In the sermon text for this week (Romans 1:16-17), Paul says that he is not ashamed of the gospel. This is one of those verses that becomes a kind of Christian slogan or motto. It gets plastered on T-shirts and bupmer stickers which we proudly flaunt to show just how unashamed we are. But what exactly is it of which we are not ashamed? What does Paul mean by "the gospel" and why is he not ashamed of it (and what reasons could make it appear shameful so that Paul felt he had to say he was not ashamed of it)?
These are actually very complex verses. Paul uses an astounding amount of theologically packed words in these verses: gospel, salvation, faith, righteousness. Furthermore, these words and verses are closely connected together as Paul uses the word "for" to connect them over and over again. Look at the logical progression that begins in v.15. Paul is eager to preach the gospel to those in Rome. Why? Because he is not ashamed of it. Why? Because it is the very power of God for salvation to all who believe. Why? Because the righteousness of God is revealed in it just as it was in Habbakkuk's day when he wrote that the righteous would live by faith. This logical argument actually continues down through the rest of the chapter and really through the rest of the whole letter as Paul seeks to unpack in more detail all that he has said so concisely in these two verses.
But let's attempt to unpack some of it now. What does Paul mean when he talks about God's righteousness being revealed in the gospel and what does that have to do with Habakkuk and the righteous living by faith? In the Old Testament, righteousness referred to covenant faithfulness. In other words, you had certain obligations to others by virtue of your relationship with them; certain obligations to your family, to those you did business with, even some level of obligation to strangers and aliens. You would be considered righteous if you continually fulfilled those obligations by living up to what was expected of you in all of your relationships. This was true of the relationship between God and Israel as well. Part of being righteous was doing the things that were necessary to maintain one's relationship with God. However, this applied to God's end of the relationship as well. If God were to be considered righteous, then God had to be faithful to Israel. God and Israel had entered into a covenant (kind of like a contract, an agreement) together on Mt. Sinai after God had delivered Israel from Egypt. In this convenant, God had made certain promises to Israel and if God was going to be a righteous God, then he had to keep those promises.
This is very much what Paul is concerned about in the book of Romans. Especially in chapters 9-11, Paul is wrestling with whether or not God has been faithful to the promises that he made to Israel. This arises as a question for Paul because God had said that Israel would be God's people and now Paul saw countless gentiles responding to the message of salvation in Jesus Christ while many Jews did not. Paul wanted to know that God had not abandoned Israel. As I already mentioned, Paul really gets into this in chapters 9-11 but I think he has already started to answer the question with his quotation from the prophet Habakkuk.
So what does the righteous living by faith have to do with God's promises to Israel? In order to understand this, we must take into consideration the context of the quote from Habakkuk. This quote comes in the midst of a strange time in Israel. The book of Habakkuk begins with the prophet crying out to God about the violence and injustice that exists in his land among God's own chosen people. God responds to Habakkuk's outcry but it is by no means the answer that the prophet expects. Much to Habakkuk's astonishment and dismay, God says that he is going to use the Chaldeans (a.k.a the Babylonians) to sort out things in Judah. For a modern day parallel, this might be something like God telling American Christians that God was going to use Iraq or Iran or Al Queda to sort out America's problems. It would have been truly unsettling for a Jew to hear that God was going to use a pagan, backwards nation that had no concept of Yahweh like Babylon to correct God's people and get them back on track. It is in the midst of this strange situation that God says through the prophet Habakkuk that the righteous will live by faith/faithfulness. (The Hebrew word here is actually closer to the word faithfulness than what we usually mean by the word faith in English. The Greek word Paul uses can mean either faith or faithfulness and at times it seems the two concepts are tied too closely together to be neatly separated.) In other words, the ones who will be considered righteous in Habakkuk's day will be the ones who are faithful to God's work to renew Israel no matter how strange that work may seem at the moment.
So what does all that have to do with Paul's point in Romans? By quoting Habakkuk, Paul is not only drawing attention to the specific words he quotes but to the whole situation in Habakkuk's time (just as we could use a phrase like "we, the people of the United States of America..." to draw attention to a whole document and not just that one quoted phrase). He does this because he believes that his current situation is just as strange as Habakkuk's. Just as God chose to work in an unexpected way through the Babylonians in Habakkuk's day so also God has now chosen to work in a strange and unexpected way in Paul's day; through a crucified Messiah. Paul will argue throughout Romans that just because God has chosen to work in an unexpected way does not mean that God has abandoned his former promises; it does not mean that God is not righteous. Also similar to Habakkuk's prophecy, the ones who will be counted as righteous in Paul's day will not be the one who wear the title "Jew" but will be those who are faithful to this new, strange, and unexpected way in which God is working.
Paul is not ashamed of the gospel because he has seen that it is God's power to redeem and restore Israel and to transform the rest of the world as well. God's faithfulness to his promises are revealed in the gospel, albeit in an unexpected way, just as they were in Habakkuk's day. The ones who will be counted as righteous will be those who recognize God's unexpected faithfulness and themselves become faithful to this gospel message. Paul is, in fact, so unashamed of this gospel message that he is willing to proclaim it right under the nose of the empire. Paul is unafraid of proclaiming this crucified Jewish peasant as Lord and savior in a letter that is headed to the very city where Ceasar, who claimed to be the true Lord and savior of the world, resided.
In what new, strange, and unexpected ways is God working in our world today? How is God revealing his righteousness; his faithfulness to his promises to redeem and restore Israel and all of creation? Are we so unashamed of this message that we would proclaim it even when it challenges the empire that surrounds us?