ROMANS 8:31-39

INTRODUCTION: Rome, which means “power” in Greek, was without question the most influential city in the world during the first century of the common era. So it is only fitting that Paul, the author of Romans, would make this the destination of what many would regard as his most significant letter. In Romans, there are many different passages that speak simple truths about the cores of Christianity. Romans 8:31-39 is one such passage. We will be discussing this passage in depth later in the essay. We will both observe and interpret. But first, in order to put this into context, we must understand the background of Romans and what was occurring at this time. BACKGROUND TO THE BOOK OF ROMANS Paul was raised in Hebrew tradition, and as a young man became an extremely radical Pharisee. He jailed and persecuted countless Christians and it wasn’t until a miraculous run-in with God on the road to Damascus that Paul changed his life around. And did he ever. Paul became “the apostle to the Gentiles” spreading the words of Christ throughout Greece and much of the East. Paul wrote his letter to the Romans in approximately 57 of the common era. The letter itself was probably written from Corinth where Paul was staying for three months after recently completing two to three years of hard labour in Ephesus. However, Paul’s intentions for writing are not as easy to identify. There are a couple of theories. The first is that this marked a transitional period in Paul’s life. Paul had been working in the East for his entire ministry, and was now preparing to take on the west in general, and Spain in particular. Paul in his letter was trying to solicit the support of the Romans in both prayer and action. He wanted the Romans to start the work in the west for him, so that by the time he arrived, there would be a foundation. A second theory is that this was a “last will and testament” for Paul. Before Paul ever was to set off

for the west, he had to deliver a large sum of money to the needy in Jerusalem. He was unsure of how his gift would be received, and was fearful that he may be harmed or killed. Some believe that this was a petition for prayer, but also a creed of his beliefs. Because of this theory, while it is assumed that Phoebe delivered Paul’s letter to the Roman church, it is a common thought that other copies of the letter were made and sent to churches throughout Europe as a lasting memory. Regardless of which theory or combination of theories actually is true, Paul, who was both a Roman and a Jew, wanted to inform the Romans of his intention to visit should he survive in Jerusalem. GEOGRAPHY: Rome is located at the heart of what is today the country of Italy. Italy is a country with many hills, mountains and valleys. The city of Rome itself was built upon seven hills: the Capitoline, Aventine, Caelian, Esquiline, Palatine, Quirinal, and Viminal. None of these hills ever rise higher than two hundred feet above sea level. At the peak of her power, the Roman Empire controlled land that literally surrounded the Mediterranean Sea. The Empire spread from Israel in the east, down through northern Africa, up through Spain and Britain, through Greece and back down to Israel. Rome was a very accessible city with large harbors very close by. There is a saying that “all roads lead to Rome”, and that’s important because Rome was the trade center for the world at this time. While we will discuss this later, the location of Rome was significant. Not only did Italy’s largest river, the Tiber River, run through the city, Rome was located near large bodies of water, in addition to its capability of being reached by land. HISTORY:

Rome was built in the year of 753 before the common era and was governed by kings until between 600 and 500 before the common era. After the monarchy, a republic was formed. The republic was mixed with other various forms of government until in 31 B.C.E. the empire was established with Caesar Augustus becoming the first emperor. How Christianity first spread to Rome is uncertain. Peter and Paul had not yet preached there. However there was a large Jewish community in Rome, estimated with between 40,000 and 50,000 people. This large Jewish population was directly linked to Pompey’s take over of Judea. The common belief is that there were Jews from Rome present at the Pentecost. These Jews would have converted to Christianity and brought back to Rome the Good News. However, conflict met the new converts immediately upon returning to Rome. The conflict occurred between the Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah and the Jews who did not. Constant fighting occurred and it is believed that this “rioting” was the reason that the Jews were banished from Rome by Claudius in about 50 B.C.E. The ban was lifted and eventually some of the Jews returned to Rome. However, there was a significant difference in the church. In Rome, there had been many “God-fearers” who readily accepted the gospel upon hearing it and joined the church. Many Romans had come to faith in the time of Jewish banishment and the Jews were now the minority in the church while the Gentiles were the majority. In fact, throughout the world there seemed to be a trend of Gentiles coming to Christ while the Jewish people rejected Him. Additionally, the Roman upper-class had become very upset at the favorable treatment the Jews had received from the emperors, most notably from earlier emperor’s such as Julius Caesar and Augustus. Factor in the huge population of the Jewish community and the rapid number of converts to a Jewish religion, and you get the reason why there was contempt among many. Emperor Nero was among these individuals, and in his time would cause much heartache and

trouble for the Jewish population. Perhaps because of these two things there was becoming a noticeable division between the Gentiles and Jews. Many of the Gentiles were arrogant, or at least indifferent towards the Jews. This attitude was becoming more and more prevalent when Paul wrote his letter and maybe this is why he speaks to both the Gentiles and the Jews. CULTURE: Rome was the largest city in the Roman Empire with a population upwards of one million people. Because it was the biggest and most influential city, and because it was so important for world trade and economy, it naturally both influenced and was influenced by the differing cultures and people who visited. The sphere of influence was huge, without question. And while the culture was distinctly Roman, one does not have to look far to see elements of Greek culture within Roman society. Architecture: Architecture was also greatly influenced by the Greeks. However, while they borrowed the basic designs, Rome added their own flair with unique arches, domes, vaults and extensions. The civil engineering within the city was among the best in the world and the Roman use of concrete was also revolutionary in its durability and stability. This is displayed by the fact that the majority of Romans lived in apartments. Entertainment: Entertainment was an important element of Roman culture. Much like Greece, the theatre was very important to the Romans. For example, the Circus Maximus seated up to 250,000 people! And with regularity Rome hosted parties for the poor where free food and free

entertainment were provided. Social Class: There were many different social classes within Rome, and there was much disparity between them. The rich were very rich, while the poor were very poor. Slavery was a way of life in Rome, and slaves were expected to blindly follow the orders of their superiors without hesitation. One interesting aspect of this culture was how freely the women of society were allowed to move about. Much like modern society, there were very few restriction on women, and they were allowed to go shopping, gossip, or attend the theatre without having to yield. Immigration to Rome was also higher than normal, which is not surprising considering the many provisions provided by the state. Economy: Rome was in its time what New York City is in our time. The economic world revolved around Rome. Since there was very little fertile soil, Rome used what it had – many harbors and much land. Rome was located virtually in the center of its empire, and thus was able to control and monitor much of the world’s economy. It was because of this economic stronghold that many Roman ideas began to spread throughout the world. As various businessmen came to Rome they often took part of Rome with them. Law and Government: The government was very important to the Romans. In fact, the state, not religion, was given the most prominent and important role in Roman society. The emperors were often thought of as gods and were treated with awe and fear. Roman law was also extremely important and revered. The Romans realized this was the means of guidance and order. The law was so important to the Romans that they took the law with

them wherever they went. For example, once they had conquered a nation, not only did they follow the Roman law, they imposed that law upon the conquered. It was of utmost importance. Roman law was greatly influenced by the Greeks, and has in turn influenced modern Western culture. For example, the philosophy of “innocent until proven guilty” is found within Roman law. Religion: Rome was an extremely diverse city. There were many different religions and most were tolerated to varying degrees. The most common religion among the natives of Rome was very closely tied to Greek mythology. Most of the gods and goddesses were virtually the same with Latinized names. Among the favorites were Mars and Venus. Many of the followers of this belief did not understand Christianity. The Romans had no problem adding gods to their ever-expanding list of deities, so many viewed Christians as atheists because they only had one God. Others just merely shrugged off Christianity as superstition. Still, the Christian church was rapidly growing at the time of Paul’s letter. In fact, Paul had hoped to make Rome his missionary “home base” for the West, much as Antioch was for the East. Romans is a book that was written in a time of uncertainty. Paul wrote it uncertain of his future fate. Emperor Nero had recently come to power, and there was a lot of uncertainty of what all that would mean for the Jews and the church in general. And there was a lot of questions as to why Gentiles were flocking to a Jewish religion that the Jews were outright rejecting. It was a letter written on the eve of significant change with nobody knowing what that change was going to be. What I find interesting is that during this time of questioning Paul writes a letter of affirmation about what he does know and believe in. He clings to the very things dearest to him and encourages the others to do the same.

As I was doing this research, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the Roman church and the North American church. Like Rome, North America is the economic superpower of the world. The world revolves around our continent and the influence we have is huge! Like the church of Rome, we often find our church divided and splitting up over minor, insignificant issues. Like the Roman believers, we as Christians are often scorned for having the idea of “one God” and being “narrow-minded.” Just like the Roman culture tolerated Christianity along with all other religions, our society has taken the same approach. Like Rome, there is a spiritual hunger and longing within our nations, a hunger that is forcing an openness. Finally, like both Paul and the church of Rome, we are at a point in history where there is a lot of uncertainty, and we don’t even always necessarily know why. I think with all of these similarities, the book of Romans is extremely relevant and important. I think it shows us the importance of remembering in whom believe, what we believe and why we believe, so that when we don’t have all the answers, at least we know something. And looking at the book of Romans, that something can make all the difference in the world.

INTERPRETATION OF ROMANS 8:31-39: Verse 31-34 This passage opens up with the question, “What can we say about such wonderful things as these?” But what are “these”? Douglas Moo, in The Epistle to the Romans commentary, says this: “Since Paul has been enumerating these blessing from virtually the first verses of the letter, this paragraph could be the climax of the letter up to this point. At the other extreme, ‘these things’ in v. 31 could refer only to those blessings enumerate in the immediately preceding verses (28 or 29-30). But the similarity between the language and the contents of this passage and Rom. 5 suggests rather that this paragraph, while responding immediately to what Paul has been saying in chap.8, and especially 8:18-30, is intended to cap Paul’s many-sided discussion of Christian assurance in chaps. 5-8 as a whole.” I personally could see this passage as being the destination that Paul was heading for when he started writing the book of Romans. Regardless though, I definitely think that “these” refers to more than the preceding few verses and is a joyous cry for the many wonderful things Paul has talked about since at least chapter 5. In these verses Paul asks many rhetorical questions to make his point. He uses contrast and question and answer. For example, in verse 33, Paul asks “Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? Will God?” He then answers himself saying, “No! He is the one who has given us right standing with himself.” At this point in the passage he is talking in very general terms, but his point is still clear – “God is for us”. Verse 35-37

Adam Clarke in his commentary says this in regards to verse 35: “I do think that this question [‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’] has been highly misunderstood . . . he speaks of the love of the followers of God to that who had first love them. Therefore the question is not, Who shall separate the love of Christ from us? or prevent Christ from loving us? but, Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” I’m not sure I entirely agree with this statement by Clarke. I think what Paul is trying to say is that God’s love is so much bigger than anything we can comprehend. He then goes on and lists several things – calamity, danger, death, trouble, and hunger -- that often seem so huge that they separate us from God, just to enforce his point that regardless of how we feel there is nothing that can separate us from God. It is in verse 35 that Paul starts to move away from the general sentences and moves to specific, personal examples. One very interesting word in verse 35 is “love” which comes from the Greek word “Agape”. It means “brotherly love, affection, good will, benevolence”. It is not a syrupy kind of gooey love, but rather a deep desire to see the best for a person that you care deeply about. In context of the rest of the paragraph, I think this really makes a lot of sense. I think this paragraph is saying that although trouble may become us, it’s not that God doesn’t care. He still “loves” us and has “affection and good will” towards us. Another thing that I found really intriguing in this verse was the use of the word “trouble”. To me, “calamity” and “trouble” sound pretty similar. They are both words that could be used when in distress or when you’re caught in a dangerous place. But the word “trouble” is used for the Greek word “Limos” which means “a pressing, pressing together, “pressure”. To me, this takes on a whole new meaning. Pressure and pressing, they aren’t always distress or desperate cries the way that calamity and trouble are. They are things that wear on you, that eat you up inside. They are the tiny day-to-day things that suffocate you. I think what the passage is saying is that “yes, Christ’s love

transcends and meets your desperate cries. But Christ’s love also transcends and meets you at your point of frustration, at the point where you feel like the world is pressing in on you, and you’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders.” In verse 36, Paul refers to Psalm 44:22. When you look back at the entire Psalm, you see how the writer very distraught when he is writing this. He is weary and he is suffering for no apparent reason. He is pleading for God to show up and start acting. This is what Paul wants us to remember right before he says, “No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.” He wants us to remember our lowest points, and taken assurance in the knowledge that although we have these things happen to us, Christ love and victory are constant and unchanging. In verse 37, Paul answers the question he posed in verse 35 when he says, “No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.” Matthew Henry in his commentary says this: “We are conquerors by virtue of Christ’s victory. We have nothing to do but to pursue the victory, and to divide the spoils.” “Love” is again used in verse 37, but it comes from a different Greek word than previously talked about in verse 35. Whereas the use of love in verses 35 and 39 speak of “affection” and “good will”, the “love” in verse 37 comes from the Greek word Agapao, which means, “to welcome, to entertain, to be fond of, to love dearly.” This is the gooey love that God has for you. This paragraph shows two different sides of God’s love that co-exists even during our most challenging and our darkest times. Throughout this entire passage there is a very joyous, very excited tone, and I think it perhaps comes out the strongest in this verse. It is a shout of victory! Paul is already throwing a celebration, knowing full well of the overwhelming victory that is soon to be his. He just couldn’t hold his enthusiasm inside any longer.

Verse 38, 39 The answer to the questions posed in verses 31-34 are all answered in verses 38 and 39: “And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from his love.” In case there is any room for doubt, Paul contrasts figures of speech to make his point crystal clear. “Death can’t and life can’t. The angels can’t, and the demons can’t. Our fears for today, our worries about tomorrow, and even the powers of hell can’t keep God’s love away. Whether we are high above the sky or in the deepest ocean, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Matthew Henry says this: “And here he [Paul] enumerates all those things which might separate between Christ and believers, and concludes that it could not be done.” One thing that I really found interesting was the contrasting of “death” and “life” are contrasted. But I don’t really believe that these English words do justice to what Paul is trying to say. The word “death” is used for the Greek word “Thanatos”. “Thanatos” can be defined as: “the death of the body a) the separation (whether natural or violent) of the soul and the body by which the life on earth is ended b) with the implied idea of future misery in hell c) since the nether world, the abode of the dead was conceived as being very dark, it is the equivalent to the region of thickest darkness.” On the other hand “life” comes from the Greek word “Zoe” which can be defined as: 1. a) the state of one who is possessed of vitality or is animate b) every living soul 2. a) of the absolute fullness of life, both essential and ethical, which belong to God, and through him both to the hypostatic “logos” and to Christ in whom the “logos” put on human nature. b) life real and genuine, a life active and vigorous, devoted to God, blessed, in the portion even in this world of those who put their trust in Christ, but after the resurrection to be consummated by new accessions and to last forever.

In English, “life” and “death” often refer to simply physical states of being. In the original Greek though, they meant so much more. There was a much deeper spiritual realm to them. I think what Paul is saying in these verses is that complete and utter darkness, even the depths, cannot squelch God’s love for us. And on the flipside, life, not simply as just breathing, but truly living, it is not greater than God’s love for us either. The very things that make up human existence, they are flattened when compared against the love that God has for each one of us. In this part of the passage, Paul goes to all lengths, and gives us every example he can think of to show how God’s love is greater than anything we, as humans, have ever known. APPLICATION: So how does this apply to us today? I think probably the biggest lesson we need to learn and remember from this is that God is on our side. He loves us, both with good will and affection. Regardless of the circumstances around us, regardless of the light or dark times in our lives, God’s love is constant. Events may sometimes happen that make us doubt God and question if He is there. The shooting at Columbine and the attacks on the World Trade Centers are two recent examples. We wonder where a loving God is in the midst of all of this. But we cannot be separated from Christ’s love even in the midst of calamity. On an individual level, when you’ve fallen and made so many mistakes and done so many wrong things and you’re at the point where you feel like you’re just too messed up to talk to God, when you are at the darkest place you can imagine, you still cannot be separated from Christ’s love. Or perhaps it’s nothing that you’ve done, but for whatever reason you have descended into an emotional hell. You can’t see God. You feel abandoned. There seems

to be no escape, and you are pressed, pressured and about to break. Even in the midst of hell, we cannot be separated from Christ’s love. This last example for me is the one that hits home the most. It’s something I’ve been through, and it was absolutely the roughest time in my life. It’s something that I’m not convinced I am entirely out of either. I felt abandoned by God and like I wasn’t worth the effort or time. I felt like He had better things to do, and although he maybe didn’t put me where I was, He wasn’t going to come rescue me. I think that this is why discovering the Greek word “Limos” was such a cool thing for me. I was never in “trouble”, so to speak. But there was such an intense pressing and such a crushing pressure. To know that even in the midst of that I was not separated from Christ’s love, means a lot. Finally, I think there is something significant that is sometimes overlooked by many Christians. If death cannot separate humanity from Christ’s love, and if demons cannot separate humanity from Christ’s love, if fears and worries cannot separate humanity and God’s love, why do we often not show Christ’s love? Why do we live in such a way that we feel there are things to where Christ’s love does not extend. I have to think that if Paul were writing today he would say something like “homosexuality cannot separate us from Christ’s love”, or “abortion cannot separate us from Christ’s love”. Christ’s love is constant. We need to remember that. There is nowhere it doesn’t reach, nowhere that it can’t extend too. I’m really glad I got to understand this verse a little bit better. I think there is a lot of truth to it, probably more than I even realize. But I think and hope that even while do this essay, some of this truth buried deep inside me, and that I will begin to accept and come to terms with the love of Christ, and where I stand in his love.

Barton, Bruce B., et al., eds. Life Application Bible Commentary. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1992

Berrett, LaMar C., Discovering the World of the Bible. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1974 Bromiley, Geoffrey W., et al., eds. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1979 Bruce, F.F., Tyndale New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1985 Coleman, William L., Today’s Handbook of Bible Times and Customs. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1984 Crosby, Rena L., The Geography of Bible Lands. New York: The Abingdon Press, 1921 Dowley, Tim, Atlas of the Bible and Christianity. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1997 G belein, Frank E., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1976 Hale, William Harlon, The Horizon Book of Ancient Rome. New York: Americcan Heritage Publishing Co., 1966 Hawthorne, Gerald F., Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Downers Grover, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1993 Moo, Douglas, The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1996 Robertson, A.T., et al., eds. The Bethany Parallel Commentary On The New Testament. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1983 Steele, David N., Romans: An Interpretive Outline. Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1963 Unger, Merrill F., Unger’s Bible Handbook. Chicago: Moody Press, 1967, Tri-County Church of Christ, “Introduction to Romans” by Keith Sharp

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