Election: Romans 9 – 11, Reading Paul, Part 2

Corporate Christianity

We Americans, as Westerners, believe in what some call radical individualism. In our world, the individual (me) is more important than the nation, the community, or the family. We aren’t surprised at all when our children leave family, hometown, and even country to realize their maximum potential. In the First Century, this would have been rare — and would only be celebrated if done to honor God. No one else was higher than the community.

Therefore, when we read about the early church, we read the epistles as speaking about our “personal relationship” with God. And we do indeed have a personal relationship with God. But it’s more likely that a given passage is actually speaking of our community’s relationship with God. And we just don’t see it.

Thus, when we take communion, we believe God wants us to meditate as individuals, oblivious to the fellow Christians around us. But Paul in fact commands us (1 Cor 11:29) to discern (notice, recognize) the “body of Christ” — not just the bread but the church — the community — which is the body of Christ. We are to commune as a body.

The way the early church often did this was by combining communion with a common meal, symbolizing both Jesus’ Last Supper and the great banquet of the church God will serve at the end of time (Rev 19:9). Eating together was how the early church celebrated the death of Jesus, because the death of Jesus brought them together. The death of Jesus made them family, and so they acted like family.

Think about the powerful metaphors of the New Testament: the bride of Christ; the body of Christ; the Kingdom; the good news of the Kingdom. These are all community/corporate/church metaphors. And they are all about individuals coming together to be part of a larger whole.

Paul speaks of Christians together forming a “body” in 1 Cor 12 and Rom 12, and his point is not just that we are different, but that we’re pretty much useless without each other. What’s the point of being just a foot?

Therefore, to read Paul, we have to learn to think like a First Century Roman or Jew — someone who likely lived with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, children, and grandchildren, all in a single compound called an insula. A man and wife and their children might share a single room with open air windows, immediately adjacent to their parents.

To some of us Westerners, this sounds like a living hell! But to the ordinary First Century person, this is just how it was, and being any other way was unimaginable — and very desirable. They lived as family in a way that few of us have ever experienced.

Therefore, when Paul speaks of the “household” of faith or being “family,” he doesn’t mean family like we mean family. He means family where there were no secrets, no privacy, and continuous, intense community — but a community that defined who they were as people.

And this helps explain why there were so many “household” conversions in Acts. Extended families lived together in intense intimacy, and so they made decisions like this together. Any other approach would have been unthinkable. And this is one of Paul’s models for the church!

And this helps explain why Abraham and the early Israelites found great comfort in God’s promises to bless their descendents and make a great nation out of them. They thought in community terms.

The destructions of Jerusalem

We Gentiles have trouble seeing the flow of history in the Bible, as the story of Israel seems so distant and foreign to us. But it was far from distant or foreign to Paul — and we miss much of what’s going on if we ignore this.

In Romans 9 – 11, the historical event that looms over quotation after quotation is the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar. The 10 northern tribes of Israel (often called simply “Israel”) had been taken into captivity by the Assyrians. The remaining two tribes (Judea and the much smaller tribe of Benjamin, generally referred to together as “Judea”) survived.

However, despite repeated warnings from the prophets, Judea became idolatrous. Even when kings sought to reform Judea, most of the people remained Baal worshippers. Eventually, even the kings were sacrificing their own children to Baal — making them “pass through the fire,” that is, burning them alive.

God brought to fruition the curses promised in Deuteronomy by allowing the Babylonians to lay siege to and destroy Jerusalem and the temple. However, the prophets promised that God would bless those who returned as promised in Deuteronomy 30.

Return from Exile

Under the Persians, some of the Jews returned to Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah, and they rebuilt the temple (the “Second Temple”). However, the Jews by and large did not consider the exile to be over. God had promised to set things right when the exile was over, and it hadn’t happened. After all, they were under Roman rule, an Edomite sat on the throne (kings in the Herodian dynasty had been named King of the Jews by Caesar), and the wrong lineage served as high priest. When Jesus came, many Jews were still looking for the fulfillment of the prophecies about the return from exile.

The second destruction

Forty years after Pentecost, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, re-enacting the curses of Deuteronomy. Jesus had cried over Jerusalem and prophesied its destruction. Thanks to Jesus’ words, Christians living in Jerusalem fled, as Jesus had told them to, before the Romans laid siege to the city and killed its inhabitants in a brutal assault.

Now, huge portions of the Old Testament are dedicated to the Fall of Jerusalem. It was understood as God’s judgment against Israel and fulfillment of his curses announced in Deuteronomy. However, we read the New Testament as though the apostles were uninterested in the second destruction prophesied by Jesus. But they surely were deeply concerned about this.

Therefore, when Paul speaks of God’s dealings with the Jews, we have to pause to consider: is Paul speaking of damnation and salvation at the end of time? Or about a more immediate destruction coming in just a few years when the Romans would destroy Jerusalem and kill tens of thousands of Jews — in an event just as clearly marking God’s judgment against the Jews as Nebuchnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem?

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12 Responses

  1. Jay,
    Thank you for bringing out the corporate nature of our fellowship with God and of our worship. You wrote,

    Thus, when we take communion, we believe God wants us to meditate as individuals, oblivious to the fellow Christians around us. But Paul in fact commands us (1 Cor 11:29) to discern (notice, recognize) the “body of Christ” — not just the bread but the church — the community — which is the body of Christ. We are to commune as a body.

    I said to one congregation more than 35 years ago, “The way we want freedom from distraction as we ‘take communion’ (as if ‘communion’ is a ‘thing’ instead of an action), we should seriously consider changing our church architecture to install isolation booths instead of pews!”

    Needless to say, I did not last long preaching in that congregation! Nevertheless, I have not changed my views that led to that remark – except to hold them more firmly and to see even more implications of those views.

    Again, thank you for bringing out the corporate nature of our relationship with God, especially to emphasize the “household of faith” concept and put this into the context of first century experience.

  2. Jesus words “This is my body..” ,”..in my blood”, and “remember me until I come” all say loudly to me that the focus is His physical body given for us, not the “body” (church) of Christ.

    The waring is to those who participate in this memorial flippantly, not remembering the awful price Jesus paid for sinners.

    I agree compeletly with the sentiment about our fellow believers and their importance but just disagree that this passage has that in mind.

    Royce

  3. Why does the reference to “discerning the body” have to be an either/or – Jesus’ body given for/the body of believers for whom He gave it?

    Can’t it be both?

  4. Royce,
    In your comment above you made the following statement: “I agree completely with the sentiment about our fellow believers and their importance but just disagree that this passage has that in mind.”

    The traditional CofC understanding of Romans 9-11 has been to focus on the context of one statement made about Jacob and Esau – Jacob I loved and Esau I hated – and not focus on the part about before the twins were born and had done anything good or bad or the larger context of Romans 9: 1-23. That is, the emphasis is placed on national election (as though nations were not made up of individuals) rather than individual election. This way we have avoided dealing with the apparent election of all the individuals discussed in the passage. This position may be consistent with the context in which the statement is made in the OT. It is not consistent with the way Paul uses the OT in this text. John Piper wrote a book about 25-30 years ago titled The Justification of God. An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23. He addresses this discussion at length there. To my knowledge, there has never been a serious attempt to refute Piper’s argument made in that book.

    It is interesting to look at the great variety of ways Paul (and others) uses the OT in the NT. There have been books written on the subject.
    Peace,
    Randall

  5. Jay

    Therefore, when Paul speaks of God’s dealings with the Jews, we have to pause to consider: is Paul speaking of damnation and salvation at the end of time? Or about a more immediate destruction coming in just a few years when the Romans would destroy Jerusalem and kill tens of thousands of Jews — in an event just as clearly marking God’s judgment against the Jews as Nebuchnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem?

    Questions

  6. Jay

    Therefore, when Paul speaks of God’s dealings with the Jews, we have to pause to consider: is Paul speaking of damnation and salvation at the end of time? Or about a more immediate destruction coming in just a few years when the Romans would destroy Jerusalem and kill tens of thousands of Jews — in an event just as clearly marking God’s judgment against the Jews as Nebuchnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem?

    “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.” 2Tim 4:3-4

    Fulfilled or unfulfilled? Prophecy is central to our view of our faith. Its a game changer…..

  7. Jerry,

    Thanks for that. You know, I’ve often wondered why so many get bent out of shape over singing during the Lord’s Supper — as though actually doing something together might be wrong!

  8. mark,

    Hmm …. could be …

    But, if so, like many prophecies, there could be more than one fulfillment.

    Then again, I thought this is the verse we were supposed to use to condemn those who disagree with us, right? I mean, if you disagree with me, surely you have itching ears! 🙂 My ears never itch. 🙄

  9. This is a subject I’ve been contemplating for a while now. I haven’t come to a strong conclusion. I have some questions that seem to point in a different direction but I’m not sure.

    Including comments outside of the 1 cor 11 passage concerning the church as a unified body is certainly valid. However, there are two issues stated within the passage that need to be included.

    The questions:

    1) Why the renewed interest in the Love Feast when Paul seems to advise to stop the practice if it can’t be done correctly (love and respect for each other). He does say to stick to the essentials of the bread and cup to remind us it’s all about Jesus.

    2) Why the emphasis on corporate when Paul explicitly says we are to reflect internally (individually).

    It seems to me our worship is corporate and we are communing together with Christians all over the world. I make such comments often when I lead the communion devotion and prayer. However, this small percentage time in worship is a time for inner thought and reflection.

    Again, I’m not disagreeing here but trying to synthesize all of the scripture on the subject. My guess is if the Love Feasts were the status quo, we would be advocating switching to a moment of silence and meditation.

  10. Jay
    Then again, I thought this is the verse we were supposed to use to condemn those who disagree with us, right? I mean, if you disagree with me, surely you have itching ears! 🙂 My ears never itch.

    Now that you mentioned it I have this funny feeling in my ears. The end is near…..

  11. Rich,

    I don’t think Paul tells them to stop the practice of eating together; in fact he seems to reaffirm the practice as essential. He does, however, give some advice for those who are so hungry that they can’t wait to eat.

    He writes “So then, my brethren, WHEN YOU COME TOGETHER TO EAT, WAIT FOR ONE ANOTHER. If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home (i.e., have some crab cakes or shrimp cocktail before you come so that you can wait for everyone to arrive for supper), so that you will not come together for judgment The remaining matters I will arrange when I come.” (1 Co. 11:33-34)

    Notice that they are still encouraged to eat the meal together.

    Also, your emphasis on the individual (and the current practice of privately sipping a thimble of juice and eating a crumb of cracker) seems to be symptomatic of the very thing Paul condemns when he says that “each one takes HIS OWN SUPPER first…” Today when we take the Lord’s supper, everyone eats their own, individual, private supper without so much as a glance of eye contact and communion with the others who are supposed to be eating with us.

    Their failure in discerning the body was not that they didn’t think really hard about blood and gore on the cross, but that they didn’t take proper consideration of their fellow brother’s and sisters (the body), which in fact is the entire point and context.

    Considering that Jesus in our living, active, victorious host at the supper, I have always wondered what he would say to us if were physically present. We know he is present in the breaking of bread. I imagine he would lean over to the quiet, introspective person next to him on the pew and say, “Why is everyone so sad and quiet? I’m alive and present and have overcome death! Rejoice!”

    My two (or three) cents.
    BTW, Rich, how’s class going?

    Zach

  12. Zach,

    You make some excellent points to ponder.

    Perhaps I need to observe how this can be done. However, it seems that integrating the “pot luck” into the worship service with 400+ people would cause more distractions than it would enhance our communion. Distractions (hungry for example) do seem to be part of the Corinthian problem.

    I know the way we tend to do communion now seems a bit regimented and perhaps needs refreshing. But is it wise to eliminate an opportunity to reflect together but inwardly? Meditation is highly valued in some circles.

    Rich.

    BTW, classes are great but are really keeping me busy. At least 60 hours a week at the moment.

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