For I say to you that Christ has become a servant of circumcision for the sake of the truthfulness of God, in order to confirm the promises of the fathers…
What we are faced with here is a basic dilemma regarding the structure of the story about salvation in Jesus. On the one hand, we have a conventional view, according to which Jesus is sent into the world in order to save humanity from its sins. On the other, we have the argument that Jesus “came” to save Israel from its sins, an event which subsequently came to have radical implications for the Gentiles. This was the tenor of the posts on the true-meaning-of-Luke’s-Christmas. In relation to Romans 15:8 there is the further particular issue of how the significance of the salvation of Israel is pertinent for the nations.
My argument in The Future of the People of God is that Paul is thinking in rather consistent Old Testament terms of the nations praising YHWH for his mercy towards Israel. What prompted this inconsiderately lengthy re-examination was some comments by Peter Wilkinson disputing this reading of the text. His argument is essentially that the “blessing” of the nations as the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham is much more directly in view in Paul’s argument.
The phrase “servant of (the) circumcision” (diakonos… peritomēs) is ambiguous. Moo argues quite emphatically that it does not mean “servant from (the) circumcision”: Jesus is a servant to the Jews, just as he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 15:24).1 Dunn, on the other hand, thinks both senses are relevant, so that Jesus is a servant both to Israel and to the Gentiles.2 Although Paul undoubtedly believed that the Gentiles were beneficiaries of Jesus’ servant action, a number of contextual factors strongly weigh in favour of Moo’s opinion and are listed below.
It is probably important, however, not to obscure the form of the phrase. What Paul is saying is that Jesus was a servant within the sphere determined by circumcision. Paul’s statement about his own ministry in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 may also be pertinent. He made himself a servant (edoulōsa) to all, becoming a Jew in order to win Jews, as one under the Law in order to win those under the Law, and as one outside the Law in order to win those outside the Law. This cannot be said about Jesus, who was only a “servant of circumcision”. The phrase defines the boundaries of Jesus’ servant action.
1. The statement about Christ occurs in a passage dealing with the practicalities of community relations: Jesus is put forward as an example of how the weak and the strong should welcome one another. In this respect it is very similar to Philippians 2, where Paul calls the community to have the particular mind of Jesus in order to maintain their unity in the face of persecution. Jesus took the form of a servant (doulos), with the outcome being that the nations would bow to YHWH and acknowledge the righteousness of the God who had saved his people Israel (Is. 45:22-24). The point is that Jesus the “servant of (the) circumcision” is put forward as a model for internal relations, which makes it much more likely that Paul is thinking of Jesus’ servant-attitude towards his fellow Jews.
2. The verse connects with a major argument about the righteousness or vindication of Israel’s God that runs right through Romans. The most important point of reference is Romans 9:6. Having affirmed that the promises (epangeliai) and the patriarchs (among other things) belong to the Jews, Paul insists that “it is not as though the word of God has failed….” The question arises because the Jews are now “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (9:22). If national Israel is destroyed, what has become of the “truthfulness” or faithfulness of God? What has become of the promises to the fathers? The argument then in 15:8 is that these promises have been confirmed or guaranteed through Jesus’ servant action. That is, by becoming a servant of the circumcision Jesus has confirmed the righteousness of Israel’s God at the point when it has been brought into question by the prospect of national destruction. His “servanthood” is oriented not towards the nations but towards the salvation of the people of God.
3. Given the place of 15:8 in Paul’s argument, it is appropriate to compare the verse with verse 3: ‘For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.”’ The argument is basically the same: put others first, welcome one another, because Jesus did not please himself, Jesus became a servant to others. The quotation from Psalm 69, however, is telling. The Psalmist has become alienated from his brothers, reproached for his zeal for the temple, but he prays to the God who will save Zion for deliverance. Paul, therefore, is thinking of Jesus as one rejected by the Jews because of his zeal for the sanctity of God’s presence in the midst of the people. The thought of Jesus as “servant of (the) circumcision” presumably belongs to the same narrative.
4. I think it is unlikely that the phrase “promises of the fathers” is meant to recall the specific point that the nations would be blessed. The overall argument in Romans suggests that two other thoughts are more relevant. First, there is the issue of the continuity of election: in Romans 11:28 the emphasis is on the election of the Jews “for the sake of their forefathers”. Parenthetically, in the Benedictus of Zechariah—a significant text given the immediate origins of this debate—these promises had to do with the salvation of Israel and the preservation of the people from their enemies (Lk. 1:72-75). Secondly, Paul speaks in Romans 4:13 of the “promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world”. This is also the argument in Galatians: the Gentiles have come to have a share in the promise of inheritance (Gal. 3:18). I’m cutting a long story short here, but “inheritance” introduces ideas of sovereignty and rule (cf. Ps. 2:6-9)—we are in a more complex realm of ideas than the simple notion of Gentiles being saved or blessed by believing in Jesus.
5. The biggest difficulty with the argument that Paul simply has the blessing of the nations in view here lies with the quotations in 15:9-12. Peter says:
The Gentiles glorified God for his mercy (Romans 15:9) because they were the direct recipients of that mercy, through believing in Him.
But the context of the quotations runs counter to this interpretation. The first two texts (Ps. 18:49; Deut. 32:43) speak of God being acknowledged or praised among the nations or by the nations because God has delivered his people from their enemies. The nations are not blessed in these texts; they are roundly defeated—just consider Psalm 18:43-48:
You delivered me from strife with the people; you made me the head of the nations; people whom I had not known served me. As soon as they heard of me they obeyed me; foreigners came cringing to me. Foreigners lost heart and came trembling out of their fortresses.
The Lord lives, and blessed be my rock, and exalted be the God of my salvation—the God who gave me vengeance and subdued peoples under me, who delivered me from my enemies; yes, you exalted me above those who rose against me; you rescued me from the man of violence.
Psalm 117:1, which is cited in verse 11 explicitly urges the nations to praise the Lord because “great is his steadfast love towards us”—that is, towards Israel. This strongly suggests that the mercy shown in Romans 15:9 is not towards the nations but towards Israel. Finally, Paul quotes Isaiah 11:10 in verse 12: “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.” Again the story being told here is of the restoration of Israel. When God brings peace to his holy mountain (11:9) and prevails upon the nations to gather together the dispersed of Israel (11:11-12), the nations shall be ruled by and shall hope in the root of Jesse.
So unless we suppose that Paul was indifferent to the context from which he drew his texts, we have to accept that any eventual blessing of the nations (this conclusion is not in dispute) comes about by way of a story about the deliverance of Israel from its enemies, the defeat of those enemies, and the establishment of YHWH’s reign over the nations.
It seems to me that this story culminates, in fact, in the historical victory of Christ over the gods of the Greek-Roman world. From the perspective of the New Testament this is a victory of Israel’s God. What Gentiles have received through the Spirit and through simple faith in the transformative action of YHWH is a share in this eventual inheritance—the promise not so much that the nations would be blessed but that the descendants of Abraham would inherit the world (cf. Rom. 4:13). Paul does not say this much in Romans 15:8, but his use of scripture keeps the larger narrative of the conflict between YHWH and the nations in view.