today. I hope sharing this will enlighten the American church in the case of racial conflict. Only when the church lives out Christ can it have a positive impact on society. This may be the reason why Paul had the burden of writing the book of Romans for the Roman church during the conflict between the Jews and Gentiles in Rome. He wanted to share his own experiences with the Romans of how he attained freedom from the law of sin and death and reached freedom in the law of the life of Jesus Christ.
It’s true that racism is one of the giants we are facing in the US today. But we are called to be giant slayers like David. What is the stone that will kill the giant? It is deliverance from the law of sin and death. The church, or individual Christians need deliverance from this law and we have positive examples such as Paul to guide us. Social and political reforms are only a temporary means to subside the problems. The real answer is for the church to live out Christ. This is our ultimate calling.