Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The People of God Pt. 8- Rom. 11:1-5

In every single spiritual gifts test (or other assessment of that type) I score highest in wisdom, teaching, and preaching. However, it might surprise you to learn that consistently, my lowest scores (by a lot) are in mercy and anything involving patience. I openly confess before you today that I am NOT a patient person and can assure you that no one, (barring some major advancements in my sanctification wrought in the miracle of God’s enduring grace) would say of me, “that Jeff, he is such a patient person.” I laugh just thinking about it! Perhaps you are like me and have a fairly low threshold for what you will tolerate from yourself and others. I want to begin this morning by telling you that we don’t have to worry that God is anything like any of us who struggle in this area. Praise the Lord!

As we continue our study of Romans 9-11 in a series entitled “the People of God” we find ourselves in Romans 11:1-5. Here, Paul provides a four-part presentation of the patience of God toward his people. Let’s listen in and discover/rediscover one reason why God is worthy of our worship, devotion, and praise!

a) The Question of God’s Patience-11:1

Paul has taken the better part of two chapters (9-10) to really chastise his Jewish kinsmen. They had failed to embrace the message of the gospel and had instead tried to reach a relationship with God by means of inferior programs (race, tradition, the law, etc.). As a result, God was allowing gentiles into the family of God (see 10:16-21). Those who had not been given some of the same blessings that the Jews enjoyed were experiencing (and continue to experience) the greatest blessing of all—the righteousness of God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Many in Paul’s audience must have wondered quietly to themselves after hearing all of this, “have we been rejected?”

Paul frames this inquiry as follows: “I say then, God has not rejected His people, has he?” (11:1a). This is an honest question for many in Paul’s audience. After all, they had all been convinced for centuries that they were something special and now, they were being told otherwise. All that they had waited for appeared to be leaving many of these in the dust and Paul held no punches in suggesting that the fault lies solely with them.

However, while God’s rejection of his people might seem logical to some in Paul’s audience given what has been presented in chapters 9-10, Paul suggests that this conclusion is simply unthinkable. He answers this question with, once again, an emphatic “May it never be!” (11:1).
After all, had God not promised the Jews the following?

Gen. 12:1-3-“Now the Lord had said to Abram: ‘Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”

Jer. 31:31-34-“Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah— not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

What kind of hope could anyone have if God was the type of deity who chose people and made promises to them, only to then reject them later? If this is how he treated the Jews (choosing them and then un-choosing them), what is stopping him from treating the saved gentiles in much the same way? NO! If God chose the Jews and then rejected them later, he would be guilty of not keeping his promises and/or revealed to be unable to keep his word. A God like this would certainly fall short of perfection and therefore wouldn’t be worthy of worship and devotion.

This meant a lot to Paul as he too was a Jew in every respect—“for I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin” (11:1c). “He underlines his Jewishness with three statements: He is an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin” (Morris, Romans, 398).

When someone goes to accentuate text in a typed document, there are all kinds of things that they might do to the format of a word or phrase to make it stand out. One might make the text bold, italicized, and even underline it so that it will not be missed. Paul is applying all of these format changes to this statement here. First, he bolds the text by saying “I too am an Israelite” in an effort to remind his audience that he too is under the same covenants as they are. Second, one might say that he italicizes his sentiment here referring to the patriarch par excellence—Abraham through which the entire nation was born. Finally, Paul underlines his personal connection to the Jewish nation by identifying his own tribe—Benjamin. Benjamin was the only son of Jacob that was born in the land of Israel. In fact, his tribe was the tribe in whose territory was the holy city of Jerusalem and the only tribe to remain faithful to Judah. Even the first king over Israel came from this tribe!

Therefore, Paul refutes this claim that God has rejected the Jews on two grounds. First, to do so would mean that he would have to go against his promises. Second, this would involve the rejection of people like Paul who were certainly Jewish and yet also saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

b) The Reason behind God’s Patience-11:2a

To further prove that it is impossible for God to reject the Jews, Paul explains the reason behind God’s patience in verse 2. Quoting from 1 Sam. 12:22, and Ps. 94:14 while also alluding to Judg. 6:13, Paul says “For he has not rejected His people whom He foreknew” (11:2a). “Foreknew” here does not merely denote knowledge ahead of time, but a choice ahead of time. God, in fact, had chosen the Jewish people to be his people and now was beholden to this decision (not because he is smaller than the promise, but because of his impeccable willingness to self-limit in this case to remain perfect and persevering in every way).

Does this mean that the whole nation of Israel (every Jew) is saved? No and neither is this implied. “Paul appears to have in mind that God chose Israel to be his people, the people in whom his purpose would be worked out in a special way. They were God’s people in the same sense that “salvation is from the Jews” (Jn. 4:22). Does this reference imply that salvation is bestowed by the Jews themselves? No, it means that the source of salvation—Jesus Christ—emerged out of this people group.

The Jews were God’s chosen mechanism through which he would teach the world about his love, power, goodness, and yes, patience. As Paul is writing this, this last divine attribute is especially compelling as he reassures his countrymen that God has not rejected them outright, but still had a plan for them.

c) The Test of God’s Patience-11:2b-3

In an effort to further illustrate the patience of God, Paul references Elijah’s prayer in 1 Kings 19:10, 14. At this point in Elijah’s story, the prophet is on the run from an evil Jezebel and an emasculated king Ahab. Things are so dire in Elijah’s context that God has gone out of his way to prove himself (sending fire to incinerate an altar along with many false prophets of the wicked nation). As Elijah flees for his life, he is so frustrated and discouraged by what he sees, that he begins to catalog the many evils God’s people have allowed around him.

First, Paul’s quote of Elijah reveals that “they have killed your prophets” (11:3a). God’s prophets were to be respected, honored, heeded, and followed, not killed. In fact, even the disrespect of a prophet was met with swift and dramatic rebuke. Just listen to what happened in the latter part of Elisha’s ministry (Elijah’s pupil).

2 Kings 2:23-25- “Then he went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up by the way, young lads came out from the city and mocked him and said to him, ‘Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!’ When he looked behind him and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. Then two female bears came out of the woods and tore up forty-two lads of their number. And he went from there to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria.”

Certainly murdering prophets is several steps above calling attention to their baldness! And yet, this is exactly what the people of God were guilty of in Elijah’s day!

Not only had the people murdered prophets, they had “torn down” God’s “altars” (11:3b). Altars were and continue to be places that direct people’s attention toward God. The ripping apart of such in Elijah’s context suggests that the people were not just disinterested in directing their attention toward the Lord, they were seeking to erase his memory from their land.

Not only had God’s people murdered the prophets and destroyed the altars, but, as a result, Elijah believed himself to the only one left—that is the only true worshipper of God remaining among his people—“and I alone am left” (11:3c).

To make matters worse, the people were actively seeking Elijah’s life. Though Elijah’s prayer might betray the “folly of a pessimism which rests on judgments based upon appearances” (Cragg), one wonders how else he is supposed to feel given the phenomena around him. The murder, destruction, isolation, and active pursuit of his own life revealed “a people who had rejected wholeheartedly the worship of the God of Israel and whose actions leave no doubt about their repudiation of all that was connected with that God” (Morris, Romans, 400).

In this way Paul and Elijah are similar. Both look around and see the majority of their people behaving in ways that are contrary to the will of God. In Elijah’s day God’s people rejected God’s prophets and destroyed altars in active defiance. In Paul’s day, the Jews rejected God’s Son and chose to ignore his gospel. Certainly in both cases, God’s patience toward his people was put to the test.

d) The Result of God’s Patience-11:4-5

So what has God done in response to such egregious acts of sin and defiance? How has God’s patience overwhelmed human efforts to show him the door? He has provided a remnant—“But what is the divine response to him? ‘I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’…” (11:4). Although Elijah felt totally alone, God reassure him in 1 Kings that he had reserved 7000 men who would prove to be a remnant through which God’s promises to his people would prevail in spite of the sin of the greater majority. What grace!

Paul draws a connection between the remnant of Elijah’s day and the remnant of his own day saying, “in the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time, a remnant according to God’s gracious choice” (11:5). In keeping his covenants to His people, God has chosen a remnant through which the promises of God would be fulfilled to the end, no matter what the majority is guilty of. What an awesome God! He is not a God who is fickle with his promises or the people to which they have been given. Instead, he provides the grace necessary to see those promises through to the end for those who believe in him.

So What?

The Jews in Paul’s audience could rest assured knowing that God had not rejected them entirely. Instead, his patience appears to know no bounds as he keeps his promises no matter what! That said, the Jews must understand, as Paul articulates here, that the recipients of God’s promises go to the remnant of faithful followers—those who, as in Elijah’s day, didn’t both the knee to inferior gods. God’s faithfulness to the faithful keeps the promises going till the end.

But what does all of this mean for us? First, this passage ought to demonstrate something of the patience of God. He is not eager to strike people down with lightning bolts from heaven. Instead, he endures an awful lot in an effort to demonstrate his loving-kindness to a world and a people who are anything but loving and kind. Second, it is this kindness that Paul hoped God would use to lead people to repentance (Romans 2:4). In this particular context, God’s kindness toward the Jews (his willingness to not fully reject the people who appeared to totally reject his son in mass), was an illustration of a loving God that Paul hoped would draw his kinsmen back into a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

In response, may we consider what God has had to endure from us and recognize his loving-kindness and faithfulness to his promises in spite of this. May this infuse our worship of him with greater appreciation and adoration for our loving and patient Lord! May this also invite those who have rejected him to trade their animas toward God for a loving embrace of his message of salvation. The God of the Bible is perfect, persevering, and patient. What a stark contrast from anything the world appears to offer! Rather than destroy/avoid the things that draw your attention in his direction, why not investigate them in an effort to learn this for yourself. Rather than ignore the message and messengers that share this news, why not listen to the word and allow it to transform your life.  

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The People of God Pt. 7: Rom. 10:16-21

As a professor, I am always looking for ways to help my students succeed in my courses. Some of the ways that I do this involve providing and sticking to an assignment schedule so that there is no question as to when things are due. Additionally, I make announcements in class or through email to remind people about upcoming quizzes and papers. Rubrics are clearly written and provided so that no one has to wonder what is expected, and I even have on occasion offered extra credit. All of this I give in an effort to help the students do well in the course. That said, I’m always amazed that in spite of all of this—the flow of information, the presentation of requirements/deadlines, etc.— some still fail the course! Why is this? Is it that the syllabus isn’t compelling? Is it that I’m not communicating things clearly enough? Is it that the students don’t understand what is expected? Or, might there be something else at play?

Paul runs into similar questions when he considers the failure of many Jews to accept the message of the gospel. In Romans 10:16-21 we are going to observe FOUR REALITIES connected to the offering of the gospel in an effort to: 1) learn who/what is to blame for refusing God’s revelation, and 2) check ourselves to see if this might be true in our own lives.

a) A Missed Opportunity-10:16-17

The real tragedy surrounding the proliferation, scope, and spread of the gospel (that has been discussed in Romans 10:1-15) is introduced in Romans 10:16—“However, they did not all heed the good news.” Many do not pay attention to and/or respond to the wondrous message of God’s grace as found in Jesus Christ. This was true, especially among the Jews, in Paul’s day. Instead, many were paying attention to tired old programs of salvation by works or relationship with God through the law. Those outside the Jewish community were buying into other messages altogether. Everything from pagan religions to the idea that salvation came from the state—Rome and her emperor—were being broadcast in the brave new world into which Paul was writing. In this competition for air time, the gospel was being ignored and, as a result, not embraced.  

However, this is not to suggest that there was (or is) something deficient about the message itself. How could anything be wrong with the message when it is about a perfect God sending his perfect Son to perfectly fulfill His ministry of reconciliation for all who believe? No, the deficit lies with those who fail to believe—“for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our report? . . .” (Rom. 10:16). Here, Paul quotes Isaiah 53:1 in which the prophet agonizes over the fact that in spite of his faithful preaching, many had not believed him. Both Isaiah and Paul look around them and, like many today, wonder who is believing their report? (or, put another way, why are so many NOT believing).

After all, as Paul states in verse 17—“Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ,…”(10:17). One translation puts it this way: “Faith is awakened by the message” (NEB). “Although it is true that faith is our response to the gospel, it is also true that the message (of the gospel) itself awakens and makes faith possible” (Mounce, Romans, 212). In other words, one must hear the word of Christ, not ignore it or resign it to mere background noise, and in response embrace it. Why is the “word of Christ” (the gospel) capable of inspiring faith and salvation? Because it is “Christ himself who speaks when the gospel is proclaimed” (Mounce, Romans, 212).

Karl Barth even went so far as to say the following: “It is not the function of the preacher to reveal God or to act as his intermediary. When the Gospel is preached God speaks there is no question of the preacher revealing anything or of a revelation being conveyed through him . . . Revelation is a closed system in which God is the subject, the object and the middle term . . . Preaching is `God's own Word', that is to say, through the activity of preaching, God himself speaks.” (Preaching and Prayer, Ch. 5).

“Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ”—that is the word from Christ (gen. of source), the word that is about Christ (objective gen.), and the word that is Christ (gen. of apposition). Inasmuch as Christ is the message, brings the message, and instigated the message, it contains the power necessary to awaken the dead in sin to life in Him. This would suggest that the problem Paul recognizes in verse 16—a lack of belief—is not the fault of the message itself.

b) A Shared Message-10:18

So, if the problem is not the efficacy of the message, perhaps the problem in Paul’s day was that the amazing revelation of the gospel had not been made known. This appears to be what Paul wonders in verse 18, “but I say, surely they have never heard, have they?...”. After all, who could refuse so great a message upon hearing it? There must be a problem with transmission.

But surprisingly, Paul answers his own question by saying “Indeed they have; ‘there voice has gone out into all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world’…” (10:18b). Therefore, the problem is neither the quality of the message nor is it that the message hasn’t been proclaimed. The report, as Paul put it in verse 16, has, in fact, been reported. However, this has not led to belief. The same proved true for many of the Old Testament prophets. In fact, God Himself knew that this would be the case when he called Isaiah into the ministry.

Isaiah 6:8b-10-“I said: ‘Here I am. Send me.’ And He replied: ‘Go! Say to these people: “Keep listening, but do not understand; keep looking, but do not perceive. Dull the minds of these people; deafen their ears and blind their eyes; otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears, understand with their minds, turn back, and be healed”’.”

This is not unique to Isaiah. Just listen to what God asks Jeremiah:

Jeremiah 6:10-“To whom shall I speak and give warning That they may hear? Behold, their ears are closed And they cannot listen Behold, the word of the LORD has become a reproach to them; They have no delight in it.”

God holds no punches when he describes his people later in Zechariah:  

Zechariah 7:11-“But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears from hearing.”

In each of these epochs and in Paul’s day, it is the failure of the people to receive God’s message, not the message itself, thereby leaving people in the darkness of their sin. Did people, especially the Jews have an opportunity to hear the message of the gospel? Of course they did!
The same is true today.

Colossians 1:25-26-“I have become its minister, according to God’s administration that was given to me for you, to make God’s message fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to His saints.”

Though the gospel is going forth in many channels—missionaries, churches, pastors, evangelists, individual witnesses, radio and TV—one might be left asking the same thing that Paul does here—“who is believing it?” The answer: the saints who hear it and embrace it—not those who grow faint of it and ignore it.

c) A Peculiar People-10:19-20

If there isn’t a problem with the message itself and there isn’t a problem with the transmission of the message around the known world, perhaps the Jews didn’t understand it—“but I say, surely Israel did not know, did they?...” (10:19a). The verb for “know” hear means “to come to an understanding as the result of ability to experience and learn” (Louw and Nida). Maybe, as Paul suggests here, the Jews just didn’t get it.

However, Paul sharply dismisses this saying “For Moses says, ‘I will make you jealous by that which is not a nation, By a nation without understanding I will anger you.’…” (10:19b). In other words Israel should have understood what God was doing in Christ, for he had predicted it in the Old Testament! Paul suggests that “if unenlightened people outside of the covenant and nation of Israel could understand the gospel, then certainly a religiously gifted and highly favored group like the Jews had no grounds for claiming that it was beyond their understanding (Mounce, Romans, 213). Drawing from Deuteronomy 32 (particular verse 21), Paul states that like in the Old Testament, the Gentile nations were once again upsetting the “chosen” people by their reception of the good news of Christ that the Jews chose to ignore.  

Isaiah echoes the same sentiment when he says “…’I was found by those who did not seek Me, I became manifest to those who did not ask for Me.’…” (10:20). As with the Deuteronomy 32 quote, this reference to Isaiah 65:1-2 is found in a context of holy indignation against God’s people. Because of the Jews’ failure and subsequent ignorance to the things of God, God gave understanding to those outside of the Jewish nation and pursued those who weren’t even looking for God in the first place. What Paul presents here is an argument from the greater to the lesser (or lesser to the greater depending on how you look at it). If the gentiles had/have the ability to understand and respond to the gospel, how much more do the Jews? They were the first to hear of it and so many things were provided to help them understand it.

d) A Stubborn Nation-10:21

The final presentation Paul provides in this passage is of a stubborn nation. It is an unfortunate concluding reflection provided after all of the excuses and objections in this passage are answered. At the end of the day “as for Israel He (God) says, ‘All the day long I have stretched out my hand,…” (10:21). Time and time again God reached into the lives of the people of Abraham so as to bring them to a right understanding of God and his Christ. He made many promises (to Abraham, Moses, David, etc.), provided many blessings (deliverance from slavery, manna from heaven, water from the rock, a Promised Land, powerful nation, freedom from exile), demonstrated many wonders (fire from heaven, clouds, victories in battle), and spoke through many prophets (Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.). These copious overtures of love and affection were extended (undeserved and unmerited) to what would have otherwise been an obscure tribe.

However, the recipients of these gifts proved to be “a disobedient and obstinate people…” (10:21b). Israel’s rejection of the word of Christ (the gospel) had nothing to do with the quality of the message, the transmission of the message, or even a lack of understanding the message. At the end of the day their failure to be transformed by the word of Christ “rested solely upon the nation’s willful disobedience. . . They insisted on personal merit based on works to gain God’s approval.” This they did even though they had been told differently and knew better—that God’s requirement for righteousness is faith. One commentator has said that God’s outstretched arms were “the symbol of that incessant pleading love which Israel through all its history has consistently despised” (Denney, “Romans,” 2:675).

So What?

Unfortunately, the same sad situation is witnessed among many in our world today. Why do many reject the gospel? It is not necessarily because they have not heard or do not understand. Maybe, “they find it hard to see, in a man who has hanged, the master-clue to the riddle of the world” (Hunter, Romans, 98). The failure of today’s world to, in mass, ignore or resign the word of Christ to the periphery is not because the gospel is not compelling or because it is not being disseminated, it is because people are willfully refusing to embrace God’s overtures of love. Calvin writes, “God stretches forth His hands to us exactly as a father stretches forth his arms, ready to receive his son lovingly into his bosom” (Romans, 236-37). This God did by sending his son to stretch out his arms on the cross in the greatest display of divine love ever witnessed. In this act Jesus paved a way for sinners to have reconciliation with their heavenly Father who loves them more than any other created thing. By responding to God’s open arms with a faith-full embrace, people can know salvation.

Hear the word of Christ and do not ignore it. Choose this day to be a peculiar people who hear this and respond accordingly, not an obstinate nation who believes it knows better and trusts in something else or its own strength to get them through.