Sometimes you walk into a conversation where it seems like everyone else understands what’s going on but you. They know the context, but you don’t. That’s what we step into in this part of Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. Paul knows the context and so does everyone else there, but we don’t.
However, once we do, we’ll find ourselves.
As we read through that, it’s easy to think, “What just happened?” To catch us up, here’s the backstory.
Paul is writing to a mixed audience in a mixed environment:
There are two different types of Us and Them. First, the Christians and the world around them, but then the Jewish Christians and the increasing number of Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians.
This is a recurring issue in the early church that we see in several places in the New Testament. The Jewish Christians would use their keeping of the Old Testament Law and the symbol of the Old Testament covenant with God as evidence of God’s favoritism toward them – their moral superiority.
Rule Keepers vs. Rule Breakers
The Jews saw themselves as the rule-keepers, and they saw the Gentiles as the rule-breakers. They saw the other people in Rome as a complete lost cause. Their idea was that these people needed to start keeping all the rules if they wanted to be “in,” beginning with a simple surgical procedure for the guys (circumcision).
This is the reason Paul starts by saying, “For God does not show favoritism” and he ends by literally quoting to the Jews from their own songbook that they haven’t earned any brownie points with God.
But the question we need to ask ourselves is who do you think is really beneath you?
This doesn’t mean someone you hate, but someone you know you’re a little better than. And be honest. Which person? Which group of people? It might be based on financial prominence, intelligence, talent, social behavior, morals, or spirituality.
On the other hand, the Gentiles didn’t see any point in trying to keep the law. They believed that since they were saved and free in Christ, they could live it up because they were covered by grace. This is one of the main reasons Paul warned everyone about being “given over” to the rule and the effects of sin in Romans 1.
Jesus also dispels this idea when He says in Matthew 5, “I did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.” The law still matters because it does something, even if it’s not what we think.
So, in the passage, the two groups are primarily defined by their relationship to the rules. Rule Keepers and Rule Breakers.
We all fall into one of these two categories in our everyday lives. Some of us naturally try to figure out where the boundaries are in life, and as we get close to them, we bend them or go around them. Those are the rule breakers. The line is more of a suggestion.
And then there’s the rule keepers. We try to figure out the rules so that we stay inside the lines. It’s nerve-wracking for us when we don’t know what the rules are or when we break one.
Rule keepers elevate themselves at the expense of rule breakers. And if the rule breakers aren’t getting what they deserve, it really bothers the rule keepers. Think about the person who speeds ahead of you to merge into your lane at the last second.
And what’s really interesting…. The act of rule-breaking and rule-keeping are not opposites. Instead, they’re different versions of the same thing. Both are attempts to justify ourselves, by the law (rules) or apart from the law.
Many people who become Christians are saved from rule-breaking, but to rule-keeping. We need to be saved from both to the Gospel – the love of God through Jesus. And the truth is that we can never keep all the rules. So, we pretend like we can.
We sometimes fixate on how people should act and can’t even keep our own rules. Sometimes, we change the rules to fit us better or highlight the ones that affect us the least and others the most.
And that’s exhausting.
When it comes to our relationship with God, we don’t so much have a relationship with God as we do a relationship with the rules. We value the Bible, but that’s not the relationship.
The longer you’re at this, the fewer rule breakers and the more rule keepers there are. We presume our position before God by our perception of our goodness, not by the saving work of Jesus Christ.
It’s a relationship, but the wrong relationship with the wrong thing.
That’s what the world experiences from us too often. Ask a non-religious person to tell you stories about “angry, judgmental, hypocritical Christians,” and it’ll be easy for them. Verse 24 says, “God’s name is blasphemed among Gentiles because of you.”
This means God gets a terrible rap with outsiders because of this game you’re playing that you think you’re good at but really bad at.
It’s because we’ve missed what our relationship with our heavenly father is actually about. And we’re effectively inviting others to rule-keeping. Not to Jesus.
There IS something the law does if we let it – it reminds us of our inability to justify ourselves by our performance.
That shouldn’t drive us to condemnation, but it should drive us to the foot of the cross. Our offense hadn’t been ignored, but we got what we didn’t deserve. We didn’t stay because we did all the work. But we were happy to do it because we could stay.
But when it comes to God, we must ask ourselves, are we a rule breaker or a rule keeper? Which identity have we been holding onto that we feel bolsters our credibility? What makes us more acceptable, valuable, or lovable?
Wrestle with this. What if you laid that relationship with the rules down to receive the relationship Jesus offers you?
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