You might reply, “But you’re no longer in Babylonian Captivity. How can that be?”
He would explain, “It’s true that we’re no longer required to live in Babylon, but we are now forced to live under the oppressive rule of Roman, swine-eating dictators who care nothing for God, his Torah, or his Temple.
“The Exile only ends when the prophecies about the end of Exile come true. We are still under Exile because —
- “We’re under Roman rule.”
- “The Kingdom of God has not come.”
- “The Messiah has not come.”
- “The Spirit has not yet been outpoured.”
- “The Shekinah (Glory) of God has not appeared in the Holy of Holies, and so God has not accepted Herod’s temple as he accepted the Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple.”
- “The gift of prophecy such as we had in the days of Isaiah and Jeremiah has not returned, as promised by the prophet Joel.”
- “The priesthood is corrupt and the high priest is descended from the wrong descendant of Aaron.”
- “No descendant of David sits on the throne. The Edomite Herod (or one of his sons) rules Judea on behalf of Rome, even calling himself ‘king of the Jews.'”
- “Elijah has not appeared to prepare the way for the Messiah.”
- “The New Covenant promised by Jeremiah in chapter 31:31 ff has not yet come true.”
- “God has not circumcised the hearts of his people, as he promised in Deu 30:6.”
Now, with the coming of John the Baptist, followed by Jesus, followed by Pentecost, the picture has begun to look very different. In fact, the biggest problem with claiming that these things had happened was (a) continued Roman rule, (b) the crucifixion of Jesus, and (c) the refusal of most Jews to accept Jesus as Messiah. After all, the Messiah was expected to be a great general who’d lead the Jews to overthrow the Romans, and Jesus died on a Roman cross. Nothing could be less like the Messiah most Jews expected.
But if a Jew were willing to accept the idea of a spiritual kingdom, the idea of the Messiah as the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, and that Jesus and his church are the new temple in which God dwells by his Spirit, then Christianity fits the prophesied end of Exile very nicely.
Nonetheless, God had promised the Kingdom to the Jews, and the Jews by and large rejected Jesus. If God has perfect foreknowledge, how could such a thing be? While there are a few OT verses that speak of the Gentiles or “the nations” entering the Kingdom, how could it be that the church was quickly becoming mainly Gentile?
So to a Jew steeped in the Law and the Prophets, Christianity didn’t fit the prophecies because God had made promises to his people, the Jews, to return them from Exile and to be their God. This didn’t seem to be happening — and this threatened the faith of many Jewish Christians as well as creating confusion as to the role of Gentiles in the church.
Perhaps if we made the Gentiles convert to Judaism, more Jews would be converted and God’s destiny promised his people would come true? So perhaps the solution is circumcision or honoring Jewish food laws or otherwise being scrupulous about Jewish identity markers? Perhaps being so loose in our attitudes toward the Gentiles is offending God? Perhaps we should make entry more difficult for Gentiles and keep this a largely Jewish movement?
The Messiah had a task: to rebuild or cleanse the Temple, to defeat the pagans, to rescue Israel and bring God’s justice to the world. Anyone who died without accomplishing these things, particularly one who attacked the Temple and died at the hands of the pagans he should have been defeating, leaving Israel unredeemed and the world still unjust, was obviously not the true Messiah. This is why it took something utterly extraordinary to make anyone suppose that Jesus was in fact the Messiah. Paul is clear: It was the resurrection that marked Jesus out as “son of God” (v. 4). The resurrection reversed the verdict that all thoughtful first-century Jews would have passed on Jesus at the time of his crucifixion. If such a Messiah could not be fitted in to existing conceptions of what Israel’s God was supposed to be doing, that was too bad. The existing conceptions would have to be rethought around him. That, indeed, was the intellectual dimension of Paul’s lifework.
N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians (vol. 10 of New Interpreters Bible, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 418.
Why did Paul write Romans?
You see, to know why Paul wrote Romans, you need only ask what questions he bothers to answer, and the climax of the book is plainly Rom 8 – 11. Rom 8 speaks of the impact of the Spirit on the lives of Christians, but it also speaks of the fulfillment of the OT prophesies regarding what the Spirit would do for God’s people —
(Deut. 30:6 ESV) 6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
(Isa. 32:14-17 ESV) 14 For the palace is forsaken, the populous city deserted; the hill and the watchtower will become dens forever, a joy of wild donkeys, a pasture of flocks; 15 until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest. 16 Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. 17 And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.
(Isa. 44:3-5 ESV) 3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. 4 They shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams. 5 This one will say, ‘I am the LORD’s,’ another will call on the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand, ‘The LORD’s,’ and name himself by the name of Israel.”
(Jer. 31:31-34 ESV) 31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
(Jer. 32:37-42 ESV) 37 Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation. I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety. 38 And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. 39 I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. 40 I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. 41 I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul. 42 “For thus says the LORD: Just as I have brought all this great disaster upon this people, so I will bring upon them all the good that I promise them.
(Ezek. 11:19-20 ESV) 19 And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.
(Ezek. 36:26-27 ESV) 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
(Ezek. 37:1-14 ESV) The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. 2 And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
And I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”
4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD.”
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them.
9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army. 11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.”
(Joel 2:28-32a ESV) 28 “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29 Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. 30 “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 32 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.”
These passages are largely unfamiliar to Christians, but these were very familiar to any First Century Jew. (They are prominent in intertestamental literature, such as the Book of Jubilees.)
The Jews prayed daily for the coming of the “prophet” of Deu 18 and the Messiah of Psalm 2 and for all the other things that were to mark the end of the age and the beginning of the messianic age.