God-Fearing Gentiles in Acts

Who are the God-fearing Gentiles depicted in Acts? Within this piece, I make the case that they were true old covenant believers who had not yet entered into the blessings of the new covenant. Upon entering the new covenant, they then received the gift of the Holy Spirit and the other blessings pertaining to the new age. However, this does not nullify the faith that they had beforehand.

The Household of Cornelius

Cornelius is introduced in Acts 10:2 as “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.” Despite this overwhelmingly positive description of a man with an active faith in God, many seem to portray Cornelius as something other than a genuine old covenant believer. This is most likely driven by a desire to make explicit faith in Christ the exact moment at which a person becomes a true believer. However, this reading goes against the straightforward introduction given in the passage, which clearly intends to portray Cornelius as a faithful believer.

Such a reading would also carry the implication that salvation is something which is earned rather than given as a free gift. In verses 4-5, God speaks to Cornelius and says that in response to his prayers and charitable gifts, he is to send for Peter, who will preach the Gospel to him. If the preaching of Peter is the occasion of him first becoming a true believer, then the implication is that God saved Cornelius on account of his good deeds (his prayers and charitable acts) and not by faith alone. However, if the transformation in question is simply about him being transferred into the new covenant, then this would not be an issue: God would simply be rewarding a faithful believer with new blessings on account of his loyalty.

One potential problem with this ‘existing believer’ reading is that Cornelius falls down and worships Peter upon seeing him (verse 25). However, in light of the fact that the Messiah came as a man, this is not a particularly surprising mistake for him to have made.[1] Another potential problem is that when Peter recalls what happened to the Jerusalem church, he refers to Cornelius being “saved” along with his household (Acts 11:14). However, “salvation” in the new testament can sometimes refer to someone being delivered from the old covenant into the new covenant. It doesn’t necessarily imply that someone was not a true believer beforehand.

Lydia and the Ethiopian Eunuch

Another example of such an old covenant believer would be Lydia, first mentioned in Acts 16:11-15. She is introduced as “a worshipper of God”, which suggests that she was already a believer. The reason why she is often assumed not to have been a true believer is because the passage says that “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul”. However, the opening of a person’s heart does not necessarily indicate conversion. It could simply mean that God prompted her to carefully listen to what Paul had to say, on account of its importance.

Another example worth considering is the Ethiopian eunuch mentioned in Acts 8:26-40. He is said to have travelled to Jerusalem “to worship” and is discovered to be returning from Jerusalem with a copy of the book of Isaiah, which he is reading to himself. Again, some consider the eunuch to be a sort of “naïve believer” who didn’t really know God until Philip came to him with the gospel. Whilst it’s true that Philip discovers him puzzled over the meaning of a particular passage from Isaiah (v34), there is nothing in this which indicates a lack of true faith in God. Many believers, even today, struggle with how to read and interpret parts of the bible.

Nor is it merely already-believing Gentiles in view. Sometimes in Acts we encounter faithful Jews who are yet to come to an explicit faith in Christ. For instance, there is Apollos, who had already been “instructed in the way of the Lord”, and even “taught accurately the things concerning Jesus”! He would likely have been taught about Jesus by John the Baptist, since he is referred to as having been baptized by John (Acts 18:25). Then there are the twelve Ephesian men Paul encounters in Acts 19:1-7 who are referred to as “disciples” (v1). The only things that they are said to lack is specific knowledge about the identity of Jesus (v4) and the impartation of the Holy Spirit (v6). This suggests that they too were already faithful believers, who were simply yet to enter into the blessings of the new covenant.[2]

Conclusion

The book of Acts describes a crucial moment in salvation history. The moment when, for the first time in history, God poured out his Spirit upon all flesh (Acts 2:17). In response to this message, many were converted and came to know God in truth for the first time. However, there were many existing believers still around who had not yet entered into this new covenant blessing. The book of Acts documents this transitional period, a period in which many who already knew the Lord came to a fuller knowledge of him through the gospel and were filled with the Holy Spirit.


[1] Note that the apostle John makes a similar mistake, bowing down to an angel twice in the book of Revelation (19:10, 22:8-9). Each time the erroneous action happens though, it is quickly rectified.

[2] It is no coincidence that both of these instances of Jewish believers were disciples of John the Baptist. John’s fame was known throughout Israel and it would have been virtually impossible to be on the fence about him.

Baptism: The Washing of New Creation

What is the meaning and significance of baptism? Whilst there are many potential answers to this question, in this piece I intend to explore the relationship between the rite of baptism and the theme of new creation.

Creation through Water

In the beginning, God created the world, forming it through water by the Spirit (Genesis 1:2). This water then became the backdrop against which the remaining acts of creation occurred. First God shone light into the darkness of the waters (day one), then he created a firmament to separate the waters (day two), then he called the land forth from the waters (day three), and so on. In the words of the apostle Peter:

“For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished.” (2 Peter 3:5-6)

So God created the world by water and then destroyed that same world by water at the flood. Washing with water is therefore a means of both creation and of renewal (new creation). But what could an initiation rite like baptism have to do with a cosmic event like the flood or the creation of the world?

A New World

In the apostle Peter’s first new testament letter, he directly associates baptism with the flood. He writes the following:

“in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:20b-21)

To understand how the different themes relate to one another in this passage, it helps to compare with the flood story in Genesis 6-9. The notion of an “appeal to God for a good conscience” is a reference to the sacrificial offering of Noah after the flood, which God delights in, promising never to flood the earth again (Genesis 8:20-22). In baptism, just as in sacrifice, the believer is presented before God as a pleasing aroma in his sight.

Then there is the reference to being “saved through water”. Noah and his family are saved through water not in the sense of a bodily washing (“removal of dirt from the body”), but in the sense that they are brought out of a world plagued by sin and death and into a new world, a new covenant. This is a salvation through the agency of water, in putting to death the old creation and bringing the righteous safely into a new creation.

A New Kingdom

Another passage which is related to this theme is Colossians 2:11-12.

“In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”

“Circumcision” here does not denote a sort of internal transformation of the heart, but a cutting off of a person from the old creation, that they might be partakers of a new creation.[1] The context of the passage concerns the victory of Christ over the powers of evil, and the believer’s incorporation into that victory (v10, 15) through baptism. Now that the old “rulers and authorities” have been overthrown, a new kingdom has been established, and we are partakers of that new kingdom.

The “body of the flesh” is another way of speaking about the old world, the world which Christ overcame by his death and resurrection. In baptism, the believer is said to be buried with Christ and raised up with him, dying to the old world and being raised up into the new world to share in the victory of Christ. All of this is accomplished through the faithfulness of God, who raised Jesus from the dead.

A New Family

Another passage to consider is Romans 6:3-4.

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

In the passage just preceding this one (Romans 5:12-21), we have just learnt that death came through Adam to the whole human race. We have also learnt that by the death of Jesus Christ, the sin of Adam is overcome leading to “justification and life for all men” (Romans 5:18). Paul has not forgotten these themes as he moves into the next section of his letter. He views baptism as a definitive act in which the believer dies with Christ and leaves his Adamic identity behind, becoming united with Jesus instead.

In other words, the believer has ceased to be a member of the old family of Adam and become a member of a new family, with Jesus as its head. And a new family means a new way of living. As a member of this new family, the believer is expected to “walk in newness of life”, no longer living a life dominated by sin, but instead living a life worthy of Christ.

Conclusion

So we see then that in baptism a believer is portrayed as leaving behind the old creation, the old identity, the old family and embracing a new one. We receive a new name, being baptized into the name of Jesus Christ, into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And as a member of this new family, as a representative of Christ, we are expected to walk in a manner worthy of our calling, to put aside old habits and embrace a new way of living.

“Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” (Colossians 2:6-7)


[1] The reference to a “circumcision made without hands” is an allusion to Daniel 2:31-45, in which the prophet sees a vision of “a stone cut out by no human hand” (v34) which smashes to pieces a giant statue. The vision represents the kingdom of God having victory over the kingdoms of the world.

The Vindication of Eve

1 Timothy 2:11-15 is a particularly controversial passage of the Bible. Within it, women are prohibited from “teaching” or “exercising authority” over men. What does this refer to in practice? To help us understand the meaning of the passage, we need to appreciate the careful way that Paul weaves references to the creation and fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-3 into his argument.

Adam as Priest

The garden of Eden was the very first sanctuary in history. Like the tabernacle and the temple which followed it, the garden was a meeting place between God and man (Genesis 3:8). It was situated in a high place, with rivers flowing out from it to water the four corners of the earth (Genesis 2:10-14). Within this context, Adam was not merely a gardener, but the keeper of the sanctuary, appointed to “work it” and to “keep it” (Genesis 2:15).[1] As the image of God, he had a special role to mediate the blessing of God to the rest of creation by his faithful service to God in the garden.

As part of Adam’s priestly task, he was issued a commandment forbidding him from eating fruit from one of the trees, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, on pain of death (Genesis 2:16-17). What is the “knowledge of good and evil”? Elsewhere in the Bible, it denotes adult maturity, as opposed to childhood innocence (Deuteronomy 1:39, Isaiah 7:15-16).[2] I would suggest that the same is true here, that Adam as a new creation was still immature and not yet ready to receive the wisdom of the tree of knowledge.

In the creation of Eve, Adam is granted a “helper” who could assist him in his garden tasks (Genesis 2:18). Though Adam himself was the priest, the one who was given the principal task of keeping the sanctuary, Eve was there at his side. That’s when the serpent enters onto the scene. He promises Eve that in eating the fruit, she will not die and she will become like God in knowing good and evil (3:5 cf. 3:22). Now, although Eve appears to have known about the commandment prohibiting the fruit (3:2-3), only Adam as the priestly figure was given the commandment directly by God (2:16-17). So he should have known better than to eat of the fruit.

Instead, after seeing Eve eat some of the fruit, he also received some and ate it (3:6). When God appears in his glory, he discovers what had happened (3:8-19) and issues judgements upon all of them. He covers Adam and Eve’s nakedness with garments of animal skin, to ransom them from death (3:21) and drives them out of the garden. But this isn’t the end of the story. God also makes a promise that one day the woman will have victory over the deceiving serpent, through her offspring (3:15). For this reason, Adam gives her the name “Eve”, which means “mother of the living”, since through her offspring humanity will be vindicated over the serpent.

The Ministry of Death

All of this is relevant to Paul’s argument in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Paul is writing in a context in which false teaching like that of the serpent plagued the church in Ephesus (1:3-7). In writing this section of his letter, he wants to ensure that the same mistakes which happened in the garden of Eden are not repeated in the Ephesian Church. He orders the women to learn quietly, not disturbing the peace (2:11). This is not a prohibition on women joining in the songs or prayers of the Church, but of interrupting during the delivery of authoritative teaching.

The next verse (2:12) is the key commandment in the section, in which Paul forbids women from “teaching” and “exercising authority” over men. What sort of activity is Paul prohibiting? The Greek word for “exercise authority” is a very strong word, which outside the Bible often means “to slay”. I would argue that Paul is referring here to the discipline and excommunication of false teachers. Earlier in the chapter, he used the language of “handing them over to Satan” (1:20) in reference to this ministry, so the use of strong language in describing excommunication would not be unusual for Paul.[3]

Viewed in this context, the reference to “teaching” is not simply referring to regular teaching or encouragement in the life of the Church, but is an authoritative ‘laying down of the truth’ in the face of false teaching. Paul explains all of this by referring to the fact that Adam was formed before Eve. Why is this relevant? Given our earlier study of Genesis 2-3, we saw that Adam’s creation before Eve is relevant in light of the fact that he is a priestly figure, the one to whom the commandment to abstain from the forbidden fruit was given.

Of course, in the new covenant the “sanctuary” is not the garden of Eden but the Church. Yet Paul still seeks to ensure that appointed men and not women are the ones in charge of ensuring that true doctrine is defended and false teaching resisted, deriving his rationale from Genesis 2-3. Indeed, Had Adam acted righteously he would have corrected the deceiving serpent and banished him from the garden. It’s for this reason that Paul goes on to speak about appointing Church leaders only a few verses later (1 Timothy 3:1-13). As Paul writes elsewhere of a church leader:

“He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”
(Titus 1:9)

The Ministry of Life

Having reminded us of God’s rationale in creating Adam before Eve, we then move on to the story of the fall. We are reminded that Eve, and not Adam, was the one who was “deceived” (1 Timothy 2:14). In context, this is not a condemnation of Eve over Adam. Being “deceived” implies that you were tricked, unlike Adam who had received a direct revelation of the commandment and therefore had full knowledge of his sin. Paul reminds Timothy of this not in order to lay the blame at Eve’s feet[4] but to bring to his mind the consequences of going against God’s revealed will for men and women.

The final verse in the chapter has perplexed many commentators: “Yet she will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” (1 Timothy 2:15). I would argue that verse 15, like verses 13-14, is a reflection on Genesis 2-3. Firstly, Paul notes that Adam was formed before Eve (1 Timothy 2:13, cf. Genesis 2:7, 22). Secondly, he notes that Eve – and not Adam – was deceived (1 Timothy 2:14, cf. Genesis 3:1-6, 13). Finally, he looks forward to the salvation of Eve by “childbearing” (1 Timothy 3:15). This makes most sense as a reference to the promise that Eve would be given victory over the deceiving serpent by the seed which would come from her womb (Genesis 3:15).

Who are the “they” referred to in the second half of the verse? The most straightforward explanation is that they are the righteous, the seed born of the woman. In a special sense, Christ is the seed, the one who crushes the head of the serpent. However, “seed” or “offspring” in Genesis usually refers to the righteous as a group of people rather than an individual representative (eg. Genesis 4:25, 9:9, 12:7). So, in summary, the final verse means that Eve is vindicated (saved) through the bearing of children (the righteous), if those children remain steadfast in faith. By our faithfulness, we crush Satan under our feet and vindicate Eve over the serpent.

“The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”
(Romans 16:20)


[1] The same two Hebrew words for “work” and “keep” are paired once again in Numbers 3:7-8, which describes the ministry of the priests with respect to the tabernacle.

[2] Note also the way that Solomon’s request for wisdom uses the language of discernment between “good and evil” (1 Kings 3:9).

[3] See also 1 Corinthians 5:3-5. In 1 Corinthians 5:13, Paul actually quotes a death penalty commandment from Deuteronomy 17:7 in the context of a discussion about excommunication.

[4] Elsewhere Paul is quite clear that Adam is the chief culprit (Romans 5:12-14, 1 Corinthians 15:22).

The Sanctuary and the Song

The Song of Solomon has attracted a variety of interpretations, on account of its diverse imagery. It has inspired a great many commentaries throughout church history. A variety of different themes are woven together throughout the book, including the themes of sanctuary, garden and city. Both Solomon and his bride describe one another using extremely rich metaphorical language. I will be considering here the theme of the sanctuary and the way that this inspires the lovers’ reflections on one another.

A Fragrant Sacrifice

Just outside of the sanctuary, in the courtyard, sacrifice was offered to God. Sacrificial language can be found in a number of places within the Song. In the opening description of Solomon, his “anointing oils” are said to be fragrant, and his name is compared to “oil poured out” (1:2-4). Oil was poured out upon grain offerings and was used for ordaining priests and kings. Special anointing oil was also kept for the purposes of setting apart sacred people and spaces.

Another example of sacrificial imagery would be in the description of Solomon arriving in his wedding carriage in 3:6-11. The reference to “columns of smoke” in the wilderness echoes the presence of God leading his people through the desert. However, it also has sacrificial connotations, since the sacrifices of the bronze altar ascended upwards in a column of smoke. The references to perfuming with “myrrh and frankincense” strengthen this connotation. Myrrh was the main ingredient in the holy anointing oil used to sanctify the tabernacle (Exodus 30:22-33) and frankincense was used to perfume grain offerings before presenting them before God on the altar (Leviticus 2:1-3). In the approach of Solomon, the bride witnesses the approach of God himself, descending in the sacrificial smoke and anointed with a holy scent.

Another section of the Song which uses sacrificial imagery is Solomon’s first detailed description of his bride in 4:1-16. Note the way that the bride’s face is described in the opening verses: She is said to have eyes like doves, hair like a flock of goats and teeth like ewes bearing young.[1] These are all sacrificial animals, fit for an Israelite to offer up on the altar. Just as a sacrifice is presented to God and becomes a fragrant aroma and an acceptable offering to him so too is Solomon’s bride a fitting sacrifice in his eyes, a fragrant aroma in his sight.

A Sacred Place

There are other sections of the Song which relate directly to the sanctuary itself. In the wedding carriage scene already mentioned (3:6-11), note the way that the carriage is described. It is made with the wood of Lebanon, a subtle allusion to the description of Solomon’s palace in 1 Kings 7:1-12.[2] However the overall picture is more like that of the ark of the covenant. God was enthroned above the ark which was fitted with poles and carried by his servants, the Levites. It was made from wood and overlaid with gold (Exodus 25:10-22). Similarly, Solomon is enthroned upon a wooden carriage with a gold plated back and surrounded by royal soldiers standing guard. The presence of Solomon to his bride is like that of God enthroned above the ark of the covenant, surrounded by his servants.

The first detailed description of the bride previously mentioned (4:1-16) ends with a comparison between the bride and a garden (verses 12-16). She is described as a “locked” garden and a “sealed” fountain. She is said to contain many choice fruits and spices. She has a river running through her, a “well of living water” producing many streams. This is an allusion to the garden of Eden. The garden of Eden was full of choice fruits, pleasing to mankind (Genesis 2:8-9a). It had the tree of life and a river producing many streams flowing out of the garden (Genesis 2:9b-10). After the fall, the garden became sealed off to mankind (Genesis 3:22-24).

The garden of Eden was the very first sanctuary in history. It was situated on a high place,[3] with rivers flowing out from it to the four corners of the earth. It was the place where God came to meet with man and to delight in his presence. After the fall, human beings could only approach the sanctuary of God at a distance, through the blood of animals offered on the altar. When Solomon witnesses his bride, he sees in her the garden of Eden, a reversion back to a time when man could meet with God up close.

The Presence of God

In all of these passages there is a common theme. The notion of God’s presence among human beings is re-iterated throughout the Song. Early on in the Song, Solomon speaks of seeing the face and hearing the voice of his bride “in the clefts of the rock” (2:14). This is an allusion to Exodus 33:12-23, in which Moses is told to hide “in a cleft of the rock” whilst he witnesses the glory of God. However, unlike Moses who could not gaze upon the face of God, Solomon witnesses up front the face of his bride.

The final chapter of the Song sums this up well. In 8:6-7, the bride expresses her love for Solomon in a way which strongly reflects the love of God for his people. Just as with the covenant of the Law, which was to be placed upon one’s heart, hand and head,[4] the “seal” of marital love is to be set upon one’s “hand” and one’s “arm”. Such love is like “fire”, like the flaming presence of the Lord. In the love between Solomon and his bride, heaven meets earth and God is united once again with mankind.

“Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm,
for love is strong as death,
jealousy is fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
the very flame of the Lord.”
(Song of Solomon 8:6)


[1] The second detailed description of the bride also mentions the same three animals, but instead of describing her eyes as like doves, Solomon uses the dove as a title for the bride herself (6:4-10).

[2] This passage from 1 Kings is particularly significant, in that it also mentions a house being built for Solomon’s first wife, the daughter of Pharaoh. This and the other allusions to Solomon’s palace could therefore indicate that she is the bride depicted in the Song.

[3] See for instance Ezekiel 28:11-19, which describes the garden of Eden as situated upon a mountain.

[4] See Deuteronomy 6:4-9.

The Law in Romans (part 2)

In the first part of this series, I discussed how the book of Romans treats the Law as a personified entity, as a judge and witness to Israel. I mentioned how the Law is hijacked by sin and used to produce evil works in those hearing it. In this part, I will be considering how the Law functions as a symbol pointing to Christ.

The Law of Faith

In our earlier discussion we noted how the Law in 3:21-26 bears witness to the righteousness of God, particularly as shown in the death of Christ. Following on from this, Paul concludes in v27-31 that those who boasted in the Law have now been overcome. Not by a “Law of works” (that is, human attempts to obey the Law), but rather by a “Law of faith”. What sort of contrast does Paul have in mind here?

We noted last time that the expression “works of the Law” points us to the fact that the Law by itself can only produce bad works in people, since they lack the power to obey it. This assumes, of course, that it is impossible for human beings to obey the Law in their own strength. So a “Law of works” then must denote flawed human attempts to obey the Law. This human inability to receive divine blessing is explored further in Romans 4, which demonstrates that even Abraham had to receive God’s blessing as a gift.[1]

What about a “Law of faith”? Clearly there is a contrast being drawn between human attempts to obey God’s Law apart from his divine power and the humility of faith which admits its own failings and asks for God’s grace. However, the “Law” here is not the Law of Moses but is likely a way of referring to Christ, the object of faith. This is consistent with the contrast drawn between the Law and Christ earlier in the chapter. People are not justified by “works of the Law” (v20), but by the “faithfulness of Jesus Christ” (v22). Jesus fulfils everything that the Law pointed to, he is the hope that the Law always bore witness to.

The Righteousness of Faith

Paul makes this association between the Law and Christ even more explicit in a later section of his letter. In 9:30 – 10:4, he contrasts two approaches towards the Law. Firstly, there is the approach of Israel, who for the most part have attempted to gain a status of righteousness by human effort (works) and failed. Secondly, there is the approach of Gentile believers, who have not pursued righteousness by the Law but have gained it by faith. The “righteousness” pursued by both groups is the same righteousness, but Israel largely misunderstood the Law in thinking that this righteousness was something established by human effort.

As mentioned earlier in the letter, one of the main tasks performed by the Law was that of bearing witness to the righteousness of God displayed in the righteous death of Jesus Christ (3:21-26). The Law was like a signpost pointing to the coming of Christ. Paul concludes the section as follows: “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (10:4). We see in Christ the culmination of everything that the Law signified.

This is explored more in the passage which follows (10:5-13). Paul cites various passages from Deuteronomy concerning the Law of Moses and applies them directly to Christ and to the Gospel. Moses, in Deuteronomy 30:11-14 teaches that Israel doesn’t have to go far to find the Law, since the Law has drawn near to them. Paul sees in this a veiled promise of Christ. Just as the Law came down from heaven to Israel and was near, available for them to follow, so too has Jesus come down from heaven (10:6) and is near to us by the word (message) of the Gospel preached to us (10:8). Paul sees in the life, righteousness and blessing promised through the Law an ultimate fulfilment in Christ, who is our life, our righteousness and our blessing.

Bound to the Law

In Romans 7:1-6, Paul describes Israel’s relationship to the Law as being like a wife’s relationship to her husband. Israel was “in the flesh” and held “captive” to the Law under the old covenant (v5-6a). But now that Christ has come and put old covenant Israel to death through his death on the cross, she is now released from the Law and can “serve in the new way of the Spirit” (v6b). Just as when a wife dies, she is no longer married to her husband, so too now that Israel has died through the death of Christ, she is no longer bound to the Law (v1-4). And through his resurrection life, he has made her alive and bound her to himself, the true husband which the Law could never be.

Paul continues along the same lines in 8:1-6. The Law was “weakened by the flesh” and so could never deal with the problem of sin. But through his death on the cross, Jesus the true Law has “condemned sin in the flesh” (v3) and thereby redeemed those who were under the Law. And now that we are set free, we are to “live according to the Spirit”, to set our minds “on the things of the Spirit”, no longer living according to the flesh (v5). The death and resurrection of Jesus means a new beginning, and a new way of living by the power of the Spirit.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”
(Romans 8:1-2)


[1] Of course, the “blessing” in the case of Abraham is the promise of offspring, as Genesis 15:4-6 demonstrates.

The Law in Romans (part 1)

Paul’s letter to the Romans is in many ways his greatest work. It gives a theological meaning and interpretation to the whole of Biblical history, practically functioning as a commentary on the rest of the Bible. A central point of dispute within the letter is the Law of Israel and its relationship to the church. In this two-part series, I intend to explore Paul’s use of the Law in Romans. In this part, I will be exploring the ways that Paul personifies the Law, treating it as a central character in his argument.

The Law as Witness

Early on in the letter, Paul spends some time outlining the nature of the final judgement (Romans 2:1-16). According to this passage, the judgement will be in accordance with “works”, in accordance with how people have lived their lives (v6-11). This raises the question as to what standard is being used to evaluate people. What sort of “works” demonstrate that one person is righteous, as opposed to another?

The second half of the passage answers this question (2:12-16). It’s those who have obeyed the Law, the “doers of the Law” who will be “justified” (v13). This is another way of saying that they will be vindicated at the final judgement. Paul’s opponents were arguing that being Jewish gave you an advantage at the final judgement (2:17-24), but Paul explicitly denies this, arguing that the same standard applies to both Jews and Gentiles. In support of this, he gives the example of faithful Gentile believers who have the Law written on their hearts (v14-15).[1]

An interesting feature of the passage is the role that the Law plays. Rather than being merely an impersonal law code, the Law functions as a key character in his argument. This comes out in verse 12, where Paul teaches that those who sin under the Law will be “judged by the Law”. In Paul’s argument, the Law functions as a judge, as a witness against unfaithful Jews who sit under the teaching of the Law but don’t obey it.

Works of the Law

Paul continues by arguing that there are righteous Jews and Gentiles who obey God and have his Law upon their hearts (2:25-29). They are characterised by the fact that they seek praise and recognition from God rather than from human beings. However, such righteous persons are an exception to the norm; by and large both Jews and Gentiles have rejected God and are “under sin” (3:9-18). At this point, the Law steps in as a witness once again. According to Paul, the Law “speaks” to Israel, silencing their objections and thereby holding the world accountable to God (3:29).

Then we have a summary statement which explains why Israel is in such a dire state. Paul denies that anyone can be justified on the last day by “works of the Law” (3:20). What does he mean by this expression? He cannot simply mean good works, as he has already spoken of them positively in his earlier treatment of the final judgement (Romans 2:6). More likely he means rather “the works produced by the Law”.[2]

Paul goes on to unpack what he means by this later in 7:7-25. In this passage, the commandments of the Law become an opportunity for sin to take its hold upon a person, by increasing their awareness of sin without them having the power to overcome it. Though the Law itself is good, it can be usurped by the power of sin.[3] Paul anticipates this in 3:20 with his explanation that “through the Law comes knowledge of sin”. The “works of the Law”, then, are the works that the Law produces in a person because of the way that sin uses the Law.

Justified in Advance

The Law continues to function as a witness in 3:21, alongside the prophets. Except this time, the Law is not being hijacked as an instrument of sin, but is a “witness to… the righteousness of God”, to God’s saving justice. This justice is revealed through “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ” (v22a),[4] particularly as shown in his righteous death on the cross (v24-25). It is for the benefit of both Jew and Gentile, with “no distinction” implied (v22b).

Under the old covenant, both Jew and Gentile had by-and-large rejected God and ignored his will, now there is a fresh start for the human race. Through Jesus, God has made a way for human beings to be “justified” – declared righteous – in advance of the final judgement. This should be a surprising revelation, since Paul had been quite clear a chapter earlier that the justification of the righteous would not take place until the last day (2:13). It should bring great assurance, knowing that even before the final verdict we already have a sure word of promise that God counts us as righteous in advance, by faith.


[1] Some believe that Paul here is merely referring to a generic “law of the conscience”, or to hypothetical Gentile believers. However, the language of the Law being written on the heart is a clear allusion to the new covenant promise that God would write his Law upon the hearts of his people (Jeremiah 31:33). The mention of “conflicting thoughts” appears to anticipate the later discussion in 7:7-25, which many interpret as the struggles of a righteous believer.

[2] See Peter Leithart’s “Delivered from the Elements of the World” for a defence of this interpretation.

[3] Note the way that sin, like the Law, is personified in this passage. The Law speaks to Paul (7:7), sin seizes him and kills him (7:11). The description as a whole is reminiscent of the fall of Adam and Eve, in which the serpent uses the commandment as a means to tempt Adam and Eve into sin (Genesis 3:1-7).

[4] I have opted here for the translation “faithfulness of Jesus Christ” rather than “faith in Jesus Christ”, as argued for by Wright, Hays and others. The essential argument is that verse 22 would otherwise be tautological, as in “through faith in Jesus Christ, for all who have faith”. It would also make the faith of the believer the central revelation of God’s righteousness, rather than the faithfulness of Christ, which seems unlikely.

One Like a Son of Man

In Daniel 7, the prophet Daniel recounts a vision in which he sees “One like a Son of Man” ascending into heaven and being given rule and authority over all nations (Daniel 7:13-14). Who does the figure in question represent? The explanation given later in the passage appears to equate the figure with the nation of Israel, the “people of the Most High” (v27) who are exalted. Within this piece, I intend to examine the identity of the mysterious figure by placing him within the context of the book of Daniel as a whole.

Four Animals

The vision described in the chapter begins with four great “beasts”, or animals rising up out of the sea, each one succeeding the previous one. The explanation of these four figures given at the end of the chapter equates them with four kingdoms which would arise in history. Given the parallels with the “great statue” vision in Daniel 2, these four kingdoms are to be identified as Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. This would imply that the “One like a Son of Man” is also a kingdom, a corporate entity like the four beasts depicted at the start of the chapter.

However, a further examination is warranted. As James Jordan has pointed out in his excellent Daniel commentary “The Handwriting on the Wall”, the description of the four beasts resembles that of the four angelic creatures depicted in Ezekiel 1:4-14[1]. Like the four angels in Ezekiel, the beasts are said to resemble various animals. The first is “like a lion” with eagle wings and is then said to become “like a man”. The second is “like a bear” raised up. The third is “like a leopard” with four wings and four heads. The fourth beast is “different from” the other beasts, though it produces a “great horn” with eyes “like the eyes of a man”.

Jordan takes this simply to mean that the four kingdoms are commissioned to be angelic guardian-protectors of the people of Israel. However, a more likely explanation is that the four beasts are actually four angelic creatures, like those depicted in Ezekiel. The book of Daniel has a fairly well-developed concept of angels as rulers and representatives of nations. For instance, in Daniel 10 two angelic figures are referred to as “the prince of Persia” and “the prince of Greece”. Based on the Ezekiel parallels in Daniel 7, it seems reasonable to identify these two figures with the second and third beasts described in that earlier vision.

Taking all of this together, we should take the explanation given in Daniel 7:15-28 to be providing us with the visible counterpart to the invisible reality portrayed in verses 1-14. Behind the visible workings of nations and kingdoms lie the invisible actions of angelic rulers beyond the veil of history. Only the prophet, the visionary, can see behind the veil into the heavenly reality[2]. Understanding the passage this way sheds light on the identity of the “One like a Son of Man” who is, as we shall see, a fifth angelic creature.

The Fifth Angel

Like the four angels previously described, the fifth figure is said to be “like” something. However, this particular angelic figure does not resemble an animal, nor even an ordinary human being. This figure resembles a “Son of Man”. As Jordan notes in his commentary, this language is also borrowed directly from Ezekiel, who is himself referred to as “Son of Man” throughout the book of Ezekiel[3]. In other words, “One like a Son of Man” is code for “One like Ezekiel”. So this angelic figure is also a prophetic figure.

He is also described in exalted kingly terms, being given “everlasting” dominion over “all peoples, nations and languages”. This cosmic ruler can be none other than the Messiah who was to come and redeem Israel, establishing her over the nations. As per the explanation of the vision in verses 15-28, this ruler would represent the “saints of the Most High”, the people of Israel. Just as the previous four angels would represent their respective peoples, so too would this angel represent his, yet he would also usurp the rule of the other angels and establish a kingdom without end (v14).

The Great Prince

A final possibility presents itself. Does the book of Daniel ever mention this fifth angelic figure anywhere else? In the same way that there is a “prince of Persia” and a “prince of Greece” mentioned in Daniel 10, is there also a “prince of Israel” mentioned anywhere? There is a figure in the book who is referred to in this manner: the archangel Michael.

Michael is referred to three times in the book of Daniel, once as simply “one of the chief princes” (10:13), but also as Daniel’s prince (10:21). Most significantly, he is referred to in the final chapter as “the great prince who has charge of your people” who would arise to protect and save Israel during a turbulent time of crisis (12:1-3). A parallel could be drawn here with other Biblical references to a great, divine angel who preserved God’s people during times of crisis.[4]

In summary then, the book of Daniel describes an angelic figure who is both human messiah and divine king. One who ascends with heavenly clouds to receive an eternal kingdom. And this angelic figure has always identified with the people of God in their distress.

“In all their affliction he was afflicted,
and the angel of his presence saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”
(Isaiah 63:9)


[1] A key difference lies in the fact that the four Ezekiel angels are identical, with each having four faces resembling a different creature (a human, a lion, an ox and an eagle).

[2] See for instance 2 Kings 6:15-18, where the prophet Elisha’s servant has his eyes opened and sees armies of heavenly angels.

[3] The title “son of man” is used of Ezekiel over 90 times throughout the book.

[4] See for instance Exodus 23:20-22, Joshua 5:13-15.