Commentary on Romans 15:4-13
We are used to, especially in the Advent season, hearing about the coming Messiah and how his birth in a manger in Bethlehem signifies salvation for us, Christians.
Centuries of Christianity have shaped this message for us and, as Christians, we feel like Christmas is an event that has deep and comforting personal significance.
In some ways of course, this is very true; the meaning of the arrival of the Messiah has changed and evolved over the years, and yet, the insight that Christ’s birth has some important personal meaning for Christians has taken predominance in Christian theology. With this passage in Romans, we hear a somewhat different interpretation of the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The passage is framed by two references to hope (Romans 15:4-13). Hope is related to scripture and also to the promises made to the fathers. Fleshing out how hope relates to messianic expectations and to life in the community will be my main purpose.
This section opens with a reference to what has been written in the scriptures. Paul says “for whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” Christians in later centuries have sometimes understood this passage, and other similar statements by Paul, to indicate that the Christian church and the Christian religion had taken the place of the Jewish synagogue and the Jewish religion.
This interpretation has had devastating consequences for the relations of Jews and Christians, and it is not the position of Paul. “We” is not, at the time of Paul, the Christian church. Rather, it is the community of the Christ-believers, both Jews and nations that form the people of God. The rest of the passage clarifies how Paul thinks about the relationships between Jews and non-Jews.
In 15:8, Paul uses striking language to describe the mission of Christ. He indicates that Christ “has become a servant of the circumcised.” In a striking parallel, Paul describes himself as a servant or officiant of Christ to the nations (15:16). What Christ has come to accomplish for the Jews, Paul now parallels in his work with the nations, as an envoy of Christ.
There is not a sense that God’s actions in the world no longer concern the Jews. Rather, Romans seeks to establish that God does not neglect the chosen people. Those of the circumcision are part of God’s plan and are included in Christ’s activity. In that sense, Christ’s coming fulfills the promises made to the fathers (Romans 15:8), as well as allowing the participation of the nations to the glorification of the God of Israel.
The content of these promises is not expressed explicitly in 15:8. The following verses flesh out the content of these promises. The quoted scriptures present an eschatological vision found in some Jewish texts and are preoccupied with the manner in which, at the end of times, nations will worship the God of Israel with the people of Israel.
Paul’s challenge is to make this eschatological scenario a reality. Inside the communities he has founded (or with which he communicates, as is the case for the community in Rome), he hopes to actualize what has only been promised in scriptures and aims to create an environment where nations and God’s people can worship the God of Israel together, “with one voice” (Romans 15:6).
The last quote (Isaiah 11:10 LXX) indicates how the Messiah will rule over the Gentiles and how the Gentiles will be included in the hope given to God’s people by the God of Israel. This inclusion also means that the nations can now rejoice alongside God’s people (15:9 and 15:10).
For the community in Rome, this means concretely that the Christ-believers have to embody an ethics of hospitality towards each other (Romans 15:7). At the heart of the identity of the community, there needs to be an attitude of welcome and openness. In Romans 15:5, Paul’s wish for the community describes the content of this life in community marked by hospitality: it is about “thinking the same thing.”1
The purpose is unity of thought, but Paul adds that this unity of thought happens “among each other,” according to Christ Jesus.” The unity of thought does not mean that the diversity (“among each other”) disappears. However, the criterion of unity among diversity is Christ Jesus. If Christ remains the decisive factor for the community, then the community can reach unity through its diversity and thus glorify God (15:6). Glorification is important but has to be done as a community. In this context, the coming of the Messiah and the hope and promises associated with it, is about the future of the nations and their incorporation in the people of God, alongside Israel.
For the community in Rome, Paul’s words would have had very concrete implications. Historically, scholars think that the house churches in Rome were mixed communities comprised of Jews and nations. The exhortations Paul gives need to be translated in concrete behavior, and for the Roman house churches, this means in particular not thinking that the pagan members of the communities have more value than the Jewish members.
Unity according to Christ also means that differences are not erased. Members do not have to conform to one particular pattern of behavior, but they do have to realize that the essential and defining character of their identity is now Christ.
Our churches too are called to this hospitality. This hospitality is not a lukewarm sort of welcome that would translate in letting anyone come in as long as they adapt to what is considered the “strong” position in the church (Romans 15:1), conform to the customs of the established church, or follow the agenda established by the ones in charge inside the community.
Rather, the welcome Paul has in mind threatens the ones who offer it. It pushes them to the threshold of the community and forces them to accept those who come as they are, without seeking to first transform them so that they adapt to the dominant practice. The criterion is the ethos of Christ, and this criterion is one that does not seek to change those who come to Christ.
1 The translation of the NRSV “live in harmony” is a bit too removed from the literal meaning of the passage: to auto phronein en allêlois kata Christon Iêsoun”.