It’s a little late in coming, but I’m finally beginning to realize something important: I read the Bible like a Gentile.
After all, I am a Gentile. But that’s usually transparent to me, until I come to the cultural world of the Scriptures and realize that I’m a stranger in a strange land. Let’s see: I’m a Chinese-American male, born and raised in California, cradled in 20th century technology and middle-class suburban comfort, steeped in American individualism. And yet…I follow a Jewish Messiah and read the Bible, much of which was written by and for first-century Jews.
I’ve become more and more aware of my habit of almost reading past the more “Jewish” parts of the New Testament, as if they were somehow quaint little anachronisms that I don’t really need to deal with. I’m not Jewish, and all that matters is what’s most relevant to me, right?
A case in point. Romans 12 has long been one of my favorite chapters of the New Testament. It’s where Paul segues from eleven closely argued chapters of theology to the implications of it all for the life of the church. The passage begins with this:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship (Rom 12:1, NIV).
I’ve sometimes wondered how many arguments about “proper worship” could potentially be quelled by taking Paul to heart here. It’s not about what music I prefer (traditional or contemporary?), or the preaching style (expository or topical?), or any number of other things over which congregations have split, as important as these things may be.
Rather, worship, Paul suggests, is about having such a clear-eyed appreciation of the breadth and depth of God’s mercy that the only reasonable response is to give my life to him in service. Worship is worth-ship–knowing that God alone is worthy of our devotion and praise, and in turn giving him all we’re worth.
But as I’ve been taught to ask when encountering a verse that begins as this one does–what’s the “therefore” there for? The word points first backward, then forward: if you understand that, then consider this. So to which part of Romans 1 to 11 is Paul pointing?
In the three chapters immediately prior, Paul poignantly laments the fact that so many of his fellow Jews seemed to have missed the gospel boat. My tendency has been to treat these chapters as a side-show, and focus instead on the great doctrines of the faith found in the first eight chapters. “In view of God’s mercy,” Paul says. Well, he must be pointing to the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, in which Christ takes our place on the cross to satisfy the requirements of God’s wrath against our sin. And of course, there’s the central doctrine of justification by faith alone (the sola fide of the Protestant Reformation). OK, got it, Paul. I understand and I’m ready to worship.
All of this is surely part of what Paul means by God’s mercy. But is there more?
At the beginning of chapter 11, Paul writes: “I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means!” (Rom 11:1, NIV). Is that just pure rhetoric on Paul’s part, or is someone really asking that question? It’s certainly not me, the Gentile reader. But here, Paul is writing as a Jew to his fellow Jews. And what he wants them to understand is that God hasn’t pulled a divine bait-and-switch; rather, Jesus was the plan all along.
I can imagine the social tension. Here’s a largely Gentile congregation with a Jewish Christian minority, who are probably still feeling the aftershocks of the late emperor Claudius’ expulsion of the Jews from Rome (Acts 18:2). The Gentile believers care little for Jewish history or covenant promises; they receive the gospel as if they were the rightful people of God from the very beginning.
What if I were a Jewish Christian in the church of Rome, trying to worship God cheek by jowl with a steadily growing number of–gasp!–Gentiles? I might be tempted to wonder if I had missed a legal disclaimer somewhere: Warning–plan of salvation subject to change without notice. I might even have a more disturbing doubt–that God had gone back on his promises to the Jews, casting them aside in favor of the Gentiles.
That’s why Paul works so hard to demonstrate from the Hebrew Scriptures that the righteousness God wants from his people was always a matter of faith, not law. But he says it with compassion and a deep longing for the salvation of his fellow Jews. Moreover, he warns the Gentiles not to be so smug: if they have the privilege of counting themselves among the chosen, it’s by God’s mercy and only by God’s mercy.
I may not be a Jew, but Paul tells us things about God that even a Gentile can understand. We worship a God who is faithful to his promises. We may misinterpret the promises. We may expect God to do things that he has not in fact promised to do. But God does not therefore reject us or brush us to one side.
Not this God.
Mercy upon mercy; patience layered upon grace. To what other God would we want to give our lives? Whom else would we serve with all we’re worth?
Lord, help me to grasp the depth of your mercy, and drink ever more deeply of it. Amen.