The letters of the New Testament are not put in chronological order. The Letter to the Romans was written by Paul much later in his life and ministries. It was one of the last letters he wrote. His teaching is much more developed than most of his writings. It is believed to have been written between the years 56 and 58. He was on his way to Rome as a prisoner. Reading up on Paul’s time coming to Rome and while he is in Rome, Paul seems to have plans to get out to Spain to evangelize there, though there is no evidence that he actually made it to Spain.
The Emperor kicked the Jewish community out of Rome in the year 49. Hence, if you got to see the movie “Paul, An Apostle of Christ,” Priscilla and Aquilla talk about leaving Rome under the hostile circumstances. They were reflecting on when they were kicked out before, in the year 49AD.
Paul, in this letter, was addressing an issue similar to what was presented earlier in his ministries. There were still people who believed that we are saved by works alone. As humans, we tend to focus on the works we do; this was especially true (then as now) for a person of Jewish heritage. When you look at the Old Testament, all the laws were based on the actions a person did. Everything about their faith was about actions, just as most of the Ten Commandments are about actions. For instance, even the commandment not to covet was considered an “action of the soul.” To covet meant something you would do – only maybe you didn’t have the ability to do it, or the consequences of doing it were too severe. To “covet” meant having a certain malice of intent, a willed action intended to be done. Then, as now, the Jewish community couldn’t conceive of a life not based on physical action.
That would explain why it would be such a different way of thinking when Jesus started preaching in Matthew chapter 5. Jesus does not negate the way we live physically, but the bar has been set higher now and we are also judged by the thoughts we entertain, the grudges we hold, as well as the faith we have in Him and love by which we love Him. Jesus is looking deeper into our souls. In the Old Jewish way of living, the law became too much to follow physically. It led many to say, “Who can do it?” It was considered impossible to work out one’s good relationship with God.
The Law required of the physical life was too demanding, but the New Life in Jesus is no less demanding. Jesus sees all that is in our souls. He sees our faith, or lack thereof. He sees our love, and lack thereof. He knows how hard we try, or lack thereof. He sees our thoughts and all we entertain. He knows every act hidden and every motivation we have for doing things, good or bad.
Since Jesus, as God, knows all these things, and since He purchased our salvation for us, He has total rights to judging us as He pleases. So He tells us of the criteria by which He would judge us. How will He judge us? Let’s start reading the letter to the Romans.