Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The End of the Law

In the preceding verses, Paul has retold Israel’s story so as to show that God has always been making and remaking Israel, forming a remnant from Abraham descendants with the result that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” Now in 9:30 Paul pauses as he often does to ask a rhetorical question.

            “What shall we say then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it; that is, a righteousness that is by faith(fulness); but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law?”

The implied answer here is “Yes, that is exactly what we should say!”. In fact, it is what Paul has been saying through most of Romans 1-8. And it is that argument in Romans 1-8 we must remember if we are to understand what Paul is saying here. He is not merely advocating for faith over works as those of us raised in the Protestant tradition might expect at first glance. Instead, he is saying that Israel has done the same thing that Paul described himself as having done in Romans 7. Even as Paul “followed” the law by persecuting the Church, that pursuing of the law actually led Paul away from where God really wanted him to be. Likewise, Paul is saying here,  Israel sought righteousness through the law but even in keeping the law Israel did not succeed in really reaching the law’s goal (more on that in a moment).

In the next verse (32), Paul says that the reason Israel failed to reach the law’s goal is because they didn’t pursue it by faith(fulness) but as if it were by works. Once again, it is important to remember how Paul has used this language throughout his letter and not simply impose our own meaning on these words. When Paul has talked about “works” in Romans, he has had in mind specifically the works of the Jewish law; things like circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath observance, things that marked Israel off as Israel. So when he says that Israel pursued the law by works he is not admonishing his fellow Jews for trying to earn their salvation.  Instead, he is saying they’ve missed what it means to really fulfill the law; that truly reaching God’s law is not about ethnic identity markers. Similarly, when Paul has talked about faith(fulness) in Romans he has been referring to God’s faithfulness through Christ (often followed closely by faithful human response). Likewise, here Paul would be saying the law’s real goal is found not in maintaining Jewish ethnicity but in the faithfulness of God. And it is no coincidence that this is the same thing Paul has just been saying in the preceding verses (whereas arguing that righteousness comes by faith as trust or belief rather than works would have very little to do with anything Paul said in 9:1-29). Paul has just spent the whole chapter claiming that being Israel is not about ethnicity but about God’s faithfulness to his promises.

By pursuing the law as if its goal was maintaining the purity of Israel, Israel has stumbled over the stumbling block of God’s faithfulness in Christ. They failed to see that Christ was actually the law’s goal. That is what Paul means in 10:4 when he says “Christ is the end of the law.” Like its English counterpart, the Greek word telos does not always refer to the termination or cessation of something. It can also mean “end” in the sense of a goal or purpose and that is Paul’s meaning here. Christ is the point to which the law has been leading all along. Jesus is the summit of Israel’s story that Paul has been telling for the last 37 verses. Faith in Christ and the faithfulness of Christ are not the antithesis of the law. Paul is not arguing that Israel should give up the law and just “have faith” instead. He is saying that the way to really fulfill the law is through faith in and the faithfulness of the Messiah. He said as much all the way back in 3:31: “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith(fulness)? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law!”.

Once again, we hear the echoes of that old friend who has always been close by as we’ve journeyed through the pages of Romans; the prophet Habakkuk. We are reminded of his assessment of Israel in his own day to which Paul alludes at the opening of his epistle. “The law is paralyzed; justice goes forth perverted” Habakkuk claims but “the righteous out of faith(fulness) will live.” In these verses of Romans 9 and 10, Paul has claimed that the law has essentially been paralyzed for Israel because they haven’t pursued it properly. The law was always meant to be fulfilled by living out of faith(fulness). In the remaining verses of Romans 10, Paul will enlist some of the passages of Scripture most central to Israel’s identity in the first century in order to argue further for this very point.

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