New Testament Words and Verses
Romans 7:9-10, The Things Leading to Life and Death
The brilliance of the Apostle Paul resides in many particulars, but one of the most overlooked is the rhetorical strategy he uses to stop the flow of his argument, even when it is figuratively speaking charging ahead at 100 miles per hour, and then to summarize where he is in his argument. As I will illustrate in today’s post, he does so in these verses to try to emphasize two things: the ineffectiveness, and even harmfulness, of the Jewish Law, and the despair that resulted for him when it pointed its finger of accusation against him. Note I say that his argument is all part of a rhetorical strategy since the earliest Christians faced an enormous intellectual problem in its first generations regarding how they would interpret, and regard, the Jewish Law. As other posts will show, Christianity never really came to a satisfactory answer regarding the role of the Jewish Law in Christian faith. By making their appeal to the Gentiles, and arguing that Christ had died for all people regardless of affiliation with the Covenant people, the early Christians ultimately eliminated that conundrum.
We can’t go into that idea and the complexities of that process, in this essay. In these two verses, though, we have Paul wrestling with the role of the Jewish Law in Christian faith. Here are the two verses, with my own translation:
9 ἐγὼ δὲ ἔζων χωρὶς νόμου ποτέ· ἐλθούσης δὲ τῆς ἐντολῆς ἡ ἁμαρτία ἀνέζησεν, 10 ἐγὼ δὲ ἀπέθανον, καὶ εὑρέθη μοι ἡ ἐντολὴ ἡ εἰς ζωὴν αὕτη εἰς θάνατον·
“At one time I was living without the law. But when the commandment/law came along, sin sprang to life and I died. And the commandment/law that was (supposed to lead) to life, was found by me to (lead to) death.”
My interest is in the final eight Greek words, which can be translated more literally, and a bit more woodenly, as:
“the commandment, the one into life, this very one into death.”
Paul presents the dilemma of the person whose expectations have been dashed. He is a person who has been taught all along that the one thing that was most valuable isn’t actually so, but rather the opposite is the case. Paul represents the reality of someone who deeply believed and lived one way, but found that that way wasn’t fruitful for him. As a result, he became completely ineffectual in the area of his greatest desire.
That is, the law, which Paul says is good and holy (7:12), has somehow been used by sin as a base of its operations (the word ἀφορμὴν in verse 8 is redolent with interpretive possibilities) to work in him the opposite of what he desires. It is beyond my interest here to describe exactly what Paul means here: I am far more interested in the psychological reality we all face at times where our greatest commitment proves to be our greatest disappointment; our greatest skill turns out to be our greatest undoing. The irony of living is that we are undone by our gifts, injured by our kindnesses, and hurt by the very things that we thought would do us the most good.
Let me illustrate. The thing most prized by many teachers is an ability to analyze and present information in concise and clear ways. Along with that ability is often a razor-sharp skill to slice through arguments that aren’t clearly presented or that don’t make sense. It is a teacher’s pride, and such a teacher often has generations of grateful students touting the teacher’s virtues in helping them think more clearly, write more effectively, speak more compellingly. Yet the process of getting a student to that point is often messy, as correction and relearning is the order of the day.
This skill, though most treasured in a teaching context, can actually be toxic and harmful in intimate relationships and raising children. Intimate relationships, I hardly need to say, require long years of mutual forbearance, long years of mutual dependence, long years of learning how to listen in ways that build up rather than break down. The skillful teacher and the skillful lover may sometimes be found in the same person, but often the lament of such a person may be uttered in a paraphrase of Paul’s words: ‘the thing that seemingly promised me my greatest satisfaction, now has been revealed as the source of greatest pain or disappointment.’ We will never know how much disappointment the Apostle Paul actually felt when he decided that his Jewish heritage was no longer helpful for him, but we not simply to recognize but also commend his rhetorical and psychological acuity in spotting the ironic tendency of humans to find profound disappointment in the very things that once seemed to provide the greatest promise.
I Cor 5:9-13, One
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