Thursday, December 28, 2017

The People of God Pt. 1-The Predicament and the Promise-Rom. 9:1-13

Over the next several weeks we are going to be traversing some fairly difficult passages of Scripture—difficulty to read through, interpret, preach, and apply. For this reason and because of the nature of what will be discussed I thought it might be helpful to preach Romans 9-11 as its own series within our greater Romans series. This is appropriate for several reasons. First, after having discussed the nature of salvation (justification in chapters 5-6, sanctification in 7-8, and glorification in chapter 8), Paul decides to reveal to whom this salvation applies and how. Second, the majority of what Paul discusses helps distinguish between various groups of people—Jews, Gentiles, lost, saved, loved, hated, etc. For these reasons and many others, we are going to prayerfully and carefully walk through these important chapters together in a series entitled “The People of God.”

To this end, Paul helps his audience at the beginning of chapter 9 by establishing a couple of foundations that will help guide his discussion. In 9:1-13 these foundations are introduced alongside the great predicament many found themselves in and continue to find themselves in today.

a) The People’s Failure-9:1-5

Paul wants to preface the following comments by reminding his audience of what kind of spirit guides his writing-“I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testified with me in the Holy Spirit” (9:1). What Paul is about to divulge is not only important, it is difficult to digest. Therefore, he wants to reiterate that what is being shared is not as much a product of his own theological ruminations as much as it is revelation directly given by God, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.

In other words, Paul is playing the part of the messenger and making sure that this status is known. I’m sure some of you have had times in which you had to share confusing and/or difficult messages and then were prompted to say in your defense: “I’m just the messenger” or even “Don’t shoot the messenger.” At the beginning of this more theologically precarious section of his letter to the church in Rome Paul decides to reestablish his messenger status.

This reminder helps get Paul off the hook and is especially helpful as the first foundation he has been given to identify is quite negative—the people’s failure (more specifically, HIS people’s failure). Though the failure is not identified outright, evidence of its nature is made clear in the sorrow that this failure has caused Paul-“I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart,…” (9:2). When an ancient Greek writer wants to evoke an emotion in a more superlative/emphatic way, he strings similar phrases together to accentuate the feeling emoted. When Paul says “I have great sorrow and unceasing grief” he is trying to convey just how distraught he is in response to the failure of his people. However, what did they fail to do? What has caused this acute distress?

Again, though Paul does not come right out and say it, he betrays the essence of his people’s failure when he reveals what he wishes he could do in response—“For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen, according to the flesh,…”(9:3). It is obvious by what the author says here that the great failure of his people was their refusal to repent from their sin and old ways of relating to God and accept, in faith, the true nature and ministry of Jesus Christ—God’s greatest gift.

I imagine that many of you spent time over the last week exchanging gifts with loved ones. Many of you were probably looking forward to seeing your friend or family member open that perfect present that you had spent a lot of time putting together or waiting in line to purchase. Maybe it was exactly what that asked for or just what that person needed. Imagine how you would feel if, after handing the wrapped present to that special someone, they refused to accept it and turned the other way. A little bit offended and saddened would only begin to describe your response.

The implications of refusing Jesus were far worse. These Jews (whom Paul refers to as “kinsmen, according to the flesh”) were “accursed, separated from Christ.” Truly, this is the sad state of anyone who fails to repent and embrace Jesus Christ—they are accursed, separated from Christ. In fact, to be separated from Christ is to be accursed—the former defines/explains the latter.

What made the people’s refusal of Christ so egregious was that that this denial of the Savior took place in spite of all the aid God had given. Paul continues by listing the many blessings the Jews had enjoyed for centuries--"who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoptions as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, who are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever, Amen" (9:4-5). It would be one thing for a pagan idolater to deny Christ, but many of those who were refusing Jesus were Israelites (blessed with a special nation), given to be sons and daughters of God, participants in divine covenants handed down to Abraham, Moses, David, etc., beneficiaries of the law that Moses brought down from Sinai, worshippers in the temple of God, receivers of special promises that were communicated by the prophets, and relatives of the forefathers of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In many ways, all of these things—the nation, the covenants, the law, the temple, the promises, the family, pointed directly to the coming Messiah and were fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus. Christ even came to the earth as a Jew Himself!

In other words, not only did God offer the greatest gift of all to the Jews when He offered Jesus, He placed Jesus well within reach (right in their hands!). All they had to do was enjoy it!

The failure of the Jewish people to embrace Jesus Christ, in spite of all that God did to make Him accessible to them is a real tragedy. However, this failure also set the foundation for how God would relate not only to His people, but the world. Paul will unpack this more later as we journey through chapters 9-11. However, let us now move on to discuss another important foundation upon which Paul constructs his presentation of the people of God.  

b) The Promised Word-9:6-13

The second foundation Paul discusses is the promised Word. Paul wants to make it very clear that while mankind in general and the Jews in particular did not take advantage of the opportunity afforded them, the Word of God has not failed—“But (in contrast to the failure of mankind), it is not as though the word of God has failed” (9:6a).

Like many in our world today, many of those reading this letter may have been tempted to place blame for their failure onto someone or something else. Maybe the promises were not explicit enough. Perhaps the law could have been worded better. Maybe something was lacking in the details surrounding the temple worship or in the covenants. Paul says “nah ah ah. Stop right there. The Word of God is not blameworthy for your failure.” How could it be given its nature?

Isaiah 40:8: Grass dries up, and flowers wither, but the word of our God will last forever…”

Matthew 5:17-18: “I did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

 When it comes to the Word of God, these and other passages clearly reveal that it is consistently compelling, persevering, and completely qualified to inspire, foreshadow, and accomplish everything required by the will of God. The Word cannot fail in so much as God—its author—cannot fail.
What has led to the dilemma concerning the people of God? Paul answers this as he explains how the people of the promised Word are identified—“For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but ‘through Isaac your descendants will be named’” (9:6b-7). Paul introduces a huge correction to the first-century Jewish thinking. He reveals here, probably to the surprise of many in his original audience, that not every Israelite is a true descendant. In fact, just as the Jews conceded that not all descendants of Abraham were legitimate (i.e. those born of the line of Ishmael), so too were they to concede that not all who called themselves Israelites were, in fact, true Israelites—that is in a spiritual sense.

In other words, the predicament concerning the people of God is brought about because not all who consider themselves part of the people of God are, in fact, among the people of God in the fullest sense.

Paul makes this abundantly clear in verse 8 when he says the following: “That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.” Not only is merely claiming to be among the people of God not a guarantee of real relationship with Him, neither is being genetically Jewish an indicator that someone is a member of God’s family! Instead, Paul says, one must be a “children of the promise” (9:8).

The unfailing Word of God has already made this explicit—“For this is the word of promise, ‘At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son…” (9:9). According to God’s perfect plan, it would be from Abraham and Sarah that God would build a nation and bring for this Son Jesus. Not just any combination nor just any offspring would do for this most holy purpose.

Paul continues, “And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by the one man, our father Isaac; for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls,…” (9:10-11). Here again a special calling for a specific son through whom would come the Messiah is in view. The circumstances surrounding the birth of Jacob and Esau prove that God’s unfailing Word stands in spite of what may/may not occur. Even before these twins were born and had time to prove themselves one way or the other, God had a plan—a plan irrespective of works. This plan was determined by God’s will and expressed in His sovereign Word.

Details of God’s explicit promise to Jacob and his descendants are provided in verses 12-13—“It was said to her (Rebekah), ‘The older will serve the younger. Just as it is written, Jacob I love but Esau I hated.’” Such comments reveal that not only does God’s Word trump man’s actions, it also overwhelms birth order and the traditions associated therewith.

However, what does it mean when God says “Jacob I love, Esau I hated”? How might we square this rather provocative text with verses like “For God so loved the World” and “God is love?” Perhaps another passage might help shine light on what this verse means.

Luke 14:26-“If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.”

In this context, Jesus is referring to a disciple’s choice. A disciple’s devotion to Christ must be so acute that other relationships and loyalties pale in comparison. This is similar to how what Paul references in Romans 9. God’s choice of Jacob over Esau is described in more drastic terms in order to highlight the Lord’s plan and purpose for the former over the latter. A paraphrase of these last verses might read “Jacob have I chosen for a special task, Esau I have not chosen for the same.”

That said, what is quite clear from verses 6-13 is the perseverance of God’s Word. It has expressed the will of God and it has established promises to the appropriate people. It never has nor ever will fail to communicate and call forth God’s grand purposes (especially as it pertains to Jesus Christ and the salvation that He alone provides).  

So What?

The failure lies, unfortunately, with the people God had appointed. All who thought they were “in” weren’t because they failed to accept and embrace the Word made flesh—Jesus Christ. In so doing, these proved that they were not children of the promised and unfailing Word of God. These two foundations—the people’s failure and the promised Word—must be firmly established in order to fully understand and appreciate what Paul has to say throughout the remainder of chapters 9-11.
However, what might we glean from what we’ve read today? Truly, the failure of God’s intended people is not unlike the failure of many people today who have, in spite of all that God has made available to them, refused to accept, embrace, and follow after Jesus Christ. Are you refusing the greatest gift of all?

Maybe you have fooled yourself into believing that you’re “in” already—you grew up in church, come every now and then to a service, are a better person than most, or know where to find John 3:16 in your Bible. Friend, if genetics and titles didn’t automatically guarantee that a Jew in the Old Testament was part of the family of God do you really think that going through the motions and superficial lip service will go far in assuring your relationship with Christ?

Let us not be guilty of the same failure we read about in this passage today. Let’s not fail to embrace the unfailing Word of God this year and the Jesus that it reveals. 

Friday, December 8, 2017

Contexts of Victory-Romans 8:31-39

Last Sunday we enumerated some of the many sights and sounds that people will hear this Christmas season in an effort to introduce what we looked at in Romans 8:26-30. Today I want to ask where you might find yourself over the next few weeks. What contexts will you endorse this holiday season? Some of you may make trips to different cities and find yourself in an airport, or in a car. Others of you may spend time at home. Many might find themselves at the mall, in line at the register, seated in an auditorium for a performance, outside at a live nativity, inside by a warm fire. Wherever we are, the hope is (right) that we are enjoying the time of year and celebrating what is most important… J Easier said than done! Especially when your flight is delayed, the car begins to make a weird noise, the store runs out of that must-have item, the line for checkout stretches for a quarter mile, the performance doesn’t meet your expectations, its frigid outside, and the fire won’t light. Instead of the season looking like the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, it becomes more like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Instead of James Stewart embracing the little girl and bells awarding angels their wings, we are Chevy Chase falling off the latter and being locked up in the attic!

The Christian life (in the Spirit), is much the same way. We have every intention of growing in Christ, persevering to the end, and seeing to it that others are reached no matter where God leads us and yet sometimes we find ourselves in places/situations that seem more like inhibitions than opportunities. Thankfully, Paul provides us with an inspiring passage that carries us through the end of Romans (Romans 8:31-39). There we witness four contexts in which the victory of God is realized in the life of a believer.

1) The Battlefield-8:31-“…What shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us?...”

Throughout Romans 8, Paul has carefully described what life is like for those who are “in the Spirit.” So far he has revealed that those who are in the Spirit enjoy freedom (1-17), persevering hope (18-25), and victory in Christ (26-30). As Paul has delineated this reality, he has also claimed that those in the Spirit enjoy status as adopted sons and daughters of God (8:15), an inheritance as heirs (8:17), and the assurance of hope that comes from the guarantee of the Spirit. Believers have also been reminded that because they are in the Spirit, they cannot lose when it comes to prayer or their own salvation.

As chapter 8 comes to a close Paul discusses several different contexts in which believers enjoy these blessings, their status, and the victories involved therein. The first context that Paul chooses to deal with is the context of the battlefield that is this world. Paul asks in verse 31-“What shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” In other words, if God is going to provide freedom, hope, victory, adoption, inheritance, and assurance of salvation, who or what should intimidate the people of God? The answer is a resounding No One!

Make no mistake, life is a battlefield.

Ephesians 6:10ff-“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of HIs might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

1 Peter 1:6-“In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials.

Paul’s point in Romans 8 is that even in this battlefield, believers can know victory and enjoy the blessings that he has labored to enumerate in this compelling chapter of Scripture. Paul therefore agrees with what Jesus said in John 16:33--“these things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage, I have overcome the world.”

Because Jesus has overcome the world and all battlefields therein, He is capable of assuring the blessings contained in this chapter for His children as they traverse the same theatres of war. None can stand against Him or those who are in the Spirit!

2) The Storehouse-8:32-“…He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?...”

To this end, it follows naturally that those who endure this warfare need to be adequately supplied. This too is guaranteed by the Lord in verse 32—“He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will not also with Him freely give us all things?” Here, Paul employs an argument from the greater the lesser—“A God who sacrificed his own Son on our behalf will certainly not withhold that which by comparison is merely trivial” (Mounce, 190). In other words, if God is willing to bestow His greatest grace for his children—His Son—surely he will also bestow every other grace needed to endure to the end. After all, “God is by nature a giving God” (Mounce, 190).

Psalm 31:19-“How great is Your goodness, Which You have stored up for those who fear You, Which You have wrought for those who take refuge in You, Before the sons of men!”

Those in the Spirit not only know blessing and victory in the context of the battlefield, they know blessing and victory whenever they go to the storehouse of God’s grace for in that storehouse is an consistent abundance of God’s goodness ready to be bestowed.

3) The Courtroom-8:33-34

Believers also enjoy God’s victory and blessings in the courtroom—that is the courtroom of spiritual judgment. Paul asks “Who is able to bring charges against God’s elect?” (8:33). The verb “to bring a charge against” means “to bring serious…accusations against someone, with the possible connotation of a legal or court context” (Louw Nida). Certainly, the world and the devil himself would love more than to bring charges against the people of God. In fact, in Revelation 12:10 Satan is called the “accuser of the brethren.” One example of this is found in Job.

Job 1:8-11-“The Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.’ Then Satan answered the Lord, ‘Does Job fear God for nothing? Have You not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth Your hand now and touch all that he has; he will sure curse You to Your face.’”

Like a prosecuting attorney in a court, the devil and the world system would love more than to indict the people of God.

However, the question “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect?” must be answered negatively when one considers the rest of the verse—“God is the one who justifies” (8:33b). When the devil draws up accusations against those who are in Christ, it falls on deaf ears. The gavel has already fallen in the case against God’s people and the Lord has found them righteous—acquitting them from all wrongdoing and rendering them justified in His sight. 

This idea is supported by Paul in verse 24 when he takes things one step further. If the devil and the world can no longer bring charges against God’s people, certainly they cannot convict them either. “Who is the one who condemns?” Paul wonders. The clear answer is no one. As Paul has already articulated earlier in this chapter, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1). But why is this? Paul provides the answer in the rest of the verse—“Christ Jesus is He who died, yew, rather, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us,…” (8:34b).

In this single verse 3 reasons are given for why followers of the Lord Jesus Christ are not condemned and therefore enjoy victory in the courtroom of life. First, Jesus died, thereby paying the penalty/suffering the condemnation that all deserve. Through faith in Jesus Christ, believers have the satisfaction of the atonement Jesus provided on the cross applied to them. In other words, because He suffered the condemnation, believers do not have to. Second, and even better, Jesus rose again, indicating that He was a worthy sacrifice to begin with and victorious over sin and death. Therefore his followers enjoy the same liberation from the same condemnation. Third, and probably best, now alive, Jesus acts as the believer’s advocate before the throne of God. In other words, while Satan might serve in the courtroom as prosecutor against the people of God, Jesus acts as the believer’s defense attorney, pleading their case in a most convincing way. Only He can say before God, my client (those in the Spirit), are acquitted—I’ve suffered their penalty already and demonstrated my worthiness to do so by overwhelming condemnation altogether.

Praise the Lord that believers do not have to fear accusation and/or condemnation before God! Instead, they know victory in God’s courtroom!

4) The Marriage-8:35-39

The final context in which the believer enjoys victory and blessing might be illustrated best as the marriage—that is the marriage between the church (the bride) and Christ (the bridegroom). Though this isn’t explicit in Romans 8, Paul and others illustrate these two parties in this way elsewhere in his writings.

John 3:29-“The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.”

Ephesians 5:25-“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,

Revelation 19:7-9-“’Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure’— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ And he said to me, ‘These are the true words of God.’”

With this analogy in mind, we can read the remainder of Romans 8 and appreciate what it has to say about the deep connection that is enjoyed between those in the Spirit (the bride) and Christ (the groom). First, Paul asks “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or word?...” (8:35). Again, as with most of the question in this passage, the answer is clearly “nothing”—nothing can separate God’s people from his love.
Here, the context of marriage provides us with an illustration of this phenomenon. Typically, during a marriage ceremony, the bride and groom exchange vows. As part of these vows, the two parties of the marriage promise their persevering love to each other, even in sickness, poverty, until death do them part. Here, Jesus love for his bride is said to withstand “…tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or word?...” (8:35). In other words, God’s love for those in the Spirit follows them even in the worst seasons of life, providing them with  all of the blessings that come with a meaningful relationship with Him.

This is important to remember given what Paul reminds the church of next. He continues by saying “Just as it is written, ‘For your sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered’” (8:36). Paul understood what it was like to endure difficult times. He was beaten on several occasions within an inch of his life, imprisoned, shipwrecked, etc. In enduring these circumstances, Paul followed in the footsteps of Jesus who was betrayed, whipped, and crucified. In fact, every follower of Jesus should expect, to some degree or another, a path of ridicule, humiliation, and suffering. After all, this is only natural for those who follow the one who was crucified on the cross. It is one of the ways in which believers grow more like Him. Just as He was a sheep led to the slaughter, those who take up their cross daily and follow Him can expect the same path.

However, this is no cause for alarm. As God’s love endures even the worst of all circumstances in the context of a believer’s spiritual marriage to Christ, “in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us” (8:37). The unbroken relational bond believers enjoy with Jesus provides them with victory and blessing as they follow Christ’s even to the point of great suffering and death (that is if it be required of them). The word “conquer” means to prevail over completely. Put differently, the victory believers enjoy in their relationship with Jesus is overwhelming.

Given the presence of this overwhelming victory that is enjoyed in the context of the believer’s spiritual marriage to Christ, it ought to come as no surprise that Paul would conclude by making the case that nothing can separate the bride and the groom.'

Paul is “convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, not things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38-39). In other words, no life event, no matter how final, no spiritual being, no matter how intimidating, no matter what what’s past may hold, no matter how shady, no matter what the world has in store for tomorrow, no matter how epic, no matter what space may seem to exist at any given moment between believers and God, NOTHING can severe love that God has for his children. Why? Because they are “in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Though I typically do not give this invitation in the weddings that I conduct, in a traditional ceremony the pastor will often say near the beginning of the ceremony “If any can give just cause for why these two should not be joined together, speak now or forever hold your peace.” Most of the time, no one speaks up and the ceremony continues uninterrupted. The same is true of God’s people—no one, nothing can provide any reason for there to ever be any separation of love between Jesus and His bride—the church (i.e. those in the Spirit).

So What?

Though we are all gathered together in the context of this church this morning, I wonder what context some of you will enter upon leaving this place later this afternoon. Some of you may be heading into a battlefield—a conflict at home or at work, persecution, or some internal struggle. Perhaps after being filled by the fellowship that God will allowed today and the Word that has gone forth, some experience will require much of you leaving you looking for the storehouse for what it is that you need to make it through another week. Maybe you will find yourself under attack, accused, and near-prosecuted for your faith. Your weirdness for Jesus may make those around you uncomfortable. Perhaps some in your vicinity are hoping to catch you in some kind of process crime so that they can indict you for hypocrisy. In whatever context you may find yourself, know today, you who are in Christ and living in the Spirit, that the victory of God and His blessings go ahead of you and with you! If God is for you, who can be against you? If God gave you His son, why should we ever expect to hold back what we need (according to His will)? Charges against God’s clients? What charges? All has been paid in full! The battle of life, the needs we run across, and the case against us is no match for the victory believers have in Christ. He is the victorious general, the affluent provider, the bullet-proof defense, and He is ours! His love and affections are for us and nothing can separate us from that! Praise the Lord!