Community of the cross (Romans 16)

When Jesus was being crucified, some of His closest friends fled from His side. Little did they realize that the cross would one day be the one thing that held them together.

As Paul winds down his letter to the church in Rome, he uses a variety of conventional closing remarks: extending greetings, expressing needs, etc. But, as we mentioned yesterday, we shouldn’t skip over these sections like they’re little more than Paul’s email signature; they tell us about the close-knit structure of the early Christian community.

Paul writes:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, 2 that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well. (Romans 16:1-2)

We shouldn’t skip over even this brief note. Phoebe was evidently the messenger who carried Paul’s letter to Rome. But the fact that she had a Greek name demonstrates that this messenger directly benefited from the expansion of the gospel to the Gentiles.

GREETINGS TO…

Paul goes on to extend greetings to a wide variety of individuals:

3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, 4 who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. 5 Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia. 6 Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. 8 Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. 9 Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. 10 Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. 11 Greet my kinsman Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. 12 Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. 13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well. 14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers who are with them. 15 Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them.16 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you. (Romans 16:3-15)

Ok, so maybe we chalk the “holy kiss” part up to cultural practice, but what we find here is a warmth and camaraderie that only comes from unity in the gospel.

A WARNING

But despite this unity, division remains a looming threat:

17 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. 19 For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil. 20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (Romans 16:17-20)

Again, with pastoral grace, Paul acknowledges the threat, but points beyond the immediate problem to future hope. Evil won’t prevail forever, for its Satanic source is destined for destruction in God’s coming storm.

GREETINGS FROM…

While before Paul had extended greetings to a large group of people, he now expressed greetings from certain people.

21 Timothy, my fellow worker, greets you; so do Lucius and Jason and Sosipater, my kinsmen.

22 I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord.

23 Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you. (Romans 16:21-23)

No, Paul did not have a ghost writer. Tertius was an “amanuensis”—basically an ancient secretary who served to write down the letter that Paul dictated. This wasn’t an uncommon practice back then, and Paul may have done this regularly—though not always—throughout his ministry career.

DOXOLOGY

Finally, Paul turns his attention—and his readers—toward God and His Kingdom:

25 Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27 to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Romans 16:25-27)

There are many things in this world that will divide us. Age, social standing, gender, political views, worship preferences, economic class—you name it. But when we share a common love for Christ and His gospel, these lesser divisions give way in the face of gospel unity.

The cross was once a bloody symbol of suffering and shame. But when we allow it to be our common purpose, our common source of love and joy and peace and comfort—then the cross becomes a symbol of unity.

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God’s “unfinished project” (Romans 15:14-33)

It is impossible to be fully Christian in the absence of other Christians. These days, with the sheer volume of spiritual options at our disposal, it’s easy to think of our spiritual lives as a merely personal journey. Christian radio, podcasts, a treasure trove of Christian writings—all of these start to seem like a menu from which we may order to satisfy our individual spiritual tastes.

Yet this is wholly alien to New Testament Christianity, which emphasizes the need to recognize the way we fit together in the larger body of Christ.

At the end of his letter, Paul shifts his tone from the theological concerns that dominated the earlier chapters, to a personal reflection of Christian ministry in the past, present, and the future.

PAST MINISTRY

It was customary, in Paul’s day, to include expressions of confidence in the closing of important letters. But we shouldn’t read this as little more than an email signature; we should see this as Paul’s deeply personal reflection on the past work in the gospel:

14 I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. 15 But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God 16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. 17 In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. 18 For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, 19 by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; 20 and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, 21 but as it is written,

“Those who have never been told of him will see,
and those who have never heard will understand.” (Romans 15:14-21)

One of the great advancements that the early Church got to experience was the extension of God’s program to Gentiles. The “signs and wonders” were visible expressions of the Holy Spirit which served to authenticate that they were, in fact, included into God’s program (cf. Acts 2:22; 5:12).

PRESENT ENDEAVORS

Paul now turns his attention to what’s going on at present:

22 This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you. 23 But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, 24 I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while.25 At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. 27 For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. 28 When therefore I have completed this and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will leave for Spain by way of you. 29 I know that when I come to you I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ. (Romans 15:22-29)

At least part of what was going on here was to use the material blessings from Macedonia and Achaia to solve some of the financial issues going on in Jerusalem. But this would also serve to cement relationships between churches of various stripes throughout the region—many of which would now contain Gentile believers.

FUTURE MISSION

Finally, Paul turns his focus forward, looking beyond his present to what God might do in the future:

30 I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, 31 that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, 32 so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.33 May the God of peace be with you all. Amen. (Romans 15:30-33)

The “amen” could almost be the close of the letter, were it not for the fact that Paul went on with some closing thoughts in the next chapter. His prayer is twofold: for safety and for success.

We need to understand the past, present, and future in order for God’s kingdom to flourish in today’s Church. Too often we get fixated on just one of these three things and neglect the other two. To idolize past success fosters a strong sense of nostalgia, but no real forward momentum. To focus on the future and neglect the past is a form of deliberate amnesia—a disconnect from the body of believers that paved the way for us today. We need one another—across all generations—if we’re going to make this thing called Church work.

One writer refers to the Church as God’s “unfinished project,” and I like that. It helps us to remember that we are building a body of believers, but this growth is not completed until the return of Jesus. To that end, let us remember that we’re in this together, and each of us has a role to play as we continue to grow together.

Beyond the doormat (Romans 15:1-13)

We’ve all been there. We’ve all had to deal with that person or two who just seems unbearable, who places more and more demands on our shoulders until we find ourselves wondering which straw will finally break the proverbial camel’s back. I’ll give you the bad news first: life will always be filled with difficult people. The good news is that God provides us the strength to endure.

Paul had previously addressed the issue of the “weaker” Christians who felt convicted to adhere to certain religious duties in their Christian walk. Now, Paul turns his attention to those who are “strong.”

We might imagine that many early Christians had no qualms about things like eating meat, or skipping certain Jewish “Holy days,” and it would have been easy to look down on those whose convictions ran the other way. In today’s terms, it’s not hard to find those Christians who enjoy their craft beer, stream Hillsong on their iPhone, and wear faded jeans to a Sunday service. And I image that this group might feel a bit of smugness toward those who abstain from alcohol and wear a necktie to their church’s potluck and hymn-sing. Obviously, I’m drawing a bit of a cartoonish caricature, but my point is this: Christ-follower, if you celebrate your freedom in a way that mocks the convictions of others, you’re not operating as a “strong” Christian, but a foolish one.

Paul writes that the strong in Christ have social responsibilities toward those who are weak:

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. 3 For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.”4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Romans 15:1-7)

Paul recognized that Christ’s church would be full of different men and women, all of whom are at different places in their walk with Christ. The “strong” may have felt tempted to flaunt their freedom, or to mock the “weak” in an attempt to mold them in a different understanding of their Christian walk. Paul is saying that Christ’s followers should show love to one another—that the strong should “bear with the failings of the weak”—in order to build the body.

But wait, you might object, doesn’t this mean that the weaker Christians win? Paul is saying that this is exactly the sort of question that doesn’t make sense in the Christian community. We fear that tolerating people will turn us into doormats—that they can have their way and we have to cater to them.

But that’s not what Paul is saying either. He’s saying that because Christ took on our reproach and our shame, he also bore the shame of those we struggle to get along with. Therefore the cross sets us free to love our neighbors—even those we don’t get along with.

This is why Paul goes on to say that Jesus served all of God’s people regardless of their original background or the “Jewishness” of their character:

8 For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,

“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles,
and sing to your name.”

10 And again it is said,

“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”

11 And again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples extol him.”

12 And again Isaiah says,

“The root of Jesse will come,
even he who arises to rule the Gentiles;
in him will the Gentiles hope.”

13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 13:8-13)

The gospel application is this: because all people may experience the love and acceptance of Christ, you and I have no basis for drawing boundaries between people at different places along their spiritual walk.

But, if we return to what Paul said in verse 2, our greater obligation is the building of the body of Christ. Bearing with “weaker” Christians doesn’t mean affirming their habits or their beliefs; in many cases our Christian siblings need to be challenged.

People grow; people change. In the meantime, though, Christ’s followers can cultivate a grace-saturated community into which all of God’s people may grow and flourish. We can’t do this by focusing on individual needs, but we can do this by laying down our lives like Christ.

Liberty, love, and the Christian journey (Romans 14:1-23)

Some years ago I found myself the leader of a Bible study composed of a group of young adults. One night a young couple came to me to raise a concern. It seemed that the week before, a small section of the group had gone out after Bible study—to the bar area of a local restaurant. Having not been present at this gathering, I can only assume that those who went (1) were of legal age and (2) drank responsibly, at least in the eyes of the state. But this young couple was a bit hurt that a group of Christians would be at a Bible study one minute, and downing glasses of beer the next. And, as I learned, their concern rose not from a background of religious conservatism, but from their prior struggles with alcohol and their desire to remain “clean.”

What was I to say? What would you say?

As Americans we have elevated the spirit of individualism to almost a sovereign virtue. But as citizens of God’s kingdom, we recognize our social obligations within the body of Christ. In his letter to the Romans, Paul addresses what we often call “disputable matters.” We might apply this term to a whole range of issues, but naturally the one that often receives the most attention is the question of Christians and alcohol.

CHRISTIAN LIBERTIES

One of the core challenges of diversity within the body of Christ is the variety of expressions of the Christian faith. In Paul’s day, there were apparently some who insisted on observing certain “Holy days” (perhaps for their Jewish significance) and others who were strict vegetarians (perhaps to avoid eating meat that had been offered to idols). Whatever their reasons, Paul says that when the Bible is silent on such issues, God’s people should be cautious about insisting everyone follow the same rules:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; 11 for it is written,

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall confess to God.”

12 So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. (Romans 14:1-12)

Paul isn’t saying that these concerns don’t matter, he’s saying that we should be careful to distinguish between absolute moral standards, personal convictions, and cultural practices. In Paul’s day, there were those who insisted upon abstaining from eating meat. Ok, Paul seems to say, but don’t pass judgment on those who celebrate their Christian liberty with a porterhouse.

This, of course, is where I’ve seen many young people’s eyes light up. Because it’s usually here that they realize that hey, if they’re of age, they can enjoy a beer or a glass of wine or two. After all, while the Bible prohibits drunkenness, it never labels alcohol as sinful. Hey, even Jesus turned water into wine. So if we apply this text to this issue, we can see how there might be good, Godly Christians who differ on this issue. And that’s ok. What’s not ok, if we hear Paul correctly, is to apply my own standards to someone else. This means that if I choose to abstain from drinking, it’s not ok for me to look down on someone who chooses to have a drink, But it also means—and young people, take notice—that if I choose to drink, that I look down on others as being prudish or uptight. There may be wisdom, after all, in abstaining. You don’t have to look very hard to find people for whom alcohol (and other substances) have had a ruling influence over their life. I knew of one young man who couldn’t even hear ice cubes rattling in a glass without feeling the desire for alcohol. It’s for these and other reasons that Paul makes clear that we must understand personal freedom within the broader framework of our social responsibilities.

STUMBLING BLOCKS

Paul writes that Christ’s followers should go out of their way to ensure unity between one another on these issues:

13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15 For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.16 So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

20 Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. 21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. 22 The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.  (Romans 14:13-23)

It is impossible to be fully human in the absence of other humans, and likewise it is impossible to be fully Christian in the absence of other Christians. Our decisions impact more than just ourselves. Paul doesn’t ask that Christ’s followers cave in to each other’s demands; he’s saying that we should have the sensitivity toward one another not to allow our liberties to do damage to our brothers and sisters in Christ.

How might this relate to the question of alcohol? Consuming alcohol isn’t necessarily morally wrong; harming your brother is. Paul is encouraging his readers to maintain unity even if it means surrendering our “rights.” For love always—always—comes before our Christian freedoms. You will never get me to say that alcohol is inherently sinful, but I fear that many Christians have been quick to celebrate this freedom and slow to consider its implications.

So what about that young couple? To be honest, I don’t remember what I said to them. If I were facing the same dilemma today, this is what I might say:

  • To the young couple, offended by the sight of Christians drinking at the bar: You have every right to desire to shield yourself from behaviors—and substances—that once enslaved you. Your desire for purity from alcohol is, for you, a good and noble thing. But not everyone has walked your road, and not everyone has been in your shoes, for which reason we should all be cautious about drawing conclusions based on others’ behavior. And yes, I know that you may not have wanted to be put in this position, but my gentle challenge to you is that if you are invited to a restaurant with a bar there’s a good chance you might be exposed to the sights and smells of your former lifestyle. There may be wisdom in finding out where you’re headed before you accept an invitation, lest you find yourself here again.
  • To those who enjoyed your liberties, unaware you were causing offense: I get it; you have your liberties. No one has the right to question your salvation because of this issue. But the fact remains: you have missed an opportunity to love your neighbor. We don’t always know the backgrounds of those around us—for which reason we must be cautious about exercising our liberties in a way that causes others to “stumble.” We need one another, and our goal of love should triumph over any personal liberties we might cling to.

I realize, as well, that this is a conversation that demands nuance. Still, the overall principle is clear: we are at liberty with certain choices, but the gospel provokes us to surrender these liberties for the sake of unity and love.

Let them stumble over what matters (Romans 13:8-14)

Christianity has a PR problem, and if we’re looking for the culprit we have to look no further than our bedroom mirror.

Jesus, of course, warned that an unbelieving world would reject His followers, but He also encouraged His people to be “in the world but not of the world.” To be at odds with the world may be inevitable, but it is not the Christian’s goal.

Our unbelieving friends and neighbors have no trouble naming the things that Christianity is typically against. As a matter of fact, some years ago a group of researchers asked non-Christians to describe Christianity. The top six answers were as follows: “hypocritical,” “judgmental,” “too political,” “anti-homosexual,” and “too focused on getting converts.”

What about you? If your neighbors had to describe Christianity based on what they’ve seen of your faith, what do you think they’d say?

DEEPER RELIGION

For years we’ve been living with the assumption that Christianity suffers from the baggage of “religion.” So we took strides to re-define ourselves. “It’s a relationship,” we insisted; “not a religion.”

I grew up hearing this. I often found myself saying this. But you know something? None of my non-Christian friends ever bought it. Your mileage may vary, but my friends always heard this as another in a long string of religious clichés. As I’ve gotten older, I find the idea that we should jettison all religion a bit simplistic, and if I’m being candid I’ve often feared that such statements have contributed to a faith deep with emotion yet shallow on virtue. Such faith rarely makes a lasting impression on the world around us—heck, such faith often fades from our hearts when our sincerity runs thin.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul takes time to discuss the nature of Christian conduct. The following section comes immediately after a section dealing with Christians and human government, so it seems quite reasonable to understand this in terms of Christianity in the public arena.

Paul writes:

8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)

Perhaps the answer isn’t less religion, but deeper religion—a truer, more robust expression of God’s truth. More than anything, Paul says, the Christian life is exemplified by love. Love—not a t-shirt slogan, not a boycott, not a particular posture toward politics—love is what Christians are to be known for.

LIVING RIGHTLY

Paul goes on to help us understand this imperative in light of our place in God’s story:

11 Besides this you know the time,  that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:11-14)

His imagery here emphasizes the coming of the Day of the Lord—that is, the Second Coming of Christ when all will be made whole, and we can truly count ourselves among the “saved.” For Paul—and most of the other writers of our New Testament—this day seemed “soon.” For us, we know that centuries have passed since these words were written, but the day can be just as “soon” for us today as it was then. Paul’s point is that if this kingdom is coming soon, man’s empires pale in comparison. It’s as if he’s saying that if a feast is coming, it’s foolish to gorge ourselves at a dirty taco stand.

Love and character, therefore, form the most elemental basis of Christian discipleship. Christianity is, principally, a set of beliefs—but these beliefs take shape in the life each of us lead as we seek to “put on Christ.”

Our world will always stumble over the cultural expressions of Christianity, with all our boycotts, stale slogans, and “Christianized” forms of music and movies. But wouldn’t it be great if our friends and neighbors saw us for more than that—saw us for men and women of deep character and abiding love? If our world is going to stumble over Christ’s followers, than let them stumble over our love; let them stumble over our character. And let us be there to show them how to walk like Jesus.

Finding release from political panic (Romans 13:1-7)

“It’s never been this bad before.”

If you’re anything like me, you’ve caught yourself saying those words more than a few times during our most recent election cycle. Our choices seemed impossible; our newscasts seemed untrustworthy. Even now, months following the inauguration, it’s tempting to listen to the news with a mounting sense of panic. With every new development, with every piece of “click-bait” that surfaces on our radar, we increasingly find ourselves pushed toward either fear for our future or outrage toward our political adversaries. “It’s never been this bad before,” we continually insist, and behind this statement lies a set of assumptions of how the world is ordered.

In an era of “fake news” and political panic, we must be men and women of deep, Christian principles. For without principles, we can only react to the play-by-play, our hopes hanging on the secular prophets who ask us to “stay tuned” for the next in an endless sequence of new developments.

How does the gospel rescue us from a world of fear and division? What is the relationship between God’s kingdom and human government?

HONOR YOUR LEADERS

Paul would have been no stranger to a climate of political instability. Likewise, Paul’s first readers would have been all too familiar with both the triumphs and shame of the Roman Emperor Nero, who ruled from 54-68 A.D. So it’s significant for us, that Paul includes politics in his larger discussion on what it means to live as a follower of Jesus:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:1-7)

Since the days of Noah, human governments have had two responsibilities: to punish evil and to promote good. In the New Testament in particular, this and other writings emphasize a responsibility to “honor” civic government (cf. 1 Peter 2:13-17; Titus 3:1; 1 Timothy 2:1-4).

The Greek terms here are unambiguous: the words that Paul uses are exclusively used for human authorities. So yes; Paul is saying that Christ’s followers are to show “honor” and “respect” to human authorities.

On what basis? Paul is equally clear on this point: human government is a direct extension of the will of God. The book of Daniel tells us that God “removes kings and sets up kings” (Daniel 2:21). Solomon likewise tells us that “the king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1).

But wait, you might ask, what about ungodly men? Historically speaking, the Bible has affirmed that even ungodly men can be used for God’s ultimate purposes, such as when King Cyrus was deemed God’s “anointed” (Isaiah 45:1).

Granted, this doesn’t mean our civic leaders receive a “blank check” for their policies or for their character. We can find multiple examples in the Bible where men and women of God defied their leaders for Godly purposes—such as when Daniel’s companions refused to bow to the image of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. But it does mean that as followers of Jesus, our allegiance to God’s kingdom transforms the way we engage in the political arena here on earth.

LIVING AS DUAL CITIZENS

One of the primary ways that the gospel transforms our political engagement is by re-ordering our priorities. We are “dual citizens,” so to speak—inhabiting the “City of Man” even as we place our trust in the “City of God.” This is why Paul says that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).

Ancient thinkers have historically framed this in terms of “immediate” and “ultimate” hopes. Our ultimate hope is in God—His love, His kingdom, His sovereign control. Yet because we are also citizens of the present age, we place immediate hope in God’s gifts to us. For instance, we trust God’s sovereign control to keep us safe on the highway (ultimate hope), but we still buckle our seatbelts and drive safely (immediate hope). Likewise, though we place our ultimate hope in God’s expanding kingdom, we still have immediate, earthly allegiances—such as those we find in politics.

This, of course, is where we struggle. Understanding how our “dual citizenship” is meant to function isn’t always easy. Yet the sheer amount of political division we’ve witnessed even in recent months suggests that we can do better, and if evangelical Christianity is to have any sort of future we must help one another—especially the next generation—in connecting our personal faith and the public sphere.

To that end, I submit the following applications:

  • Recalibrate your hope

Political idolatry begins when we allow the immediate hope of politics to become our ultimate hope for security, satisfaction, and comfort. If you find yourself excessively agitated by today’s political climate, ask yourself: am I trusting that God is in control in this situation? “It’s never been this bad,” you might say—but even if that were true, is God any less in control?

Likewise, if you find yourself apathetic toward the field of politics, ask yourself: is my detachment from politics preventing me from loving my neighbor? The policies of the City of Man have moral implications. To make an idol out of politics is to deny one’s heavenly citizenship; to ignore politics entirely is to deny one’s earthly opportunities.

  • Pray for President Trump

This, of course, is true of any leader, though our most prominent leader as of this date is President Trump. We will not like every politician. That’s not the point. Paul exhorts us to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-2). We may pray that they make wise decisions, and we may pray that they grow to become men and women of God.

This means that ultimately we desire that our leaders succeed. Yes; even the ones we dislike. It’s tempting, I realize, to wish for their failure, because when this happens we get great pleasure out of saying: “I told you so!” But this is just pride. As followers of Jesus, prayer should be our first impulse, not gloating or a childish political rant.

  • Abstain from “outrage porn”

In an age where journalistic success is measured in the number of “clicks” you receive, the strategy often employed is to stir your audience with anger. It’s what writer Ryan Holiday calls “outrage porn:” the headlines that grab our attention, and the videos we share with our friends.

Holiday writes:

“Outrage has slowly eaten online media from the inside out. What was once a righteous and necessary force—a check on softball reporting inside old media—is now a corrupt and lazy vice. The outrage you see isn’t real, it isn’t sincere. In fact, it is the opposite. It’s shallow, it’s superficial and it’s selfish.”[1]

Today’s political journalism often serves to cultivate anger toward our present situation, or anxiety toward our future. Christ-follower, if you struggle with either of these emotions, you may need a break from technology and the non-stop news cycle that has you so worked up.

The night He was betrayed, Jesus told His followers: “take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). If the cross already represents God’s victory, we can take comfort that no political scandal can disrupt God’s plans.

  • Listen to your neighbors

In an age of identity politics, we’re often guilty of drawing divisions between “us” and “them.” But not everyone who voted for Trump is a bigot, nor is everyone who opposed him a “snowflake.” In the book of James, he instructs God’s people to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). Is it possible—just possible—that your political adversaries might be people you can learn something from? Is it possible for us to dialogue with one another without trying to “convert” one another to our political views?

  • Do something good

Finally, even in Paul’s day political instability could not stop the spread of the gospel. Here in America, we experience relatively little persecution—especially when we compare our setting to places in the world where Christianity carries a death sentence.

When God’s people lived in exile in Babylon, God implored them to “seek the good of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7). And so can we. Serving one another, serving our community, promoting God’s goodness in any way we are able—these tasks and relationships produce a better, stronger society. You can be a part of that; there’s no need to wait until next time you’re at the voting booth.

In an age of division, love becomes revolutionary. As followers of Christ, we are citizens of this city only briefly, but citizens of God’s city forever. Let’s allow this light to shine through in all that we do.

 

[1] Ryan Holiday, “Outrage Porn: How the Need for ‘Perpetual Indignation’ Manufactures Phony Offense.”  The Observer, February 26, 2014.  Available online at http://observer.com/2014/02/outrage-porn-how-the-need-for-perpetual-indignation-manufactures-phony-offense/

Imagine This! (Romans 12:9-21)

Probably one of the most popular songs ever is Imagine by John Lennon. You certainly wouldn’t want to build your theology out of it, as it denies heaven and hell and wishes for the evil of religion to be vaporized. The song goes on to express high-minded, utopian dreams of people all living in the oneness of harmony and love. “A brotherhood of man … Imagine all the people sharing all the world. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.”

Nice sentiments. But it is a dream. And it would be better to bring heaven back into the equation for this to ever be a reality.

But imagine if God’s people, God’s family of faith – the church – were to live and function in a way that exemplified the love and character of Christ. Imagine that; what would that look like?

Perhaps it would look like a lot of people practicing Paul’s admonitions to the Romans in our passage today in 12:9-21.

There is something in this list of short and quick exhortations to prick the conscience of every one of us. We might read along and be able to check off three, four or five consecutive items as practices we employ to live out our Christian lives. But it doesn’t take long for us to hit one that reminds us of a current or recent failure in our experience.

As I read this passage and look back now at four decades of church leadership service, I will say that the first people who come to mind as the most effective and beloved members I have known are those who could be largely described by this list. Some of these individuals were, to be fully honest, not necessarily the brightest and most gifted people by the world’s standards (or even those of the Christian community). But the genuine and sincere love that burned through them for God and for other people resulted in them occupying greater seats of service than those whose gifts appeared obvious. And I’m convinced these simple servants of the Lord will inhabit the biggest mansions in heaven!

We could take a great deal of time in expanding each of the items listed in these verses and how they might look in application within the Christian community. But for our purposes, let me boil it down to one common denominator: those who would best exemplify the deeds and characteristics Paul pictures here are those who most have a heart for other people that is bigger than their need to satisfy themselves.

Long before a Christian churchman gets to questions like “Are my needs being met in this church?” or “Am I being fed by the teaching?” should be questions like: “Am I able to use my gifts here to serve other people?” or “Have I been able to give here to people in need and display hospitality?” or “What can I do to increase unity by loving those who are sometimes unlovely?”

We all need to be less annoyed by other people in the family of faith. Even when they have said or done something to deserve a smack down or cold shoulder, the entire church would be better off by rather finding a way to kindly reach out and serve that person. Jesus did that for us – “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

Imagine us all acting like Christ. Then the church would be as one.

12:9 – Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[c] Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

The ADHD Sacrifice (Romans 12:1-8)

The great, old one-liner about Romans 12:1 is that the problem with living sacrifices is that they keep crawling off the altar. In totally modern terms we might say that such a sacrifice has ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder!

If you were with us at church this past week, you’ll recall that the kids sang a great “Romans 12:1+2” song for the musical. And they were awesome in their performance! But some of the rehearsals … oh my!  I was working with the acting kids, and they would run from side to side on the stage, making up new lines and being, well, wild boys in particular. One of the calm girls would just look at me kinda wide-eyed with amazement at these antics and just shake her head as if to say, “I’m sorry you’re having to deal with this!”

I would guess that God has the same feeling with many of us, much of the time. We are called to sacrificial service within whatever capacities and gifts that we have. But then when it gets a bit difficult and painful to carry out that service for the Lord, like the ADHD sacrifice we’re off the altar and running around aimlessly.

Have you noticed that serving God can sometimes be painful? That is because it involves the totality of oneself. There’s no such thing as being a partial sacrifice. But total commitment is the way to go in life that will yield the greatest of success and satisfaction.

The easiest and most natural way to live life is to conform to the pattern of this world. This involves a great deal of going along to get along, with a strong dose of serving self and personal needs and interests. We fit into this mold quite easily with little contortion or thoughtful discipline.

Paul rather says that the believer should be transformed with a renewed way of thinking. The word for this is the one from which we get “metamorphosis.”  So it speaks of being changed from the inside-out. The result will be that such a process confirms God’s will for life – the best way of living well.

Verses 3-8 describe the primary function of living well, that of understanding God’s unique personal gifting and then deploying it faithfully to serve others.

Everyone should be humble in service because though each has gifts to use, none has anything close to having them all. Some gifts may be more dramatic and evident than others, but all are needed in order that together there may be mutual benefit.

It does not matter how incredibly talented a quarterback is if his offensive line does not protect him long enough to find an open receiver for a pass. It is difficult to throw a football with a 300-pound defensive lineman hanging on your arm. And the fastest running back will gain few yards without blockers who successfully keep defenders from dropping the ball carrier before he gets across the line of scrimmage.

Just as it is the team effort of each player performing his unique function successfully, so in the church family there is the need for all of the gifts to function for mutual benefit. Some are more public than others, but the more outward gifts cannot find a platform for successful execution without others performing their role with all-out energy.

So be faithful to use whatever gifts God has given you for the benefit of others. True inner satisfaction comes from serving others, and along the way of living sacrificially, we find that our deficits and needs are met by others who sacrificially gave of themselves as well. So stay on that altar … don’t be crawling off.

12:1 – Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

12:3 – For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. 4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

Never Forgotten (Romans 11:1-36)

In this our third of three days of looking at chapters 9-11 of Romans, we see of Israel’s future as a nation. Their disobedience and disbelief was grievous. As stated in the previous two chapters, they were God’s chosen and special people who had not received God’s truth and plan. Therefore through the rejection of Christ, a larger plan of God for the expanse of the Gospel to Gentile peoples was accomplished.

But did this mean that all Israelites were now lost … that God had forgotten and totally rejected his people? Well certainly not. As Paul argues immediately in the first verse, he himself as a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin had come to faith by God’s divine call and personal intervention. It was not God rejecting; it was a matter of the chosen people rejecting God.

Paul turns quickly to another Old Testament account, that of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. It is one of my favorite OT stories. Here is Elijah, feeling sorry for himself, believing that he was just about the only one remaining who was faithful to God … “and those bad boys are trying to kill me now!” he wails. And God answers him by essentially saying, “Shut up with your whining, I’ve got 7,000 others who are yet faithful, pull up your socks and get to work because I have an assignment for you.”

Though as a whole the nation of Israel had rejected Christ and the gospel message, there remained even in the early church more than a few who knew and followed the truth. The gospel was good for Jews and Gentiles, though the church age would be a time where the gospel would particularly spread ultimately around the world to every tribe and nationality, as it has for the past 2,000 years.

The argument of the rest of the chapter is rather complicated, again accompanied by a bevy of Old Testament quotations. The primary issue is to communicate that God has not forgotten or permanently rejected the nation of Israel. The Gentiles who were the majority people receiving this letter should remember that it is they who were grafted into the “tree” of God’s family as spiritual descendants of Abraham. But a day will yet come (after Christ’s return) where there will be a national turning back to God of the Jewish people.

Again, for our devotional purposes and in an effort to keep us today out of the deep theological weeds, there is an interpretation of passages such as this one (along with others that speak of the nation of Israel) as saying that the church is “spiritual Israel” … that the promised given literally to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament are being spiritually fulfilled in the church. Though it is true that we are all one people of God in terms of our salvation being based in the work of Christ, God still has a literal future for the nation of Israel where his promises to them will be literally fulfilled.

Along with the overarching emphases within these complicated chapters that God is sovereign and has a sovereignly-designed plan that will come to fruition, we see the great grace and mercy of God. He does not forget his promises and his word. And we may fully bank on that! As time goes by, God’s master plan is being fulfilled toward a glorious end. This truth leads Paul to a doxological praise in the final four verses. And in our lives it leads us to confidence and trust in worship of the One who faithfully is working in all things and all times and all places … including in our lives. Amen!

11:1 – I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don’t you know what Scripture says in the passage about Elijah—how he appealed to God against Israel: 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me”? 4 And what was God’s answer to him? “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. 6 And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.

7 What then? What the people of Israel sought so earnestly they did not obtain. The elect among them did, but the others were hardened, 8 as it is written: “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear, to this very day.”

9 And David says: “May their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them. 10 May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever.”

Ingrafted Branches

11 Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. 12 But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!

13 I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry 14 in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. 15 For if their rejection brought reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? 16 If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.

17 If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, 18 do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. 19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” 20 Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.

22 Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. 23 And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24 After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!

All Israel Will Be Saved

25 I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, 26 and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.

27 And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”

28 As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, 29 for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. 30 Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. 32 For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.

Doxology

33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments,     and his paths beyond tracing out!

34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?”

35 “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?”

36 For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Zealous for the Right Thing (Romans 10:1-21)

In Romans 10, Paul continues his (later to be identified three-chapter) excurses on God’s sovereign dealings with the nation of Israel. As well, Paul continues his “hit parade” of Old Testament scripture quotes and allusions, adding an additional 12 such references in these 21 verses. Again we also see Paul’s own heart’s desire for the Israelites to truly know God through Jesus Christ.

By the time of the early church era when Paul is writing this letter to the Romans, though there were Jewish believers in churches throughout the Mediterranean world, the vast majority of Jews had rejected the gospel offer. So it is reasonable to say that Christ had truly been rejected by the nation.

Paul understood this rejection and hostility, having participated in it significantly prior to his dramatic encounter with Christ and his own conversion. He speaks here of the zealous nature of the Israelites. Indeed, they had a profound sense of their own history and deep reverence and affection for the Law of Moses. But Paul writes here that their knowledge was deficient and inaccurate. Their belief was that righteousness could be and should be attained by strict adherence to the Law. The truth is that the Law was not an instrument to give righteousness, but rather its purpose was to show a person that they could never attain it on their own – hence needing to look outside of themselves toward God for forgiveness. And the rest of Romans is arguing that this righteousness is perfectly found in Jesus Christ and his work.

Christ presented himself to Israel as their king, yet he was rejected; and in the master plan of God, this rejection and subsequent death, burial and resurrection provides the perfect payment for sin and basis for salvation of all mankind, Jew or Gentile. A wonderful summary of the gospel message is provided in verses 9 and 10: that whoever truly believes and confesses that Jesus is Lord and the one raised from the dead by God … that person will be saved, Jew or Gentile.

This message is proclaimed and spread through those who believe and strive together to see that it is promulgated near and far. Verses 14 and 15 have served as the theme Scripture for many a missions conference in churches over the years, and rightly so. There needs to be a proclamation of the gospel for people to believe, and this requires “preachers” (professional or otherwise) who are missionally sent for such communication. Surely it may be across the sea to far-flung regions, but the same principle applies to taking the gospel to the neighborhood just on the other side of the tracks.

The final verses of this chapter brings out the Old Testament anticipation that this expansion of followers of God would extend beyond the nation of Israel to include all the peoples of the world. Israel had the first shot at seeing, experiencing, and following God’s expansive heart for the world. And even now, individually they are not rejected, as belief in the gospel applies to them as well.

How thankful we should be (most of us being of Gentile extraction) that God’s heart was so expansive, even if his original “people” did not see it or largely understand it. We inherit God’s grace, it having come to us on the words of others who received it upon the words of others before them. It is a wonderful opportunity to be an active part of this universal program of God. Do you have a sense of that passion that drives you as you consider the peoples of the world, near and far?

10:1 – Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. 2 For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. 3 Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4 Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

5 Moses writes this about the righteousness that is by the law: “The person who does these things will live by them.” 6 But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim: 9 If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. 11 As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

16 But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” 17 Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. 18 But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did: “Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”

19 Again I ask: Did Israel not understand? First, Moses says, “I will make you envious by those who are not a nation; I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding.”

20 And Isaiah boldly says, “I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.”

21 But concerning Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.”