Faithful Living in Perilous Times
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’” Romans 1:16–17
As I am working through the book of Romans for the upcoming Arizona Conference (September 7–9), I will be doing a series of posts on some of the dominant topics we will cover. This will help me in organizing my own thoughts and give a preview to our readers of what, for me, are some exciting new insights about this astounding book.
The Historical Context
The phrase, “The just shall live by faith” is quoted by Paul from the book of Habakkuk. When the apostle quotes from the Old Testament Scriptures, he is not just using words or phrases to suit his need of the moment. Led by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, his quotes come from a context that is historical, cultural, and grammatical.
Since the above verses, including the quote, set forth the theme of the book of Romans, these various contexts all combine to add to our understanding of the message of this New Testament book.
While we know nothing about the prophet Habakkuk except what can be gleaned from this small book, the contents of his message place him as a contemporary of Jeremiah, before the invasion of Babylon and the captivity of Judah (c. 620–608 B.C.).
The Decline of the Nation
Habakkuk begins by complaining to God about the corruption within Judah. The nation is filled with rampant evil, plunder, and violence (Hab. 1:1–4). How, he wonders, can a holy God stand by and allow such perversion? God responds to Habakkuk’s complaint by revealing that He will use the Chaldeans to perform “a work in your days which you would not believe, though it were told you” (Hab. 1:5). God would use this brutal nation to judge Judah (Hab. 1:5–11).
This leads to Habakkuk’s second complaint (Hab. 1:12–17), in which he questions how a God so pure that He cannot behold evil could possibly use the Chaldeans against His own people. Habakkuk’s appeals to God to correct his nation remind us that when we pray for God to restore our own country, we must not question how He chooses to bring about that correction.
The Just Shall Live by Faith
Habakkuk eagerly waits for God to explain Himself, but no explanation is given beyond this statement:
“Behold the proud, his soul is not upright in him; but the just shall live by his faith.” Hab. 2:4
This verse is not only the key to understanding Habakkuk, but it is Paul’s signature verse in Romans, Galatians, and in Hebrews (which I am convinced was written by the apostle).
When Hab. 2:4b is quoted in Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; and Heb.10:38, Paul intends us to take it in its original context. By doing this, we see the presence of grave warning to those who are lifted up with pride, and great comfort for those who live by faith—even in the most perilous of times.
God’s answer to Habakkuk is stated in utmost simplicity, yet it is like a deep well of profound spiritual truth. According to the New Bible Commentary (3rd edition, pg. 770), “There is more here than meets the eye, and the use of this passage in the New Testament shows it to be indeed a pregnant one [statement]. It is a saying which was only fathomed in its utter profundity by St. Paul” (Kuhl).
So great was the impact of this truth on Habakkuk that he responds with two songs: one a taunt of woe to the king of the Chaldeans (Hab. 2:6–20), and the other a prayer—put in the form of a psalm—of trust and praise to “the God of my salvation” (Hab. 3:18).
From Faithfulness to Faith
Habakkuk ends his short prophecy with the following expression of trust, hope, and rejoicing:
“Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; though the labor of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; though the flock be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls—yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The LORD God is my strength; He will make my feet like deer’s feet, and He will make me walk on my high hills.” Habakkuk 3:17–19
It is evident that the prophet got the meaning behind the message from God. In spite of national corruption and decline, in the face of invasion by a fierce and brutal foreign power, Habakkuk chose to “live by … faith.” In the Hebrew text the word “live” connotes more than just survival. It contains the ideas of inner abundance and joy through fellowship with God.
While Paul usually quotes from the Greek Septuagint version (LXX), in Rom. 1:17, he quotes directly from the Hebrew. Yet, he includes the thought contained in the Greek version which reads, “But the just shall live by My faith,” referring to the faithfulness of God. Our faith rests on the faithfulness of God.
Now you know why Paul precedes his quote with the words, “from faith to faith” (Rom. 1:17). He is literally saying, “From faithfulness (from God) to faith (on our part).” God’s righteousness is revealed through His faithfulness to those who believe. Paul is, in essence, setting the whole book of Romans upon the foundation of the book of Habakkuk. And with this realization, a story begins to unfold through Romans that parallels the cultural conditions that prevailed in Habakkuk’s day, but will expand this key thought until it encompasses all of human history—from the fall of Adam to the glorious eternal Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ!
Like the book of Habakkuk, Romans is filled with dire warnings to those who exalt themselves (Hab. 2:4–20; Rom. 1:18–3:20), and precious promises to those who choose to live by faith (Hab. 2:4; 3:1–19; Romans 4–8).
Both the warnings and the promises will lead us to the very heart of the book: Romans chapters 9 through 11!