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Romans 15:4-13

In this letter to the churches in Rome, Paul has established the justice/righteousness of God to save all through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ (see esp. Romans 3:21-26). The relationship of Jew and Gentile has been ever-present in his considerations (highly focused in chapters 9–11), likely because the churches in Rome were comprised of more Jewish Christians than the primarily Gentile congregations Paul himself founded (and to which he wrote most of his letters). In Romans, Paul is writing to Christ-believers in a city he has never visited (15:22-24). Yet, in chapter 15, much of Paul’s message is very familiar: live in harmony with one another, follow the instructions of God provided in Scripture, take on the mindset of Christ, and live hopefully in the Spirit.

Hope, which Paul stated is the purpose of Scripture’s composition for our learning, grows through patience and encouragement (15:4). Likewise, our patience and encouragement are not tangential to Scripture, but tied to the very nature of God. The words are identical in vv. 4 and 5—patience (hypomonē) and encouragement (paraklēsis)—between the learning we receive from Scripture and the nature of God: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus” (15:4-5).

This unity of purpose (v. 6 hina “that” or “in order that” shows purpose) with God makes us like Christ Jesus. And this serves the purpose of unanimity (homothymadon) in giving glory to the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ (v. 6).

Just as Scripture’s purposes for humanity are inextricable from the very nature of God, the inclusion of the Gentiles is not a back-up plan nor a course-correction: this has been God’s intention all along. The resulting purpose, as it as been for the Jews, is praise of the one true God (see Rom 15:9, which quotes from Psalm 18:49 and 2 Samuel 22:50). This generates a series of Old Testament quotations, which illustrate what Paul said at the outset of this passage: Scripture teaches us postures of faithfulness (steadfastness and encouragement) that are in step with the faithfulness of God to God’s people throughout history. The instruction to Gentiles to rejoice (Rom 15:10) quotes from Deuteronomy 32:43. The exhortation to “let all the peoples praise him” (Rom 15:11) recalls the opening line of Psalm 117. Paul’s quotation from Isaiah 11:10 reinforces the identity of the agent who will bring the Gentiles to hope in God: the Messianic King arising from the Davidic line, “the root of Jesse” (quoted in Rom 15:12). Paul rallied a chorus of Scriptures to underscore his point that what God did in Christ was not entirely novel or “out of the blue,” so to speak, but the fulfillment of divine promises to Israel’s ancestors (see Rom 15:8). Jesus was not just the accidental agent of change, but the intended key.

This has been Paul’s insistence throughout Romans, in fact, that the atonement God enacted in Jesus was not a change of plans, but the heart of God’s reconciling work of justification throughout God’s history with God’s people.

As Advent focuses on the anticipation of Jesus’s coming, we must be careful not to speak of Jesus’s coming as a last-ditch effort or a change of plans. Further, it is not a change or step away from God’s dealings with God’s people throughout the Old Testament narratives. Heeding Romans’ warnings elsewhere, we do not boast pridefully as Gentiles included in Israel’s story (Romans 11:13-24). Instead, we praise God’s incomprehensible mercy (Rom 15:9). Advent’s anticipation of the Son’s incarnation is deeply aligned to the Missio Dei, the mission of God. For this, Christ becomes the diakonos (minister, agent, representative) of the Father’s saving mission. This is the faithful culmination of God’s intention to weave all humanity into God’s family.

One significant side note generated by the Greek word used for Jesus here, diakonos, which has as its primary translation “minister” (not servant, as the NRSV and NIV read). It is rare for Paul to use this term of Jesus Christ. Most often, Paul uses this title for Christian ministers. He uses it of himself, of his co-workers, both women and men, throughout his letters. In fact, this is the very same term (identical, even in Greek gender) used of Phoebe in Romans 16:1, a mere 27 verses later. Paul refers to his own ministry with the related term diakonia in 15:31 (and 11:13). English translations of the term vary widely, depending on context. We need to be wary and informed that this term, which Paul sees fit to describe Jesus’ representative enacting of God’s salvation, Paul uses not only of himself, but of women and men ministering in step with Christ.

In conclusion, this passage represents Paul’s final section of explicit teaching and exhortation in the letter to the Romans. From this point, he proceeds to his travel plans (in the remainder of Ch. 15) and final greetings to contacts in Rome (in Ch. 16). His final encouragement to the Romans wraps up this passage: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (15:13). The response to recognizing God’s consistent mission of salvation to Jews and Gentiles is one of hope, joy, peace, and faith. These dispositions are not abstract ideas in the Advent season, these arise from confidence of God’s faithfulness in Christ.

What mercy! What steadfast patience! What a hard-won unity in Christ! What a reason to, as Paul reinforces strongly, be filled with hope. We may not see immediate culmination to the promises of God in our world, but God is unswervingly faithful. This is the hope Advent represents: we are waiting for God in our world. But as the first Advent in Christ makes clear, this is not an uncertain or hopeless period of listless thumb-twiddling. We know the God whose action we await is unfailingly faithful. We can then live as people of hope, empowered by the Holy Spirit’s presence.