I went to my church’s Bible study group last night. We’re going through Romans: The Letter That Changed the World, With Mart De Haan and Jimmy DeYoung.
I didn’t make last week’s Bible study because I was in Indiana for my sister’s wedding. But, because only four people showed up last week, and ordinarily we have around eleven people, the pastor decided to postpone the lesson to the following week, which was last night. So I didn’t miss the lesson! What’s interesting is that, while last week only four people came, last night a lot of people came, including a few who had not come for a while. Moreover, the Pastor Emeritus attended.
To give you a taste of what we discussed last night, I’ll use as my pivot-point Romans 9:1-5. In the King James Version, this passage says:
“I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.”
The DVD that we watched made a variety of points. First, it contrasted Paul in Romans 9:1-5 with Paul before his conversion. Paul before his conversion had rage against Christians, but after his conversion he had deep grief that most of Israel did not know Jesus Christ. Second, the DVD said that Paul’s concern was that much of Israel, by not believing in Christ, had temporarily lost its divine mission to be a light to the nations; moreover, the DVD said that Paul feared that most of the Jewish people lacked eternal life and God’s forgiveness through the Messiah. In one of the questions in the booklet (or, actually, it was two questions in one), we were asked to read Romans 9:30-33. The question was, “What is the ‘stumbling stone’? Why were the Jewish people stumbling over it?” We all pretty much agreed that, according to Paul, the stumbling stone was Jesus Christ. In terms of why the Jewish people stumbled over it, an evangelical in our group offered an answer that, in my opinion, reflected a genuine effort on his part to be empathetic. He said that the Jewish religion was a religion of works and law, and so, when many Jewish people heard that they could become righteous by grace through faith, apart from the law, they had a hard time switching gears. A lady in our group read a comment in her study Bible that said that Paul’s problem was not obedience to the law but rather obeying God as a way to put God in one’s debt.
There are many who would probably read the above remarks about Judaism and consider them to be unfair. After all, there’s the New Perspective, which says that Paul’s problem with Judaism was not that it was legalistic or conducive to self-righteousness (since it wasn’t) but rather that it was not Christ, who was the only road to righteousness. Some adherents to the New Perspective contend that Paul did not regard Judaism as a religion of works but rather had issues with Judaism’s nationalism. Paul, in this view, was saying that Gentiles could become a part of God’s people, without circumcision or having to obey the Torah, and that Jews had to believe in Christ to become righteous; many Jews, however, believed that their place in God’s chosen people already made them righteous in God’s sight. In saying this, though, I realize that there are a variety of shades of the New Perspective. I will say that it has intrigued me how our curriculum contains elements of the Old and the New Perspective. Like the Old Perspective, our curriculum seems to imply that Paul regarded Judaism as a religion that sought righteousness through obedience to the Torah, as a way for Jews to climb their way to God through their own efforts. Like the New Perspective (or elements of it), the curriculum says that Paul was teaching that salvation was through grace, not through race.
Personally, I think that one of Paul’s problems with Judaism was that it taught that people could become righteous through obedience to the law, and Paul was saying that there was another way to become righteous in God’s sight: by receiving God’s grace through Jesus Christ. It’s not that Judaism lacked any notion of God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness of sins, and people’s failure to obey the Torah. It’s not that Judaism (or, more accurately, all of Judaism) held that Jews had to obey the Torah perfectly in order to enter the good afterlife, for there are within rabbinic Judaism teachings that say that Jews of intermediate righteousness can enter the World to Come. But, nevertheless, my impression is that Judaism still placed a lot of emphasis on obeying the Torah and doing the works of the law as ways to become righteous, and Paul felt that this focus made Christ a stumbling-block to a number of Jews, for Paul’s Gospel held that righteousness came not through the law but through faith in Christ.
Speaking of stumbling-blocks, it was somewhat of a stumbling-block to me when the curriculum said that Israel, at least temporarily, has lost its divine mission to be a light to the nations. I wondered how one could say that. After all, Jews who do not believe in Christ can still do good works that encourage others to behave righteously and to care about social justice. In that sense, Jews can be (and, in my opinion, are) a light to the nations. Moreover, who are Christians to claim smugly that the church is a light to the nations whereas Jews who do not believe in Christ are not, for the church has its own share of moral and ethical problems? As I reflected some more, however, I concluded that the church is a light in a way that non-Christian Judaism is not. My pastor was not addressing this specific question, but he was talking about people who had problems in their lives who were coming to our church, looking for answers. How many people go to temples or synagogues looking for answers? Granted, there are Gentiles who convert to Judaism, but I just don’t see too many people saying, “Man, I need God—-I’ll visit my local synagogue.” But people do that when it comes to the church. I think one reason is that Judaism is largely an ethnic religion, whereas Christianity claims to be for all people. As I write all of this, however, I recognize that I should be cautious. I can’t dogmatically say that people don’t go to synagogues seeking God; after all, there were Gentiles in the Second Temple and rabbinic period who drew closely to Judaism, sometimes converting and sometimes not, because they felt that they could find God there. It just seems to me that, nowadays, Christianity—-and more specifically evangelical Christianity—-has more of a corner on that.
One of the questions in the curriculum asked: “Paul had great sorrow in his heart because of the unbelief of his fellow Jews. Are there individuals whose spiritual needs cause you to have deep sorrow?” We had a pretty somber discussion about this. One of the people in the group was talking about relatives of his who had committed suicide, resulting in hurt for those who cared about them. Someone else said that the Gospel of grace is what gives people inner peace, since they realize that God loves them and cares for them. Speaking for myself personally, I don’t feel an inner compulsion to go out and make people into evangelical Christians. I can’t say that I felt a great deal of inner peace when I was one. But my heart does break for people who lack inner peace, and I actually include myself in this. I think that people do need to experience hope and love—-that people should know that God and others care about them. As many problems as I may have with institutionalized Christianity, I do value churches as places that try to affirm a commitment to this sort of calling, whether or not they consistently carry it out. And, even if I don’t entirely identify with how Paul’s rage was replaced with a burden for his people to believe in Christ, I believe that it is spiritual advancement when one moves from anger towards concern for other people (though, of course, there are many cases in which people are angry because they care for other people—-I think of those who are passionate about social justice).