Also, Paul very quickly brings out the major issue in his letter to the Romans, the relationship between the Jewish and gentile believers. This statement, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek,” isn’t just a statement about personal salvation being available in Christ for individuals from both backgrounds. It is a statement about the relationship between both groups of people in the Roman church. The cross of Christ, his humbling of himself to serve, even as a slave, in the very basis upon which the new relationship between Jews and gentiles is to be formed. The rest of the letter to the Romans is just about Paul explaining this new relationship, in which the cross takes over our lives together in community to make us one new family.
“For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. As it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17) The term “righteousness of God” means God’s own covenant faithfulness. It means that God has been faithful to his promises to Abraham, having fulfilled his promises to Israel through the cross, and through the new family the Spirit of God is raising up in the church. It means that this gospel is how God’s promises are being fulfilled, rather than through violence, which many in Paul’s day were advocating as the way to free themselves from Rome.
The term “righteousness of God,” or “covenant faithfulness of God,” was commonly used in the Old Testament (e.g., Psalm 71:19) and in Paul’s day, as we see in the Dead Sea Scrolls (e.g., Qumran hymns) when authors considered how God’s promises to Israel would be vindicated and fulfilled. Paul wrote Romans to explain that these promises were fulfilled in the gospel of Christ, namely, in the one new family which God promised Abraham. This gospel, this one new family consisting of Jew and gentile, is the “righteousness of God,” the demonstration of God’s faithfulness to his promises.
We have commonly used the term “righteousness of God” to describe our own righteousness by faith, but this isn’t what Paul meant by it. It is true that Paul also spoke of a righteousness through faith, to show that we are all one in Christ, but this is distinct from the term the “righteousness of God,” which in Paul’s day was about the way in which God fulfilled his promises to Israel. The surprise, as mentioned above, was that his promises would be fulfilled through the weakness of the cross, by a new serving community of Jew and gentile, and not by the sword of the zealots.
Romans is essentially showing God’s righteousness, to wit, that God had made promises to Israel, and despite Israel’s fall, God had kept these promises through Christ. (See Romans 3:1-8, for example.) The gospel is the way in which God has been faithful to his covenant with Israel. God’s righteousness, rather than our own personal righteousness, is the main view of the text. Romans chapters 1 – 16 shows how God remained righteous, to work through Israel’s fall, to bring about one new family for Abraham among Jews and gentiles, to renew the creation. Our love for each other is a demonstration to the world of God’s righteousness, that he has kept his promises to renew our hearts and world.
Paul’s notion of the “righteousness of God,” as we will see later in this commentary, was written in the context of Israel’s return from exile into a comprehensive salvation of their community. Isaiah 55:5 shows this in a nutshell, “My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations. The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm.” Here, the righteousness of God is his faithfulness to fulfil his covenant promises. God’s righteousness comes to pass as seen in the Servant Songs of Isaiah, through the Messiah’s faithfulness, and this is what Paul is describing in Romans.
“…from faith to faith…” We need to consider the full meaning of faith. It stems from the Hebrew shema, which states, “Hear O Israel… you shall love the Lord with all your heart… and your neighbour as your yourself.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Leviticus 19:18) Faith is this new heart that hears with obedience, where this shema is written upon our heart. (Jeremiah 31:33) Faith means faithfulness, loving God and neighbour. “Faith that works through love.” (Galatians 5:6) This is how the cross of Christ works in us. The cross is Christ’s faithfulness to love, forgive and serve us. And in the cross, God’s Spirit renews our heart, leading us into faithful lives towards each other. His faithfulness brings about our renewed faithfulness. “From his faithfulness to our faithfulness.” This is the way God renews our community through the cross, bringing about the fulfilment of his promises to Israel. Our new family/ community demonstrates God’s covenant righteousness, or his faithfulness. Or as Christ put it, “This is how all men will know you are my disciples, by your love for one another.” (John 13:35) We are the demonstration of God’s righteousness, of his faithfulness to his covenant promises to Israel.
“As it is written, the just shall live by faith.” This is a quote from Habakkuk, who lived in similar times to Rome. Babylon was an unrighteousness nation exerting its power over Israel.
Habakkuk was told he would be delivered through a life of faithfulness. This means faithfulness to the shema of God. It is the essence of the law. It fulfils the law without the need of the ceremonial obligations of the law. Self-giving love is the fulfilment of the law. This is the overall argument of Paul in Romans. The new people of God, whether Jews or gentiles, fulfil the law in loving service to each other, without the ceremonies hindering that fellowship. (Romans 3:31, 8:3-4) When Paul quotes from the Old Testament, he means to include the whole context from that Old Testament passage.
Habakkuk 2:4-5 reads “See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright— but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness — indeed, wine betrays him; he is arrogant and never at rest. Because he is as greedy as the grave and like death is never satisfied, he gathers to himself all the nations and takes captive all the peoples.”
Paul’s use of “faithfulness” is clear. The people who wish to divide the new family in Paul’s ministry have their selfish ambitions at heart, but the faithful will serve their neighbour in love. It isn’t just that we live in empires that oppress us, but we also adopt the same tactics and live the same way of oppression towards others. “We live for number one” and this was the Jewish and the gentile way of life in Paul’s day. The gospel has come to change this in our lives and fellowship within a new family.