For years, Paul's letter to the Romans has been a puzzle. Paul would never have passed a freshman composition course. It's hard to read his long, meandering sentences and follow his often convoluted thoughts. I suspect I'm not the only one with that sort of story about Paul, but I'm willing to cut him some slack. He is, after all, more than any other person, responsible for the shape of Christianity.
One of the portions that made me crazy was Chapter 5. There's so much to say about this chapter, it's hard to know where to begin. Let's start by talking about this idea of exulting in tribulations.
3 ... we also exult in our tribulations ...
I'll have to be honest and say I thought Paul was either lying or mentally unbalanced. Nobody likes trouble. Nobody likes pain and problems. But Paul did. Or at least, he liked what they produced, if he wasn't in love with the problem itself, or the pain it brought.
... knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; 4 and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; 5 and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
Paul was looking at the end, and not at the immediate present. My tendency is to focus on my circumstances: I hurt, and I don't like it. Why did you let this happen, God? When will this end, God? What did I do wrong, God? You might know the routine.
But one day, in the middle of a very hard time, I read Paul's words again, and a light came on. Paul wasn't in love with pain. He was in love with God, and he would joyfully accept anything that brought him closer to God, and made him more like Jesus. That's why he exulted in tribulation. We would, too, if we took the larger view, like Paul.
Then, in that same chapter, we read about death and life, about Adam and Moses and Jesus. Again, as I have read these I have done a lot of head scratching.
12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned - 13 for until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law.
Some of this is pretty straightforward: Sin entered the world through the action of one person, Adam. And sin has as its normal consequence, death. When sin enters, death follows.
But what about the Law part? Before the Law, there was certainly sin in the world, and there were certainly consequences. Death. But it was impossible to address the problem of the pervasiveness of sin and death, and the attendant lack of hope, if there was nothing to point out the sin, to show its serious nature, and to offer a new way of living. Hence the Law.
14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.
That death reigned is pretty clear. The world was - and is - a place of death. The question is why Paul says the reign stopped with Moses. It seems like it would continue on, perhaps until Jesus. But it doesn't.
Here's what it looks like to me: Before Moses - before the Law - there was no outcome and no remedy for sin but the death of the sinner. Sin had to carry on to its natural result. The world was one with no hope of relief from this hideous situation. Nobody liked it but everyone considered it was "just the way things are."
However, at the giving of the Law, things changed in an important way. Yes, people still sinned. Yes, there was still violence. Especially, there was still death. But there was another option. God provided a way to deal with sin besides the death of the sinner: The sacrificial system and a relationship with Him.
In a recent conversation, someone said the Law was about behavior. And someone else challenged that, saying it was about relationships. They are both right. But the first person - the behavior guy - wasn't looking deeply enough. The Law, indeed, addresses behavior. Certain actions are prescribed and certain others proscribed. Some of these are "big hairy deal" kinds of things, and others seem somewhat nitpicky, like what kind of fish can be eaten. But the unasked question is why is God so concerned with behavior?
It's because our behavior shapes our relationships. That's true on an interpersonal level, and it's true on between us and God. The entire Bible is about relationship: God seeks redemption and reconciliation so that He can have a restoration of the relationship He intended before the fall. And so God is prescribing the sort of behavior that builds space in our lives for knowing Him.
But there's still the problem of sin. When the Law was given, it included a mechanism for people to enter into a relationship with God. But in order to do that, the matter of sin must be addressed. Guilt is a relationship killer, as is shame.
So God gave Moses the Law, which included a way for sin to be addressed, so that people could be found righteous, even though the ultimate "payment" would not come for many centuries, in Jesus.
Paul argues that an important function of the Law was to dethrone death. Death no more reigns on this earth, despite appearances.
15 But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many.
16 The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification.
17 For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.
18 So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.
The last point I want to make concerns the "gift." What is the gift? Is it Jesus? Some say it is. But a more careful reading (v. 17) shows that the gift - and there may be more than one - is righteousness. Jesus is not the gift. The gift comes through Jesus. And the other possibility is life, the gift of life. But they're really the same: Through Jesus we are made righteous, and as we enter into that righteousness, we have life. LIFE! Not drab existence, but abundant life. Forgiven life. Purposeful life. Life worth living. LIFE!