Monday, January 30, 2017
Many will no doubt spend this Super Bowl Sunday in front of their televisions surrounded by friends, chips, dip, and wings. Some watch the Super Bowl for the football, others for the commercials, and still others for the halftime show. Regardless of why anyone watches this spectacle, one thing is true, the Super Bowl garners a lot of attention from all kinds of people as it is the most-watched and highest-rated television event broadcast every year. Though I’ll join the ranks of those watching tonight’s special event along with some friends over at our home, I cannot help but find the fascination with and anticipation of what will go down tonight a bit convicting. After all, football is just a game. Commercials, no matter how clever, are just thirty-second sound-bites intended to sell material products. In the grand scheme of things, these things matter very little.
Thankfully, this morning’s message offers something truly special and life changing. In Romans 1:16-17, Paul reveals a thesis statement that successfully introduces the remainder of his letter to the church in Rome. Therein, three invaluable declarations are made that speak to the most important topic and greatest spectacle of all—the gospel of Jesus Christ.
1. The Gospel is Nothing to be Ashamed of-1:16a-“…For I am not ashamed of the Gospel…”
Romans 1:16-17 mark Paul’s transition from the introduction of the letter to its body. As such, these verses acts as a kind of thesis statement that informs the major themes of the letter to follow. This thesis statement is divided into three declarations that are each introduced by a forceful “for.” At the beginning of verse 16, the declaration is clear—“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel” (1:16a). Several different views concerning this opening remark have been offered in an effort to explain why Paul begins with this strikingly defensive statement. For instance, some have suggested that this is an example of the literary device known as litote in which one implements an understated negative comment to make a positive point. An example of this can be seen in the phrase “I am not without some understanding of the New Testament.” This is a round-about way of saying “I know a thing or two about the New Testament.” Here, when Paul says “I’m not ashamed of the gospel,” he may be implying that he is exceedingly proud of the gospel.
This was important for Paul to communicate to the church in Rome, especially as he sought their support. It is possible that more timid souls would have been sheepish in offering to the sophisticated elites of the Roman Empire a message involving a poor carpenter’s son who was believed to have risen from the dead after claiming to be the Son of God. Paul’s appreciation for the gospel message was anything but sheepish—he was proud to be associated with this story and the facts therein.
Not only was Paul not ashamed of the gospel, but Paul was not being put to shame by it. He was working not to let the gospel message down and believed that it had not let him down either. For these reasons, and perhaps more, Paul could say without equivocation that He was not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.
The proof of this statement’s truthfulness is witnessed in a small survey of Paul’s ministry found in 2 Corinthians 11:21-33. As Paul seeks to defend his ministry and apostleship there, he goes to great lengths to delineate exactly what he was willing to do for the Gospel message.
2 Corinthians 11:21-33-“To my shame I must say that we have been weak by comparison. But in whatever respect anyone else is bold—I speak in foolishness—I am just as bold myself. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern? If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, He who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. In Damascus the ethnarch under Aretas the king was guarding the city of the Damascenes in order to seize me, and I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and so escaped his hands.”
This does not sound like someone who is ashamed of what he stands for. The same might be said about what is found in Paul's earlier letter to Corinth when he says the following in 1 Cor. 2:1-2.
1 Corinthians 2:1-2-“And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”
It would appear as though, for Paul, the gospel and its Christ was never hidden away behind other more friendly discussions and/or safer topics. Instead, it was front and center, even at great cost.
Can the same be said of your life and my life? It is not difficult to be proud of the gospel in the confines of this church, within the fellowship of believers, and in the privacy of our own personal walk with the Lord. However, would your family/friends/coworkers/passersby say of you that you were proud of gospel of Jesus Christ or might they be surprised to learn that you even have an opinion on the matter at all? If there was ever a time in history for us to stand for something, if there was ever a need in our country for the gospel to be exalted, if there was ever a need in our world for more people to proclaim the good news unapologetically and without reservation, it is NOW!
2. The Gospel is the Power of God-1:16b-d
The next two declarations help the reader understand why Paul was so proud of the gospel of God. First, he says “for it is the power of God for salvation, to everyone who believes” (1:16b).
“To say that the gospel is ‘power’ is to acknowledge the dynamic quality of the message. In the proclamation of the gospel God is actively at work in reaching out to the hearts of people. The gospel is God telling of his love to wayward people. It is not a lifeless message but a vibrant encounter for everyone who responds in faith” (Mounce, Romans, 70). This sets the gospel apart from other religious jargon. God is at work in the gospel message. To hear the gospel is to encounter the power of God. Dwight L. Moody once compared the gospel to a lion saying “All the preacher has to do is to open the door of the cage and get out of the way!”
The acute power of the gospel is implied by the word “power” (dunamiV) which in this context refers to “a supernatural power having some particular role in controlling the destiny and activities of human beings” (Louw Nida). In what way could such power be realized more than in the program of salvation and the eternal implications thereof?
This powerful gospel is able to bring salvation. In fact, its proclamation exists for just that—to provide an opportunity for life-transformation and, as a result, a change of destiny in those who respond positively to it. Later, in highlighting how radical salvation is, Paul compares the transformation to being alive from the dead (see Romans 6:13).
Few understood the power of salvation more than Paul, formerly Saul. Remember, Saul was antagonistic toward the Christian movement in general and the gospel message in particular. Believing it to be anathema to the traditional Jewish teachings that he had studied at the PhD level under Gamiliel, Saul stopped at nothing to see the Christian movement and the gospel message squashed. However, after confronting the gospel message on the road to Damascus, Saul’s life was forever changed. So radical was this change that he even changed his name from Saul to Paul.
The transformation that Paul went through was so radical that in some places he refers to himself as the chief among sinners and elsewhere refers to himself as an apostle born out of time. What is able to turn a persecutor into an apostle? What is able to bring the dead to life? What is able to render the lost saved? The power of the gospel which is for salvation.
However, this radical transformation was not available to Paul only—it is also available “to everyone who believes” (1:16). This is the “good news:” all have the potential of experiencing the same salvation and transformation from death to life, lost to saved, that Paul experienced. The wording here is especially important, for, the scope of the declaration, “everyone,” suggests that the gospel and its many blessings is available to all—not just a select few. Also, the participle “who believes” suggests that the gospel’s powerful effect on a person seems to depend, in some ways, upon his/her believing it—that is trusting it with all of themselves.
This suggests that the gospel does not negate a person’s free will. In other words, God does not force himself on anyone against his/her will. “For the power of the gospel to effect salvation, the hearer must respond in faith” (Mounce). This faith is not a work, but a response to what is offered—accepting a gift is hardly meritorious inasmuch as the gift is purchased and offered by the giver.
That the gospel is available to everyone who will accept it is reiterated by the phrase “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16d). In the New Testament world, there were two kinds of people—Jews and Gentiles (Greeks). Here, it is clear that the gift of salvation was made available to God’s chosen nation first—the Jews. After all, God had worked through the Jews via Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus to bring about salvation to the world. Unfortunately, many Jews had and continue to reject the salvation that Jesus provided for a myriad of reasons. With the gift of salvation burning a hole in God’s proverbial pocket—he decided to make it available not just to his own people, but to anyone who would take it. Paul will go into much more detail on this as the letter continues later.
However, in this second declaration, Paul is hoping that the church in Rome would marvel at the power of the gospel as witnessed in its ability to radically transform the life of anyone who will believe it. Have you trusted the gospel? Have you experienced the power of the gospel in your life and passed from death to life?
It is one thing to be a football fan, but another thing entirely to belong to a team. A fan appreciates things from the outside in. Commitment is casual and subject to change. Fans also don’t pay much attention to the team but once a week or so. A team member on the other hand has firsthand appreciation for things. Commitment is profound, not subject to change and being on the team consumes everything about their lives and has an indelible effect on who they are.
Unfortunately, many people are merely fans of the gospel and have never experienced its power of transformation. These fans like Jesus alright, but only have a superficial connection to him and his teaching. Commitment for them is casual and attention to him is only given about once a week or so. A believer is someone who is not just a fan, but a member of the family of God. He/she has experienced the power of the gospel firsthand, is committed to Jesus in a profound way, and has been radically affected.
3. The Gospel Results in Righteousness-1:17
This lasting effect of the gospel is emphasized in the third declaration made in these verses—“for in it the righteousness of God is revealed, from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘but the righteous man shall live by faith” (1:17). Many people believe that what they need to be saved is God’s forgiveness for their sin. While this is true, the ransom for sin has already been paid in full on the cross. What is keeping the lost from a right relationship with God is a lack of God’s righteousness. However, those who have believed the gospel have the righteousness of God! One of the powers that the gospel has on the individual is its ability to justify a believer before God, rendering them righteous in his sight. This results in a right relationship with him.
Such righteousness is not given based on anything that the human being has done. It is a right standing that is received by faith to those who trust in Jesus. Previous sinful records are expunged. The believer has received total commutation. The pardon has been issued to them and, as a result, he/she can begin a new life.
Ephesians 2:8-9-“for by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves, it is a gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast.”
In this new life, Paul says “the righteous man shall live by faith” (1:17b). Here, Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4 and suggests that faith in God not only is awarded with justification and God’s righteousness in a moment; it is also integral to living in righteousness thereafter in a process known as sanctification.
That the righteousness of God in salvation is brought on totally by faith is central to the New Testament teaching of salvation. During the 16th century, three phrases betrayed how the reformers understood the gospel message: sola scriptura (Scripture alone), sola gratia (Grace alone), and sola Fide (faith alone). The latter two are especially in view here as Paul introduces the major themes of the gospel. It is God’s grace alone that extends the gospel to everyone who will believe it. It is faith alone that results in the righteousness that one absolutely needs to both know Christ and grow in Christ thereafter. We are both saved by grace through faith and are growing by grace through faith. This is the power of the gospel. This is good news!
Paul makes it clear in this final declaration that the gospel results in righteousness. Is righteousness a pursuit of you life? Are you in a right relationship with God almighty?
Super Bowl Sunday promises to be a spectacle for the sport’s enthusiastic, commercial aficionado, and music lover. Against the bright technicolor backdrop that is annual event garners, this passage reminds us of what is truly remarkable, awe-inducing, and transformative—the gospel message! The gospel is nothing to be ashamed of! Instead, it ought to be broadcast through our lives as it was in Paul’s. The gospel is the power of God! It alone is capable of bringing about the salvation that everyone is in desperate need of. The gospel results in righteousness! This righteousness is what grants those who believe the permission to enter into and grow in our relationship with God. Are you able to declare these truths today along with Paul?
Tuesday, January 24, 2017
People have often quipped, “If you want to understand your priorities in life, look at your checkbook.” While this might be true for how one prioritizes money and influence, there are many indicators for what is most important to an individual, group, or administration. For instance, some people have to do lists that indicate both what is most important/urgent (things at the top of the list) and that which can wait for later (things left for the bottom of the list). Recently, there has been a lot of hay made about the new presidential administration’s first 100 days. Entire cable shows have been created to track what the current president seeks to accomplish early on as these first things , we’re told, will indicate what his team believes is most important (his top priorities). By any measure—the way we spend are money, what occupies the top of our to do lists, what actions are taken first—our priorities say a lot about who we are as people AND who we are as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.
As the opening of Romans continues, Paul reveals his priorities and their connection to the gospel message—the core of his letter. Though the activities mentioned in Romans 1:8-15 do not exhaust all of the behaviors that should preoccupy a disciple of Christ, these at least show what Paul believed to be of great importance as, in mentioning these here, he appears to prioritize these actions. As we look at the top of Paul’s to do list, my prayer is that we might check our own and, if necessary be challenged by Paul’s example as we strive to live more like Christ and work toward advancing His Kingdom.
1. ACTIVITY #1: Fervent Prayer-1:8-10
Ten of Paul’s thirteen epistles open with some form of “I thank my God,” and it is no different here—“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world” (1:8). The primacy given to thanks in these letters reveals how important this was in Paul’s life personally and ministerially. Here, Paul gives thanks to “my God through Jesus Christ” highlighting the intimate relationship he shares with God the Father and God the Son via the redemptive ministry of Jesus.
Paul also acknowledges exactly what he is thankful for in this particular letter—“because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world” (1:8). Apparently the reputation of the church in Rome preceded itself on the world’s stage—namely the Roman Empire. Though from Romans 15ff we know that the capitol had probably not been evangelized, Paul is saying here that the majority of the known world had experienced or interacted with, to some degree or another, the faith of this church and its people. For this Paul gives God thanks.
Several things can be learned from Paul’s prayer life from the verses that follow this mention of thanks. First, Paul prayed persistently for the church—“For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His son, is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you,…” (1:10). Another translation of verse 10 might read “how constantly I remember you in my prayers.” Such a claims reveals that Paul cared much for the church and believed that what he was requesting was of the utmost importance, for, we don’t often pray for what we don’t care about and don’t persist in what we deem trivial.
Recently, a friend of mine from university was taken ill in the hospital and on the verge of death a couple of times, requiring multiple surgeries. His parents posted a couple of blurbs on Facebook that asked for prayer and the response was immense. Dozens of people responded with promises to pray persistently on his behalf and I’m sure the family was blessed and God took notice. Why? Because people cared and found the need significant enough to bother God about it. How would you feel if everyone prayed for the church in the same way you did? I’m sure that the church in Rome found some peace and confidence knowing that Paul prayed fervently for them. I’m sure God took notice of what Paul accomplished on his knees in persistent prayer. Oh that the same would be true of us—that we “make mention of” our brothers in sisters in Christ persistently.
However, Paul not only prayed with persistence, he also prayed with passion--“…always in my prayers, making request…” (1:10). “Making request” defines for the reader what Paul means when he says “mentioning.” This present participle, more literally translated, means “to plead or ask for with urgency with the implication of presumed need.” It is the kind of praying that recognizes that only God can intervene. It is the kind of praying that demands an answer.
I’m sure that those praying for my friend in the hospital prayed like his life depended on it and, in many ways, that is exactly what it felt like. Can such an attitude be seen in the way you pray for others or for this church? What kind of attention do you think we would garner in the divine scheme of things if everyone prayed as often as you did or as passionately as you did? Something to think about as we witness Paul’s example in the opening of this letter. Before Paul even meets these people, he has already communicated that he prays persistently and passionately for them, what a comfort!
In fact, meeting with the church in Rome is exactly what Paul prayed for so vociferously—“if perhaps now, at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you” (1:10b). Paul recognizes that if it is to be, God’s will would see to it that he would one day meet those in the church of Rome. This was Paul’s prayer.
Paul makes it very clear here, that one hallmark of his ministry both to this church and to any church he is prayer. Just think of all the lives that Paul’s ministry had already touched (especially if one considers the three completed missionary journeys). In spite of this, Paul still was able to include in his prayers believers he had not yet met! This can only mean that more than preaching, teaching, or anything else, prayer took priority in Paul’s ministry. In fact, one might say of these other activities that they are merely results of the ministry of prayer than they are the ministry itself. As God was Paul’s witness, his ministry was a ministry of prayer. Oh that this would be said of the church of Rome. Oh that this would be true of our own church.
2. ACTIVITY #2: Intimate Fellowship-1:11-15
The next activity that characterized Paul’s ministry to the church is intimate fellowship—“for I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established…” (1:11). This desire demonstrates that the fellowship of believers is indicative of a commitment to a common Lord. Because Paul and the believers in Rome had both been called by the same Christ (see 1:1-7), these two had the most important things in common, rendering meaningful fellowship possible and desired. However, when Paul mentions his desire to meet with the church and fellowship with them, he does not hope to endorse potluck lunches and social graces. Fellowship for Paul meant something far more important.
Paul’s reason for wanting to meet with the church in Rome involved imparting to them some “spiritual gift.” The “gift” mentioned here is not of the same class of spiritual gifts seen listed in 1 Corinthians 12. Instead, Paul wanted to impart some spiritual insight from the Holy Spirit that would further encourage and establish the church in Rome as it continued its kingdom-building work. In other words, Paul’s eventual visit to Rome would not be for personal pleasure, but for the enrichment of the new church.
In enriching the church, Paul believed that he himself might be enriched—“that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine” (1:12). Though Paul sought to bestow something to the church, he understood that as a faith community, they too might bless and encourage his own ministry. In this aside, Paul reveals a genuine sense of appreciation for the spiritual life of others. The beautiful thing about Christian fellowship is this: what is exchanged is enriching on both a physical and spiritual level. No doubt Paul depended on fellowship throughout his arduous and sometimes difficult ministry.
Spiritually enriching and encouraging exchanges made possible by Christian fellowship are viewed in Scripture as very significant for any faith community. For instance, listen to what Hebrews 10:24-25 says:
Hebrews 10:24-25-“and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”
For Paul, such a meeting with the Church of Rome could not come soon enough. In fact, Paul goes to great lengths to help them understand why it has taken him so long to get there in verse 13—“I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented so far) so that I may obtain some fruit among you, also even as among the rest of the Gentiles” (1:13). Rome was the center of the world and therefore a huge opportunity for the gospel. There was no reason Paul would not have wanted to go there. So what prevented him? Some have argued that God did not permit it (see the Living Bible translation “but God did not let me”). Others have suggested that satanic opposition prohibited his trip. Still others say that the churches already planted may have required most of his attention up to this point. Either way, Paul wanted the church to realize, in spite of his lingering absence, how important it was for him to meet and fellowship with them.
After all, as Paul continues in verse 14—“I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish…” (1:14). Rome was fool of these and, by proxy, teeming with harvest potential. Paul had made it his life’s mission to spread the good news to the gentile world (Greeks and barbarians [those who couldn’t speak Greek]) and was prepared to answer the criticisms both from the erudite and the ignorant.
Inasmuch as Rome was filled with all kinds of people in need of the gospel, Paul could not wait to bring it to them after stopping by and encouraging the church that already existed in this region—“so, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (1:15). You can almost hear the alacrity with which Paul pens these words. He can’t wait to meet this church, enjoy fellowship with this church, and partner with this church as they advance the kingdom of God in their brave new world.
For Paul, prayer and meaningful fellowship were a top priority. Can the same be said of you? Though it may be easy to claim here that prayer is priority and, as evidenced by your attendance this morning, fellowship may appear to be on your radar, does the rest of your life (how you spend your time and who you spend your time with) indicate that these are really all that important to you personally? Paul’s letter is all about the gospel of Jesus Christ—understanding it and applying it appropriately. Here, he offers his own desires as an indication of what the gospel-centered life prioritizes. His life and ministry was characterized by fervent prayer and intimate fellowship. As a result, the church was encouraged and the gospel made inroads throughout the known world. Oh that these traits would characterize this church and its people. Oh that we might be encouraged and Gospel spread as a result.
What better time to reevaluate our priorities in life than at the outset of this new series that seeks to celebrate the Gospel and apply it rightly to our daily lives!
Tuesday, January 17, 2017
Watching the news for any length of time at all can prove to be a depressing and downright worrisome endeavor. It seems as though ill will, protest, propaganda, spin, and bias clouds nearly everything that we read about, watch on TV, or listen to on the radio. Not only that, but those stores that receive the most attention tend to be those stories that can deliver the best shock value, outrage, and even disgust. Throw “fake news” into the mix and it is no wonder the citizens of this world and its earthly kingdoms are anything but post-modern Pontious Pilates asking “What is truth?” In fact, we are living in a world that is in many ways what atheist Aldous Huxley predicted in his dystopia novel—A Brave New World—a world of social engineering, pervasive conditioning, and loss of truth, hope, and meaning. Perhaps this is why, at least for me, good news is so refreshing. Imagine what it would be like if instead of seeing concerned looks and hearing despondent tones, a smile was adorned and a hopeful cadence was present in those who delivered the late-breaking bulletins or “this just in” segments. Thankfully, as far as God’s Word in general and Romans in particular is concerned, there is good news to hear, know, and apply to our lives as citizens of both this world and the Kingdom of God. So what news is there to know? What does it mean? What do I do with this information for the time being (that is while I wait for the kingdom of God to be realized in full)? Thankfully, these questions and more will be answered by Paul in his letter to the church in Rome—a church that itself existed in a brave new world. However, before we get knee-deep into the content of this epistle, let us examine the opening of this letter and enjoy four introductions that successfully introduce one of its major themes: God’s people have good news that needs to be broadcasted.
1. Introduction of the Author-1:1
Although Paul is popular enough among biblical characters, a couple of things are worth pointing out so that we might understand life-situation that Paul was in when he wrote the book of Romans. First, at this point in Paul’s ministry, the apostle had already completed three missionary journeys and was now spending the winter in Corinth. This places the date at around 57AD. Second, having already spent much time and energy in the eastern Mediterranean, Paul was now ready to explore new venues for the expansion of the gospel message—namely, the center of the Roman Empire. Third, after spending time in Jerusalem, Paul was concerned about how the Gentiles were integrating into the people of God. This issue specifically figures prominently in this lengthy letter. Finally, the apostle was probably introducing himself to the Roman church, in part, to elicit its support of his future ministry into areas like Spain. In Romans, he hopes to earn the church’s trust and present a well-reasoned theology so that they might be comfortable supporting his ministry.
Perhaps this is one reason why the apostle begins by identifying himself as “a bond-servant of Christ Jesus” (1:1a). This first title is simple and profound. First, “bond-servant” (douloV) is both humble and telling of how Paul understood his authority. Also translated “slave,” “bond-servant” helps the recipient of the letter understand how Paul viewed his ministry. However, “bond-servant” is a term used throughout the Old Testament of the likes of Joshua (see Joshua 14:7). Therefore, while humble, Paul believed that his ministry held authority and significance. This authority and significance came from the one who owned him—Christ Jesus. While Paul is the source of the letter, it is Christ Jesus and His gospel ministry that will be the focus of the letter.
Having introduced his humble and yet authoritative identity as rooted in the person and work of Jesus, Paul next adds a short resume to keep the reader reading—“called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (1:1b). No doubt at this point, the apostles were relatively well-known. While Peter, James, and John were household names by now, Paul inserts his own name into this exclusive bunch in an effort gain a hearing by those who pick up this letter to read it. God had seen to it that Paul was “set apart for the gospel of God.” In other words, the “good news” that the twelve had espoused was the same “news” that Paul was bringing.
“Gospel” has backgrounds in both the Old Testament and the Roman world. For instance, the prophets used the word to depict God’s saving intervention on behalf of his people (see Isa. 40:9). However, the word was applied by the Romans to the emperor, whose birth, life, and deeds were considered “good news” for the world. While many saw their security and joy in the success of the emperor, Paul makes it clear here that good news of a different kind provides the only true hope and joy—the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
2. Introduction of the Gospel-1:2-5-The Message
Unlike the fiat promises that an emperor may give, the good news that preoccupies Paul’s letter was “promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures” (1:2). In other words, the fulfillments of the prophecies that Christ and his ministry accomplished lend credence to the message that Jesus espoused. It is this message that Paul determines to bring to the church at Rome. It is one thing for an emperor to speak with authority. However, consider how much more seriously Jesus’ message should be taken considering all of the prophecies He fulfilled!
Next, Paul elucidates some of the particulars of the gospel message itself. He begins first with its chief character—God’s “Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the Flesh…Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:3, 4b). These two descriptors anchor Jesus in both history and beyond. First, Jesus is a literal member of an actual family tree with special implications. In the Old Testament, God promises that a descendant of David would have eternal reign.
2 Sam. 7:12-14a-“When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for My Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son.”
Paul is therefore identifying Jesus as the one in whom the ultimate significance of this prophecy is fulfilled.
Second, by referring to this “Son” as “Jesus Christ our Lord” Paul is ascribing divinity, sovereignty, and matchless glory to this individual. His is, in other words, historical and holy, real and royal, actual Son and glorious Savior.
Paul builds on this theme of historicity and glory when he says “who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of Holiness” (1:4a). The verb “was declared” means “to come to a definitive decision or firm resolve.” Though Christ was always the Son of God, his resurrection from the dead confirmed for the world that this was so and proclaimed it to the world! Therefore, not only can the good news that Paul shares be trusted because it fulfills prophecy, it also has been certified true by an empty tomb!
Truly, the church to which Paul was writing this was familiar with the Old Testament prophets and the events in Jerusalem. Paul provides this reminder in an effort to reaffirm the faith that this church already held in a brave new world that challenged anything that appeared to replace Caesar with a more powerful sovereign or stirred up controversy.
It was from this Jesus—the prophesied and risen Messiah—that Paul received the grace that saved him and named him as an apostle—“through whom we have received grace and apostleship” (1:5a). In other words, the authority with which Paul writes this letter has been granted him by the greatest of all authorities—Jesus Himself! This lends further credibility to Paul’s authority. Not only does Paul equate his identity with the likes of other “bond-servants” before him (1:1), he also says that he is “set apart” (1:1b) and here claims that he received special grace that afforded him an exclusive position among the apostles.
A reminder of how great the grace of God was in Paul’s life is in order here. Paul was “Saul” and a persecutor of the church. He hated Christians and conspired to kill many of them in an effort to annihilate the infant movement. He even held the coats of those who stoned the first Christian martyr—Stephen. On his way to Damascus, Saul was blindsided (literally) by the glory of Jesus, saved, and then commissioned out of a life of darkness and into a life of gospel ministry. Saul became Paul, and in the most radical conversion story ever recorded, this “greatest of all sinners” became a prolific church planter, New Testament writer, and early church leader. Few knew how sweet the grace of God tasted more than Paul did.
The grace of God in Paul’s life was not only for his benefit, it was also bestowed on him “to bring about obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake” (1:5b). In other words, the grace in Paul’s life galvanized Paul’s ministry to Asia minor and to those he was writing to in this letter—the church in Rome. This ministry involved several important pursuits. First, his ministry sought obedience of faith in those who received it. In other words, a successful ministry yielded faithful obedience to the Lord. For Paul, it wasn’t about how big any one of his church-plants was, the size of its campus, or even the current flavor of its programs. The ultimate test of whether or his ministry was successful was whether or not those involved were faithful and obedient to the Lord. Second, Paul’s ministry extended to “all the Gentiles.” This ministry was for, all people inasmuch as the grace of God extends to the world. Third, Paul’s ministry existed for the glory of God—“for His name’s sake” (1:5b). Paul was not concerned about personal prestige or impressing the world. His ministry was preoccupied with glorifying the Lord.
As the introduction of the gospel is made here, several things have become clear. The gospel is predicted in the Old Testament, centered in the person of Jesus, confirmed by means of the resurrection, received by and applied to Paul in a special way, and results in a ministry of faithful obedience for all people for the glory of God.
Next, Paul introduces his recipients—“”among whom you also are called of Jesus Christ” (1:6). What an encouragement for those reading this letter! They too, like Paul, had been visited by God’s grace and called of Jesus Christ. So, just who was the church in Rome?
Truth be told, there is no direct evidence about the origins of Christianity in Rome. Though some have suggested that Peter founded the first Christian church in Rome, it is difficult to place Peter in Rome at an early date and even more difficult to imagine that Paul would write as he does to a church founded by another apostle. Luke mentions that “visitors from Rome” were present on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10). It is very possible that some of them were probably converted as a result of Peter’s powerful speech. They would have no doubt returned to their home city and begun preaching and teaching that Jesus was the Messiah. The resulting Christian church in Rome is the direct audience for Paul’s letter—a church in a brave new world. This church, though passionate, was a small group of individuals who appeared markedly different from those around them—including traditional Jews. Conspicuous and Christ-centered, this church would eventually receive much persecution. In fact, riots that broke out among the Jewish people because of the introduction of Christ into their belief system by the small Christian community. As a result, Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome—leaving behind many god-fearing gentiles who were under the emperor’s radar and now despised by their Jewish brothers and sisters. Consequently, the church in Rome had become less and less Jewish in orientation. As we will soon see, Paul writes this letter in part to show the relationship the Jews and Gentiles have with the gospel message respectively, highlighting the changing times and future hope for both people groups.
4. Introduction of the Letter-1:7
Finally, Paul introduces the letter with the kind of traditional greeting that is found in many ancient epistles—“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:7). Inasmuch as grace figures prominently in the gospel message in general and the book of Romans in particular, it is fitting for Paul to highlight it here. Not only does Paul call for grace for the church in Rome, he also calls for peace. After all, the church in Rome was a church dealing with pressure from all sides. The empire, at this point was not sympathetic to the Christian movement and many measures were being taken to discredit, undermine, and silence those who belonged to this worldview (sounds familiar). It is in this environment that Paul prays that grace and peace be given to the church as it stands for the kingdom in its brave new world.
In Paul’s greeting, he also identifies the source of these blessings—“from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:7). The church had to understand that any grace they enjoyed and any peace they could hope for would come only from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, these two titles, imply that these two members of the Trinity that are equal in divinity and glory.
The introductions made in this passage: the author, gospel, recipients, and letter successfully describe the bulletin that is being broadcast before the church in Rome. Thankfully, this bulletin comes as an encouragement to the young and struggling church as it is concerned with Jesus Christ and the grace that He has provided them and his servant Paul. The coming information enscripturated in this letter can be trusted as it comes from a credible authority—Paul, is life-changing as it involves the gospel, is relevant as it was addressed to this church, and can be enjoyed inasmuch as it is being delivered with “grace and peace.” These same characteristics potentially apply to all who read it today. Take heart church, there is good news to be had and the best part is, this news can be trusted, is transforming, is for US, and is given with grace and peace. This just in, GOOD NEWS! A great way to kick off our series in Romans—a letter for a church in a Brave New World.
Sunday, January 1, 2017
Many people at this time of year are also trying to make changes in their lives by means of resolutions that they hope will transition them well into a new and better state. However, I want to take this opportunity before we head into a new year and a new series to have us consider something that is often overlooked—how we approach issues/threats that inevitably emerge around us as individuals and as a church. If there is one thing that we can be sure of in life it is the prevalence of conflicts that we must confront. However, if handled rightly, these conflicts can become opportunities. Jerry Falwell Sr. once said, “Life is filled with glorious opportunities, brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.” Can this be true? I believe it is. All that is required is the right approach. So let us look at two diametrically different approaches to two very similar situations in an effort to learn which will serve God’s will for us better as individuals and as a church in 2017 and beyond.
I. APPROACH #1: A COWERING APPROACH-1 Samuel 17:1-11
In 1 Samuel 13, Israel’s first king began his forty two year reign at the age of thirty. Young, striking, and popular, Saul was everything that Israel hoped for—at least at first. Inevitably after new nations are established and kings are appointed, they are tested by surrounding powers who, in trying to take advantage of the immaturity and inexperience of the new state and its leadership, seek to snuff it out. For Israel and Saul, the Philistines proved to be their greatest test. In fact, no sooner had Saul been appointed kind did the Philistines begin their offensive against the newborn state (see 1 Sam. 13:1ff).
After Saul and Israel gained several victories and suffered several moral failures in this campaign against the Philistines, we pick up the story in chapter 17:1-“Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle; and they were gathered at Socoh which belongs to Judah, and the camped between Socoh and Azekah, in Ephes-dammim,…”. The description given here reveals that the Philistines were right outside of Jerusalem. No doubt showing up at Israel’s back door with armies gathered was an invitation to war, leaving Saul and the men of Israel with no choice but to meet this threat.
“Saul and the men of Israel were gathered and camped in the valley of Elah, and drew up in battle array to encounter the Philistines,…” (17:2). A couple of details are important to point out here, especially as we prepare to compare this text with the next (2 Samuel 5). First, “Saul” figures prominently in the narrative. His is the first individual identified in the text and he will be the last one mentioned in this short passage. This establishes Saul’s leadership over the nation of Israel in general and over the current situation in particular. How well Israel meets this threat will no doubt hinge in large part on how Saul handles this conflict.
The second detail worth mentioning here is the lack of initiative that is suggested by the passive voice “were gathered and camped” and the verb “drew up.” These and other clues suggest that Saul met this enemy because they absolutely had to, not because they were eager to take care of business. The lack of urgency is obvious in any reading of this text. Perhaps these Israelites were war-weary or maybe they were busy trying to set up their new government. For whatever reason, Saul’s regime proves, at least in this instance, that it was more reactive than proactive.
The text moves on to describe the meeting of these two powers as follows: “the Philistines stood on the mountain on one side while Israel stood on the mountain on the other side, with the valley between them” (17:3).
In one corner—the Philistine corner—stood a tribe of people that were descendants of maritime mercenaries from Phoenicia. Once a formidable naval nuisance to Egypt and others, the Philistines had run aground and, at this point were nomadic warriors. Much of current knowledge of Philistine material culture comes from reliefs at archaeological digs, including the use by Philistine warriors of kilts, feathered headdresses, and curved keel sailing vessels with high sterns and bows. Unlike the Canaanites, Israelites, and Egyptians, the Philistines did not practice circumcision (Judg. 14:3; 15:18; 1 Sam. 17:26). The biblical record attests to Philistine military prowess. They had iron weapons before the Israelites did (13:19–22), and effectively employed chariots and heavy infantry on the battlefield (EBD). Advances in iron weaponry and their militaristic reputation made the Philistines a fearsome bunch of uncircumcised, Baal-worshipers.
In corner number 2—the Israelites. This brand new nation was just trying to make it onto the scene. Weary from war with the Philistines and others, these did not have the iron assets that the Philistines did nor were they as practiced in warfare. This did not appear to be a fair fight at all, especially when all of the energy appears to be on the side of the Philistines (as Saul appears reluctant to meet this enemy head on).
Things become even more uneven when a champion emerges in between the two camps—“then a champion came out from the armies of the Philistines named Goliath, from Gath…” (17:4a). This man’s name means what he is—a giant. He was the toughest of the tribe of the Philistines—an intimidating challenger for the kind of competition that he would soon propose between these two armies.
So how big was he? The Bible says “six cubits and a span” (17:4b). That is roughly nine feet nine inches! (Someone was eating their green beans!).
However, what is perhaps even more intimidating than his size was his imposing presence, complete with all of the finest tools available to this bronze-age bunch of warriors. Samuel doesn’t miss a thing in his description of this behemoth—“He had a bronze helmet on his head, and he was clothed with scale-armor which weighed five thousand shekels of bronze. He also had bronze greaves on his legs and a bronze javelin slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and the head of his spear weighed six hundred shekels of iron; his shield-carrier also walked before him,…” (17:5-7). His armor weighed 5000 shekels of bronze. That is over 150lbs! The shaft of his spear was a 26 foot beam! On the tip of it, a heavy spear head weighed 600 shekels or 18lbs! To complete the look, he has a servant whose sole purpose is to follow him around carrying his shield. It is this giant who descends into the valley between the Philistines and the Israelites, unafraid. I imagine he was hard to look at with the sun glaring off of his state-of-the-art armor courtesy of the finest iron-age military outfitters available.
There, in that valley, Goliath “stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel and said to them, ‘Why do you come out to draw up in battle array? Am I not the Philistine and you servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves and let him come down to me. It he is able to fight me and kill me, then we will become your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall become our servants and serve us’…” (17:8-9). Allow me to paraphrase: “Oh, you’ve decided to come out to finally meet us have you? Look at us and…look at you! We will cream you if we do this the hard way. Let me offer you a proposition. You send your best men to fight be and we will settle this in a friendly competition. Your guy wins, we lose. I win, you lose.
This statement is no different than those one might here from the biggest guy in the locker room. Here is a guy who, by all appearances is the biggest jock of them all!
Continuing his taunting rant, Goliath says “I defy the ranks of Israel this day; give me a man that we may fight together” (17:10). This statement highlights yet another detail that I want to be sure to highlight before we move on to the next passage for comparison. Notice who is taking charge –Goliath. Notice where the focus of the descriptions centers—human strength. This is a very 2-dimensional scene. Mano-a-mano, fist-to cuffs. The problem here is, on a very human level, the Israelites do not have a prayer against this guy or the army that he represents. They were bigger, stronger, and more schooled in warfare.
Recognizing all of this, the Bible continues and says “When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid” (17:11). The lack of initiative early on, the superiority of the Philistine forces, the taunting proposal by this giant, and the unhealthy preoccupation with the very human elements of this whole spectacle are too much for the man at the center of it all—Saul. By proxy, “all Israel” suffers “dismay” and is “greatly afraid.”
The first approach given by Saul is marked with discouragement and dread. Surely this isn’t the approach that we want to endorse this year, or any other year for that matter!
II. APPROACH #2: A CONFIDENT APPROACH-2 Samuel 5:17-21
Time travel with me if you will and you will find a very familiar scene. In 2 Samuel 5:17-21, the Bible reveals the following, “When the Philistines heard that they had anointed David king over Israel, all the Philistines went up to seek out David,…Now the Philistines came and spread themselves out in the valley of Rephaim…” (5:17a, 18). A familiar enemy observes a similar transition of power and sees yet another opportunity to undermine a young nation. Just like before, they show up at Jerusalem’s backdoor, this time in Rephaim—some three or four miles southwest. While the setting/ingredients of 2 Samuel 5 could not be more like 1 Samuel 17, as 2 Samuel 5 unfolds, a very different story is told. This time around, “David” is introduced as the prominent figure to be associated with the nation of Israel and this situation in particular as his name figure prominently in this passage.
Unlike the passivity witnessed in Saul’s reaction to the offensive, “When David heard of it, he went down to the stronghold” (5:17b). The active voice and immediacy of his action stands in stark contrast to Saul’s near-hesitant movement in 1 Sam. 17. There, Saul left Jerusalem begrudgingly because he felt like he had to. Here, David leaves urgently, knowing that it is his duty to stand up for his people and his God. The two responses could not be more different.
The two approaches to confrontations represented in these passage also differ in the perspective that is given to their respective situations. In Saul’s approach, a 2-dimensional perspective was endorsed—the kind of approach that only took in the human elements involved, resulting in great discouragement. Here, in David’s approach, immediately a third dimension is introduced—“Then David inquired of the Lord saying, ‘Shall I go up against the Philistines? Will you give them into my hand?’…” (5:19a). Nowhere in Saul’s approach did we see inquiries made of the Divine. However, David, in seeking the Lord, gives the situation a whole new perspective—a God-centered perspective. By inviting God to participate in the unfolding conflict, David opens up his world to divine influence in which anything is possible (even an enemy being delivered into his hand).
David’s inquiry not only allows for a superior perspective on the entire situation, it also allows for God to provide an answer to his request—“and the Lord said to David, ‘God up, for I will certainly give the Philistines into your hand…”(5:19).
Luke 11:9-“Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be open for you”
I imagine God was perfectly willing and even excited to intervene on David’s behalf because David included God in what was going on, and, in fact, longed for God’s participation, guidance, and provision in the matter.
Although the same battle lines are drawn in these two passages, in the first, Saul was preoccupied with what he saw, David was confident of what He didn’t see. In the first, Saul was discouraged after delimiting his perspective to a 2-dimensional human level. In the second, David invited God’s participation, and, as a result, was promised a victory.
Immediately upon hearing this answer to his request “David came to Baal-perazim and defeated them there,…”(5:20a). It is amazing what a promise of victory will do for one’s resolve to head into battle. In fact, Israel’s victory was such a done deal because of the promise of God that the victory is couched in relatively indifferent terms.
In response to this victory, David does not showboat, brag, or magnify himself. Instead, he continues to draw attention toward the Lord by giving Him the glory and the credit—“The Lord has broken through my enemies before me like the breakthrough of waters,…”(5:20b). God was involved in the beginning of this situation and was praised at the end of the situation because of what God did in the situation after being invited to participate in the situation in the first place.
As a result of what God did, He is magnified over and above the pagan Gods of the Philistines. This is indicated by the name that David game the place of the victory—Baal-perazim—“God of divisions.” Here, David is using the pagan God Baal mockingly. By naming the place of their great loss after their own god, he is rubbing the Philistine’s faces in their own failure.
So great was their defeat and David’s victory that the Philistines “abandoned their idols there, so David and his men carried them away…”(5:21). Imagine, a victory so sure that the losers give up their former allegiances entirely! That is exactly what happened. After witnessing what a real God can do and recognizing the futility of their inferior god, these Philistines leave their relics and superstitious tchotchkes behind. This is a far cry from what happened in Saul’s approach earlier.
So let us review. In the first approach to existential conflict a slow-moving and war-weary Saul settled for an imperfect and incomplete perspective that had him focused on what he could see. This left him and Israel discouraged and ultimately paralyzed in fear. In the second approach an eager David endorsed a more complete divinely-centered perspective that included what he couldn’t see—the one true God. In so doing, he asked for and received God’s powerful involvement on behalf of his people and won a resounding victory that ultimately glorified God and upset the idols of those defeated. What/who made the difference? Answer: the one who sat on the throne. Saul and David figure prominently in these passages. They are at the center of what happens and, in some ways, responsible for the outcome. The first performed poorly and the second performed beautifully.
My friends, as we head into this New Year and inevitably face the existential, spiritual, emotional, and practical conflicts therein, we can respond in two ways. We could approach things from a posture of weariness and dread, focused on how tired we are and how huge the obstacles around us seem. However, this kind of approach will only leave us discouraged, paralyzed, and fearful—useless to ourselves, others, and to the kingdom-building work to which God has called us. However, the good news today is this. There is another approach! We can choose to eagerly adopt a divine perspective that invites God’s involvement at every turn, trusting that He will answer us when we call upon Him. Such an approach will not leave us wanting. It will create opportunities for God to show off His glory in ways that will cause the world to reconsider its frivolous and inferior pursuits.
What makes the difference? Recognizing who sits on the throne! The one who sits on the throne is Jesus Christ, who, as we’ve recently read about in this Christmas season is the culminating Messiah/Savior/Christ/King from the line of David—born in David’s birthplace to descendants of David himself! As great as David was, Jesus is infinitely superior for, HE IS GOD! He proved as much in his life, death, burial, and resurrection (see 1 Cor. 15). He has confirmed His place at the right hand of the Father in heaven (Acts 2:33). What more could we ask for? What more assurance do we need of ultimate victory? What more encouraging message could we hear on this day? What better reminder is there to recall in moments of fear and weakness? Because Jesus sits on the throne, His people can walk in victory—no matter what threats they face.
Romans 8:31-“What shall we say then? If God is for us, who can be against us?”
1 Corinthians 15:57 “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I John 5:4 “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”
Do not spend another year settling for a 2-dimensional human-centered perspective. Remember who sits on the throne and, in response ask for his involvement in your life, in the life of this church, and watch as He chooses to glorify Himself and shame the world!