God’s plan is to unite all things, things in heaven and earth, under the banner of Christ (Eph 1:11). If this is the case, then it must be that one of the Devil’s greatest objectives is to produce division.
That is why so many of Paul’s writings have the aim of unity. Galatians, Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Romans all revolve around themes of unity, specifically in regards to the Jew-Gentile issue.
While this generation is acutely aware of the division that swirls around us, we need to remember that our age is not unique. From the beginning of the church, division has been a great enemy of the church and at least one of the reasons why Paul wrote so many letters to early Jesus communities.
In each letter, Paul uses slightly different tactics, based on the situation, to deal with the disunity between Jews and Gentiles. It is also true that because Paul never visited Rome (1:8–13; 15:23), he may give his most comprehensive answer to the Jew-Gentile issue in this particular letter.
While it is probably true that the first converts were Jews in Rome, this condition did not last long. A significant Gentile population had begun streaming into the church (1:5–6; 11:13–32; 15:15–16). With the diverse backgrounds coming together, this caused no small amount of disagreement about what it meant to follow Jesus.
For Paul in Romans, the answer to division can be summarized in one word: die. This was based on the death of the Messiah.
His answer is not for Jews to fight for their rights or boast of their Jewish heritage, or Gentiles to brag of their freedom from the law, but to follow the Savior in his humiliation. True, abundant, and flourishing life can only be had by walking hand in hand with Jesus through the darkness of death to ourselves.
Paul wrote his epistle to Rome to deal with division and explain to them how the work of Christ can be applied to fractured relationships between Jews and Gentiles. He wrote to churches that needed to be reminded of the justifying, and therefore unifying, work of Christ. They could then begin to have their orthopraxy (right actions) line up with their orthodoxy (right beliefs). Or better yet, to have their orthodoxy drive their orthopraxy.
He begins the letter detailing the reign of sin and its destructive force. Then, in the middle of the Epistle, he gives the theology that overturns destruction and brings peace, life, and hope. The gospel was the answer for Paul. Finally, at the close of the letter, he contrasts the destructive behavior he explained in chapters 1–3 with living sacrificial lives of love.
Each cycle of the material informs the other and gives us marching orders in terms of our actions and thought life in the midst of cultural and spiritual division.
Death Cycle (Rom 1–3), Life Through Death (3–11), Life Cycle (12–16)
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Death Cycle (1–3:20)
Paul begins with three chapters about the reign of sin and the death cycle that it produces. This cycle is put into motion by disordered worship. The mistaken love for ourselves and things of this world leads us to futile thinking and darkened hearts.
And when our hearts and minds are darkened we begin to worship that which should not be worshipped: bodies, sexuality, creatures, and personal identity. As G.K. Chesterton said, “When we cease to worship God, we do not worship nothing. We worship anything.” The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness by giving people over to their corrupt desires. His wrath is justified because people are rejecting God and destroying themselves and one another. In some sense, Paul is explaining that division and sin is ultimately a worship issue. If the people in Rome are struggling, it is because they are worshipping the wrong thing.
This text specifically speaks of the cycle of death as leading to malice, envy, strife, and deceit. Sin and disordered worship are not merely personal and internal realities but realities that manifest themselves in destructive behavior. Hatred, strife, and envy are all fruits of the death cycle.
Division, for Paul, is sourced in disordered worship and a misunderstanding of the God of the universe. Most likely, Paul brought up these specific things because he wanted to show Jews and Gentiles the source of their division and how disordered worship caused them to plunge headlong into destruction.
Life Through Death (3:21–11)
Paul’s solution for this cycle of death is found in blood (3:25). The unorthodox and destructive practices that Paul lists at the beginning of Romans are answered with the death of Christ. Life confronts death here and conquers through resurrection.
The death of the Messiah placated the wrath of God for sins and brought life. The righteousness that both Jews and Gentiles seek after cannot be found in their works, whether that may be good deeds of Gentiles or ceremonial works of Jews. God’s justice is only found in following the one who has life in himself.
The peace that was lacking in the cycle of death is gifted to Jews and Gentiles because now they have peace with God through Jesus Christ (5:1). Jews and Gentiles are no longer a part of the death cycle but have been transferred to another domain. They have died with Christ in baptism and will be raised to life with him. The old self, enslaved to the death cycle, has been crucified so that we are no longer under the power of sin (6:6).
The hope that Paul presents is loaded with a theology of the death and resurrection of Christ and the power the Spirit. Jews and Gentiles can walk in newness of life because of the works of Christ. They can do this because of God’s great promises to them and his unending love towards them in Christ (Rom 8).
While Paul began the first section with disordered worship, he closes this section with ordered worship. He speaks of the depths of the wisdom and knowledge of God (11:33) and praises him for the gifts that God has given.
Now that Jews and Gentiles have heard of the depths of the love and judgments of God, he transitions to speak of how they now can begin to live a new life.
John writes to provoke faith in Jesus, resulting in eternal life.
Life Cycle (12–16)
Paul makes one more transition in chapter 12 to speak about the life cycle. The life cycle, not surprisingly, must come by death. A disciple is not above his master, and therefore followers of Jesus must follow him in his death.
As Paul has explained, the death of Christ provided true life. In the same way, the way to life for Jews and Gentiles is only through death. They are to offer their bodies as living sacrifices to God (12:1).
Readers should rightly wonder how Paul can pair “living” with “sacrifices.” It is because his theology (orthodoxy) instructs him that life only comes not by avoiding death, but by pressing into it.
But what are Christians to die to? They are to die to their worldly ways of strife, malice, and deceit. They are to put to death what is earthly in them, what is in conformity with this world. Gentiles were not to have arrogance over the Jews (11:18), the strong were not to despise the weak, and neither were they to pass judgment on one another. They were to pursue what makes for peace and mutual growth (14:19).
They are to put to death high thoughts of themselves (12:3), and practice unity amongst themselves (12:4–8). They are to most fundamentally love one another (12:9), bless those who persecute them (12:14), live in harmony with one another (12:16), repay no one evil for evil, live peaceably with all (12:18), and not take vengeance (12:19). Paul closes the letter to the Romans by warning them against people who cause divisions among them (16:17).
Readers should notice that this list is the flip side of the jealousy, strife, malice, and deceit that characterized those who were outside of Christ in Romans 1–3.
Paul instructs both Jews and Gentiles that the way to life is by looking to the Savior and imitating him in his death. There is little talk of rights and of what is owed to people. Rather, Paul instructs Jews and Gentiles that the only way to peace is by faith in the crucified Messiah and a life that embodies his actions.
When Paul thought of the division that existed in Rome between Jews and Gentiles, his mind ran to the cross of Christ and the new life that it provides. In Romans, he argues that the solution to strife and malice is a double-death: the death of Christ and our own death.
In the same way, Jesus followers of today are to embody this message to the world. They are to be the aroma of death to the world so that people can find true life through looking to the death of the Savior of the world.