Old Testament

Joyous Gentiles

Romans 15:7-13 (NLT)

Therefore, accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given glory. Remember that Christ came as a servant to the Jews to show that God is true to the promises he made to their ancestors. He also came so that the Gentiles might give glory to God for his mercies to them. That is what the psalmist meant when he wrote:

“For this, I will praise you among the Gentiles;
   I will sing praises to your name.”
And in another place it is written,

“Rejoice with his people,
   you Gentiles.”
And yet again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles.
   Praise him, all you people of the earth.”
And in another place Isaiah said,

“The heir to David’s throne will come,
   and he will rule over the Gentiles.
They will place their hope on him.”


I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.


Let’s focus on Paul’s concept of the Gentiles, the word for people not of Jewish descent.

The Bible as a whole is a very Jewish story. While God is the creator of all people and things, what we now call the Old Testament is told very much from a Jewish perspective, a viewpoint that continues into the New Testament.

By the 12th chapter of Genesis, Abraham and his descendants are quickly established in the biblical narrative as God’s Chosen People, the ones who desire, seek and finally possess the Promised Land.

Non-Jews are merely supporting actors on the stage, people who rise and fall depending on their interaction with the main characters. And yet, there are clues all along regarding how God loves all of creation, and how God’s close relationship with the Jews leads to salvation globally.

As I’ve already noted earlier in this Romans series, we can see the broadness of God’s plan in the first promise made to the man eventually called Abraham.  God tells him to go toward Canaan. There will be blessings for those who bless you, God says, and there will be curses for those who curse your venture. But most importantly for our meditation today, the father of the Jews is told “all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.”

In our text today, Paul quotes from the Psalms, Deuteronomy and Isaiah to demonstrate how the plan for the Jews was designed to become a plan for all people.

Our problem in understanding this plan has been a problem of time. God’s plan plays out over thousands of years, and individually, we are just mist, curling into a brief shape and then vanishing.

For the Jews, it is easy to get lost in the idea of being special, set apart as an example of holy living before God. They can become so focused on their unique relationship with God that they forget the whole purpose of their existence, to be a light to all the world so that salvation may spread.

For Christian Gentiles, it is easy for us to forget that our Savior is a very Jewish carpenter, a descendant of Abraham. Often this forgetfulness can express itself simply as disinterest in the Old Testament, but the effects also can be much, much worse. Some of history’s most horrific acts of madness have occurred when people calling themselves Christians have seen the Jews as enemies, persecuting and killing them.

Paul offers us a broader way to see Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is the bridge allowing the promise of salvation to be exported from the Jews to the Gentiles.

We see the transition happen in Jesus’ ministry. Mostly his ministry is a very Jewish one, reflecting the Jewish perspective on Gentiles. Just look at Matthew 15:21-28, where Jesus calls Gentiles “dogs.” In the story, he does ultimately point out the power of faith and hint at the unexpected grace to come, but the rude reference comes as a shock.

In the Gospel of John, chapter 12, verse 20, we see Jesus transition from Jewish Messiah to global Christ. Here, Jesus has just ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey to the cheers of the people. Greeks—to a Jew, just a particular kind of Gentile—ask to see Jesus.

The odd thing about the telling of this story is we don’t know if the Greeks ever spoke to Jesus. The whole point of the story is that Jesus sees deep meaning in their arrival. Gentiles are seeking him, and now it is time to die for the sins of all people, Jew or Gentile. If you keep reading in John, it is clear Jesus’ mind is set on the cross once those Greeks ask to see him.

Christians, you know how the story continues. Jesus goes to the cross and dies. And then, glory of glories, there is the resurrection.

Word spreads, and spreads, and spreads, and here we are today, in Ten Mile, Tennessee, on the other side of the planet, worshiping Jesus Christ. Mostly we are the descendants of a bunch of Gentiles, knowing we have eternal life because of a promise made to and through the Jews thousands of years ago.

I guess we’re just a bunch of lucky dogs!


The featured image is “We Would See Jesus,” James Tissot, circa 1885.

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The Radical Love List

Romans 12:9-21 (NLT)

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!

Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.

Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say,

“I will take revenge;
   I will pay them back,”
   says the Lord.


Instead,

“If your enemies are hungry, feed them.
   If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap
   burning coals of shame on their heads.”


Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.


In many ways, Paul here is simply echoing the teachings of Jesus. Jesus had his Sermon on the Mount, and this would be Paul’s Sermon from Corinth, if most scholars are correct about where Paul was when he wrote to the Christians in Rome.

It is best, it seems to me, to go through it concept by concept, much as we might break down the Sermon on the Mount. Again, we are moving rather quickly through Romans. I see about a dozen possible full-length sermons in these verses today.

Broadly, I will say this: Like Jesus, Paul is encouraging a kind of love most of us still consider radical today.

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other.

The key word here, it seems to me, is “genuine.” If we find ourselves faking love in order to look Christian, we need to pause and ask God to help us discern what is wrong. Why do we struggle to love the person before us? What prejudices or old hurts are we carrying that interfere with our God-given ability to love others?

Similarly, if we find ourselves liking what is wrong or failing to appreciate what is good, we may have discovered a spiritual flaw we need to bring to God for healing. Again, what has happened to us that would cause us to like what is wrong, that is, what is contrary to God’s will?

If we want to deepen our prayer lives, a good place to start is a close, prayerful examination of those moments when we may not be reacting to people or situations the way Christians should.

Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying.

This one is easier to understand, I think, as we age. Time seems to go so fast. Time is so easily wasted. Oh, to have back all the time I’ve wasted, time that could have been of benefit to the kingdom! I am embarrassed to think of all the ways I’ve wasted time.

It’s easy to fall into despair. Don’t, Paul is saying. Hope should reign in our hearts. Hey, as Christians, we’re often a mess. We get off-track, off mission. Christ’s power is in the world, though, and remarkable things can happen in a very short period of time.

Yes, time is short. Paul reminds us, however, that there also are painful moments we think will never end. No one wants to be in such moments, but there is an advantage to such times. They represent opportunities to slow down, breathe, and pray.

When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.

Hospitality is a Christian virtue that also was a very important Old Testament virtue. This is not about tea-and-cookies hospitality; when rendered into a theological term, hospitality is about radically opening our lives to people in need.

In the Old Testament, we see hospitality in practice when strangers enter a town square or draw near to a herdsman’s tent and are quickly greeted, fed and sheltered. Turning away a traveler was tantamount to sin; there were no Holiday Inns, no Waffle Houses, and you potentially were leaving the person to die.

We also see hospitality in the Old Testament when a prophet finds shelter with a poor widow, and becomes a blessing to his benefactor.

Hospitality is a deep and complicated subject, in part because it requires a commitment to simple living and deep vulnerability to others. I have found it even helps us process difficult subjects like abortion.

If I’ve intrigued any of you at Luminary or elsewhere with a brief mention of hospitality, let me know. It is the kind of topic we can spend weeks exploring in a small study group.

Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them.

This seems to be more about our state of mind when victimized than anything else. In the scenario we are to imagine, someone has caused us to suffer, and the first step is to get to the place mentally where we can pray for that person’s well-being and alignment with God.

Praying for our persecutors makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. Maybe you’re dealing with a bully. Hey, even adults deal with bullies. A lot of bullies move from pushing people around on the playground to making life miserable in the workplace. But if that bully is transformed by Christ, everyone’s problem vanishes.

The last thing you want is for your persecutor to grow more closely aligned with the devil. Pray the devil away. Pray the bully finds the peace and joy derived from a close walk with Jesus Christ. Your non-anxious, prayerful presence might even contribute to the conversion!

Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!

Life happens. Joy happens, sorrow happens. Stay in the midst of it all, and as you do, don’t be afraid to carry Christ into every situation you encounter. Again, such behavior is very “on mission,” and when we stay on mission, people are drawn to Jesus Christ.

As for the part about the company of ordinary people and not thinking you know it all—well, I humbly refer you to last week’s sermon.

Never pay back evil with more evil … never take revenge … Instead,

“If your enemies are hungry, feed them.
   If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap
   burning coals of shame on their heads.”

 

Oooo, boy. “Blessed are the peacemakers.” “Turn the other cheek.” Remember those words of Jesus? Paul really is echoing Jesus here as he quotes from the Old Testament Book of Proverbs.

This is tough stuff. It’s hard to live out personally. It’s even harder to get what so many people call a Christian nation to put it into policy. We’ve been at war 16 years, people—16 years! We’re about to escalate in Afghanistan once again. Some new strategies may be in order.

Paul offers all this up not just as a nice idea, but also as a strategy that should lead to positive results. He is saying, Let your goodness stand in such striking contrast to other people’s badness that the bad feel ashamed, and ultimately they will change their ways. In modern terms, we call this “nonviolent direct action.”

And yes, it does work. All you have to do is study the strategies and results achieved by people like Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi.

Yes, it’s also dangerous. Both the men I just mentioned died while living out such a strategy. But despite their deaths—we even can accurately say, in response to their deaths—larger victories were won.

Earlier this week, I put something on our church website and in our September newsletter arguing that this commitment to Christian nonviolence is precisely what we lack in our culture today. We need some brave Christians willing to stand against this tendency toward violence that is creeping into our national conversations.

Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.

After all that talk of peacemaking, Paul uses a conquest metaphor. We are reminded that we are in a war, a spiritual war that plays out all too often on a very physical level. As you enter the fray, enter it boldly, but understand that truths revealed by Jesus Christ are our weapons.

By the way, the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Christ wins! And because we stand with Christ, we win, too!

The Merciful Sovereign

Romans 9:14-29 (NLT)

Are we saying, then, that God was unfair? Of course not! For God said to Moses,

“I will show mercy to anyone I choose,
   and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.”

So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it.

For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, “I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth.” So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen.

Well then, you might say, “Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?”

No, don’t say that. Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? In the same way, even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who are destined for destruction. He does this to make the riches of his glory shine even brighter on those to whom he shows mercy, who were prepared in advance for glory. And we are among those whom he selected, both from the Jews and from the Gentiles.

Concerning the Gentiles, God says in the prophecy of Hosea,

“Those who were not my people,
   I will now call my people.
And I will love those
   whom I did not love before.”

And,

“Then, at the place where they were told,
   ‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called
   ‘children of the living God.’”
And concerning Israel, Isaiah the prophet cried out,

“Though the people of Israel are as numerous as the sand of the seashore,
   only a remnant will be saved.
For the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth
   quickly and with finality.”
And Isaiah said the same thing in another place:

“If the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
   had not spared a few of our children,
we would have been wiped out like Sodom,
   destroyed like Gomorrah.”


Sometimes the Bible forces us to think until it hurts. Paul is doing that to us in Romans today.

If that bothers you, sorry. If that doesn’t bother you, congratulations—you may be on the verge of getting a glimpse of God’s mind via Paul’s writings.

This particular passage for centuries has caused the church to think until it hurts. Differences of opinion regarding how to read it and related passages have pushed Christians into two camps. One would be the Christians who believe God predestines who gets to experience eternal life. The other camp would be Christians who believe choosing or rejecting Jesus ultimately makes the difference, although these people also emphasize that our ability to choose is a gift from God.

People in the first group are called Calvinists; they include denominations like Presbyterians, certain kinds of Baptists, and just about any church with the word “Reformed” in its name.

People in the second group are called Arminians. Methodists would be among the Arminians. I don’t have time to get into a lot of church history today, but with the internet, the history of the differences between Calvinists and Arminians is easy to find.

You may recall from last week’s sermon that Paul has been talking about the twins Jacob and Esau. Both were in the direct lineage of Abraham, but only one, Jacob, was a part of the promise intended to bless the whole world. If you look at the story in Genesis, you can see that even before they were born, God had a preference for Jacob and what sounds like an intense dislike of Esau.

In today’s text, Paul gives another example, this one found in Exodus. There you will find the story of Moses confronting the leader of Egypt, the Pharaoh. And in that story, you’ll notice a puzzling pattern.

Sometimes Pharaoh heard Moses’ warnings and “hardened his heart” against God’s plan on his own. Other times, God directly hardened Pharaoh’s heart, in order that the mighty story of the plagues and the escape by the Israelites from Egypt could play out in full and to the glory of God. When you read the story closely, Pharaoh looks like a chess pawn, something to be used and discarded according to God’s purposes.

Paul also resorts to an analogy, one common to Jewish tradition. God is like a potter, Paul says. He makes his individual creations however he wants, and he uses his creations however he wants. One pot may be for art, and the other may be fashioned as a garbage container.

As we noted last week, from a human perspective, God’s preference for one person over another or one group of people over another can seem unfair. Paul’s answer to this protest is pretty straightforward—in fact, his answer is the main point of this text.

God is sovereign. As Creator, God has a kingship no human could ever match. Being all-powerful, God can do anything he wants. Being all-knowing, God can see his creation from the beginning to the end of time, and on into eternity.

The message is designed to humble us, particularly those of us who have an inflated sense of self-importance. Who are we, compared to God? If we truly understand who God is, we sin when we look at God and say, “Unfair!”

Instead, we should be driven toward an attitude of submission, to a desire to simply serve God in whatever way we were made to serve. I’m reminded of John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

We essentially are praying, “I submit to being whatever kind of pottery you need me to be.” It is a sobering prayer. But let me take a few more minutes to remind myself, and you, why I am glad to be a Methodist. For we do take this message of God’s sovereignty and ultimately find great joy in it.

We do this by looking at Paul’s words in a much larger context. Yes, God seems to have a preference for one person over another or one group of people over another. At a minimum, he seems to have such preferences during critical moments in history, those times when he directly propels forward the Great Promise, the blessing designed for all families on earth.

We know, however, that God is a most merciful sovereign. In human kings, mercy has always been seen as a powerful virtue, although often a missing virtue. In God the King of Creation, mercy is perfect. The great merciful sovereign pours out grace on his subjects in ways no earthly king ever could.

The best example, of course, is the king coming among us as Jesus Christ, teaching us about the power of love and then, in an act of love, dying on the cross for our sins. Once again, we are reminded of that great verse from the Gospel of John. Here is John 3:16 in the New Living Translation:

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

If the Great Sovereign were not somehow giving us a choice, I don’t think these words in John would be possible. Also, I don’t think Paul would have written earlier and later in Romans of the need to spread the Good News about the cross. When I return from vacation in a couple of weeks, we’re going to hear a lot from Paul about the importance of spreading the Good News.

Why involve humans in sharing the message if choosing Christ is irrelevant? Why all the talk in the gospels, Romans and elsewhere about the importance of faith if the decision regarding who is saved is fixed from the start?

I will admit, I cannot fully explain how an all-knowing, all-powerful God who “elects” and “chooses” people throughout much of Scripture also gives us the freedom to say yes or no to him. I try not to resort to the word “mystery” too often, but it likely applies here. We are, after all, talking about how the mind of God works, and I do not see how a human mind, or even millions of human minds working together, can fully understand the mind of God.

I do know, however, that the mind of God is a loving mind, and that Christ’s death and resurrection express that love fully. We are blessed to have such a king.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What About the Jews?

Romans 9:1-13 (NLT)

With Christ as my witness, I speak with utter truthfulness. My conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm it. My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them. They are the people of Israel, chosen to be God’s adopted children. God revealed his glory to them. He made covenants with them and gave them his law. He gave them the privilege of worshiping him and receiving his wonderful promises. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are their ancestors, and Christ himself was an Israelite as far as his human nature is concerned. And he is God, the one who rules over everything and is worthy of eternal praise! Amen.

Well then, has God failed to fulfill his promise to Israel? No, for not all who are born into the nation of Israel are truly members of God’s people! Being descendants of Abraham doesn’t make them truly Abraham’s children. For the Scriptures say, “Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted,” though Abraham had other children, too. This means that Abraham’s physical descendants are not necessarily children of God. Only the children of the promise are considered to be Abraham’s children. For God had promised, “I will return about this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

This son was our ancestor Isaac. When he married Rebekah, she gave birth to twins. But before they were born, before they had done anything good or bad, she received a message from God. (This message shows that God chooses people according to his own purposes; he calls people, but not according to their good or bad works.) She was told, “Your older son will serve your younger son.” In the words of the Scriptures, “I loved Jacob, but I rejected Esau.”


No one likes to think about losing someone he or she loves. Paul is concerned about losing the vast majority of his people, the Jews, for all eternity.

It is a disturbing idea for any loving person even today, one that can still puzzle us if we have Jewish friends, or for that matter, friends of any faiths other than Christianity. What about the Jews, specifically those Jews who do not see Christ as the Messiah? What about the other people around us who have never accepted Christ or even flatly reject the idea of Jesus as savior?

Paul clearly is in pain as he raises the topic in his letter to the Romans. This is not some vague theological exercise for him. As he rhetorically explores the issue, he surely is thinking of specific people: family; mentors, perhaps like his respected teacher Gamaliel; sincere fellow students who had rigorously studied Judaism alongside him; the faithful Jewish vendor who sold him lunch in the marketplace.

We have to be careful not to read too much into his angst, however. While he is in pain for his people, the Jews, he does not speak as a man wrestling with a question. In that way, he is very different from some of us. Paul knows the answer because he has directly experienced the risen Christ. He understands and accepts the exclusive claims Christ made regarding his ministry and his sacrifice on the cross.

When we struggle with the question, “What about the others,” we actually are debating an idea that has been clearly defined for us in Scripture. A lot of us simply don’t like the answer. Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life; there is no other way for sinful beings to reconnect to a holy God except through Jesus. (I’m referencing the Gospel of John, chapter 14, verses 1 through 11, here.)

Sometimes, it doesn’t seem fair. Paul says as much in next week’s text, although he quickly discounts this notion of unfairness. In this week’s text, he notes the Jews were “adopted” by God as the People of Israel, using the same familial language we heard last week when we considered our own status as adopted children. He recounts the history of revealed glory and covenants entered, and the giving of the law. Worship has been happening among the Jews, and promises were made.

It just seems like they’ve been trying so hard! The same can be said for our religious non-Christian friends, and Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama, and all those other good people we have seen.

If you take Scripture seriously at all, though, some truths about the nature of Jesus are undeniable. Jesus came as the result of those promises to the Jews. He is the ultimate fulfillment of the promises, a fulfillment so great that from Jesus’ day on, we live in a time described to Abraham thousands of years ago.

Through Abraham’s Jewish descendants, God has blessed “all the families on earth” (Genesis 12:3). He has gone to great lengths to ensure any human being can be saved from sin simply by believing. If the Jews reject Jesus, they reject a promise first made to them. If others reject Jesus, they reject a promise extended to all of humanity.

Perhaps our problem with the exclusive claims of Christianity lies not in how God works, but in how we respond to God’s work. We sit back and say, “How can God be working this way,” and never for a moment consider what we are called to do in response to Christ’s sacrifice and the resultant gift being offered.

If you’re concerned about someone’s relationship with God, you are called to witness to the truth of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. To do so, you need to understand the message so well that you can relate it to nonbelievers in a winsome, non-threatening, non-judgmental way.

The non-judgmental part is very important, by the way. Only God can ultimately determine who is aligned with him and who is not. We are called to bear his loving invitation to others, not his judgment.

There is an art to such witnessing, and all of us as Christians need to develop this art form as best we can.

Someone among this congregation recently put it this way in reference to evangelism: How much do you have to hate a person to not tell that person about Jesus? Those of us who call ourselves Christians know the source of eternal life; we have found the path to God.

It is as if you are crawling through the scorching desert with others, dying of thirst, and you stumble across a cool, flowing spring rising up out of the sand.

How dare you not call out, “The water is here! It’s here!” You would have to really hate those other people to leave them to their deaths, crawling around in the sand.

If there seems to be a gap in God’s plan for salvation, it’s very possible our reluctance to share the Good News contributes greatly to the gap.

Paul concludes what we hear today by starting a deeper examination of why some seem to be favored by God while others are not. He reminds his audience of a very Jewish story, the story of the twins Jacob and Esau. Even before birth, one is clearly favored by God, while the other is not.

It will take us a few weeks to unpack the idea he is offering us here. Prepare to go deep.


The featured image is Giovanni Maria Bottala’s “Meeting between Esau & Jacob,” circa 1638.

 

Mind Wars

Romans 7:14-25 (NLT)

So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.


Most of us intuitively understand what Paul means when he writes, “I want to do what is is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.” We’ve been there. We’ve done that.

His statement is, of course, in the context of his long conversation in Romans about the law, how it was given to us so we could better understand right and wrong. It also is rooted in a related thought he has been repeating, that we are too broken by our sinfulness to live holy lives by our own effort.

Paul also is moving us toward a deeper understanding of the spiritual world around us and how it influences us. For modern Christians, this concept may elude us a little. Some other Bible stories may help. Be sure to click the links to read the stories.

Daniel’s Tardy Angel

Daniel was praying to understand why his people remained in captivity. After three weeks of prayer and fasting, he received a vision and heard directly from an angel.

I’m not focusing on the vision, which had to do with revelations about the end times. Instead, I want to focus on the angel’s reason for taking three weeks to deliver the answer to Daniel’s prayers. He was delayed by an evil force, and ultimately the archangel Michael, known for his prowess in battle, had to arrive on the scene to make delivery of the message possible.

In this story, we receive a rare glimpse of what is usually unseen, the struggle between the forces of good and evil on a spiritual plane. And yes, what happens there affects world events.

The Sorcerer’s Folly

This story in Acts reminds us of how humans and evil spirits can combine forces to contend for the allegiance of one person, particularly if that person may have some worldly influence. The sorcerer’s motive is made clear in the text: He wanted to keep the governor from believing. The governor is described as an intelligent man, so we can presume this sorcerer kept his victim spellbound with an impressive bag of tricks, gifts from the evil spirits who worked within and alongside the sorcerer.

Paul dealt with the situation head on, trusting in the Holy Spirit to take the lead. He declared precisely for whom the sorcerer worked. The Holy Spirit won out, and the governor became a true believer.

Porcine Possession

Modern people often want to re-orient biblical stories about the spiritual world toward a more modern understanding of events, chalking up behaviors seen in the Bible to epilepsy or mental illness.

Yes, epilepsy and mental illness are very real conditions that can occur in our broken bodies. But at the same time, there are stories in the Bible that show us the negative direct effects spiritual powers can have upon us.

The demons in this story know Jesus’ full identity more clearly than any of the disciples would have known at this time. And yet the demons are pulling hard in the other direction, wreaking havoc in the lives of these two men in need of healing.

Modern minds also should note that mental illness is not directly transferable to pigs. This story is rooted in the spiritual world, not a medical journal.

The Victorious Life

Spiritual evil is real. It has a powerful influence on our lives, and the battle for our minds is real and should not be ignored. For a Christian seeking truth in Scripture, these are undeniable biblical principles.

Paul initially joins us in a universal lament, acknowledging the despair we can feel. “Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death!”

But remember the core message of Romans: We are freed from the trap. Christ’s death on the cross and ensuing resurrection represent a victory over sin and death we could not win. Through belief, we gain a new power.

Often as Christians, we focus on the moment of belief, the day and time we were saved. As we proceed in Romans, however, Paul is going to tell us more about how we tap into and use the power we are graciously given by our loving God. We are going to learn from Paul how to grow in strength as we contend with evil every day.

We are about to learn how to live life in the Spirit.


The featured image is a detail of Michael the archangel, from a 1488 painting by Bartolomeo Vivarini.

The Pain of Knowing

Romans 7:7-13 (NLT)

Well then, am I suggesting that the law of God is sinful? Of course not! In fact, it was the law that showed me my sin. I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, “You must not covet.” But sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me! If there were no law, sin would not have that power. At one time I lived without understanding the law. But when I learned the command not to covet, for instance, the power of sin came to life, and I died. So I discovered that the law’s commands, which were supposed to bring life, brought spiritual death instead. Sin took advantage of those commands and deceived me; it used the commands to kill me. But still, the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good.

But how can that be? Did the law, which is good, cause my death? Of course not! Sin used what was good to bring about my condemnation to death. So we can see how terrible sin really is. It uses God’s good commands for its own evil purposes.


 

We’ve been hearing a lot about the law, specifically God’s law given to the Jews, the last couple of weeks. Paul doesn’t always seem to be talking about the law in a positive way. But let’s go ahead and get on the same page with him: The law is holy, a representation of God’s will.

The problem is not the law. The problem, Paul is saying, is us. Sin, which seems to have the characteristics of a person in Paul’s writings, is clever and always finds a way to trick us. From the time we are born, and certainly from the time we first commit sins, we simply are too broken, too weak, for Satan and his minions not to find a way in.

The law’s primary role is to educate. Without God’s teachings handed down through history, we would have trouble distinguishing what is sinful from what is good, sort of the way we had trouble telling a noun from a pronoun until a good elementary school teacher explained the difference.

Paul also reminds us of a simple theological fact. Sin, Satan, demons and anything else we associate with deep, pure evil cannot create. Only God can create; even the most evil spiritual beings were created by God, becoming evil only because they were given free will and chose to turn against what made them.

Some of you have read C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters.” It is a collection of correspondence—fictional, of course—from a senior demon, Screwtape, to a junior demon, Wormwood, regarding how to ensure a human soul ends up in Hell. Here, Screwtape speaks disparagingly of God as Creator, as you would expect a demon to do.

“He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without his minding in the least—sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side.”

In other words, God offers us the good life. Yes, the law is often couched in what we think of as “shalt nots,” but let’s consider the positives in drawing bright line boundaries around certain behaviors. We can do this by looking at the core of the Mosaic law, the Ten Commandments. Let’s hear them King James style:

  1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. But of course, what this implies is we are invited to a special relationship with the only God who matters.
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Look at it this way: There is something more than the stuff around us. There is a great being to worship, a being so great that he cannot be reduced to any object in the universe!
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. Using the name of a god amounted to magic tricks; somehow, the god had to be manipulated for people to receive goodness from the god. But not Yahweh, not our God—he pours out love and grace, no magic tricks required.
  4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Our God seeks rest for us and relationship with us.
  5. Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. Our God also wants us to maintain what should be, in a properly behaving family, our closest relationships, just as we maintain our relationship with God.
  6. Thou shalt not kill. Under God, we are invited to live in a society where we are not in danger of losing the greatest possession we have in this world, our lives.
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Through marriage, a man and a woman are invited to a unique relationship, one built on a lifetime of trust. In many ways, we are invited to reflect in our marriages the relationship between God and humanity.
  8. Thou shalt not steal. Again, this is about the abundant godly society to which we are invited. We should never fear not having enough because someone has taken what is rightfully ours.
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. In this godly society, truth should win out whenever justice is at stake.
  10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s. In giving up a desire for what other people have, we are invited to live lives of contentment, knowing the God whom we worship will provide for all our needs.

In a sense, the Ten Commandments were designed to do what the single commandment of Eden did. There, the One Commandment was, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it.” We are being taught by the Creator that with proper boundaries, Paradise is available.

But still, there’s that disconnect, our inability to live up to, or maybe we should say, live into the law God has offered us. What do we do?

Well, in this Easter season, we’re back to our core gospel message, a message Paul has already taken us through early in Romans. God saw that while the law educates us, it could not save us. We could not simply follow it and somehow become holy.

So God sent his son. We call him Jesus. The Son also educated us, helping us to better understand the deeper aspects of God’s will.

And then, he committed the great act of submission, allowing his perfect, holy self to be crucified in our place. His death freed us from the grip of sin and Satan. The resurrection proves the victory.

Believe, and know that in believing, we now have power to grow and become the kind of people we were made to be, holy and living out God’s will in ways we never imagined possible under a system of laws.

Choose Your Master

Romans 6:15-23 (NLT)

Well then, since God’s grace has set us free from the law, does that mean we can go on sinning? Of course not! Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living. Thank God! Once you were slaves of sin, but now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you. Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living.

Because of the weakness of your human nature, I am using the illustration of slavery to help you understand all this. Previously, you let yourselves be slaves to impurity and lawlessness, which led ever deeper into sin. Now you must give yourselves to be slaves to righteous living so that you will become holy.

When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the obligation to do right. And what was the result? You are now ashamed of the things you used to do, things that end in eternal doom. But now you are free from the power of sin and have become slaves of God. Now you do those things that lead to holiness and result in eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.


Let’s start by looking at another important piece of Scripture in Acts 2:41-42, a picture of the church in its earliest days.

On Pentecost, after Jesus had ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit had fallen on Christ’s followers, Peter preached to curious people gathered in the streets. It was a most effective sermon.

“Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all,” the author of Acts tells us. “All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.”

Certainly, the grace of God was at work. People don’t come to a belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior unless God is at work. But in response, the believers did something, too.

They “devoted themselves.” They devoted themselves to study. The apostles would have used the Jewish Scriptures, what we now call the Old Testament, to help everyone understand who Jesus is in the context of Judaism.

They also devoted themselves to deep, deep fellowship. The church, the body of people who believed, became the center of most members’ lives. And they prayed, fervently.

Let’s name the key action again: They devoted themselves. To borrow from the imagery of a theologian named Helmut Thielicke, the believers opened their mouths so they could drink from the river of sanctifying grace. They were changed in the moment of salvation, and the change became an ongoing process that, with a little effort on their part, would continue for the rest of their lives.

Such effort is what Paul is describing in Romans. Paul uses a metaphor that can seem offensive today. If it makes you feel any better, it was offensive then—he practically apologizes for using it, saying the metaphor is necessary in order to penetrate weak, worldly minds.

If you’re going to be a Christian, you need to start thinking of yourself as an obedient slave, he says. Escaping the slavery of sin, you now must deliberately enslave yourselves to Christ.

Paul’s audiences, including us, find this offensive because of a delusion we like to maintain, the notion that we live our lives beholden to no one. We are, to use a very American word, independent people.

Yeah. Right. I remember thinking when I was a child, “I cannot wait until I grow up, because then no one will be able to tell me what to do.”

I grew up, and did I ever get a surprise. I had to get a job; with that job came a boss. I did what she told me to do, and I did what a series of bosses afterward told me to do. Even when I was a boss, I had a boss.

I continued my schooling in both college and seminary, and discovered those professors also had a lot of control over me. I appreciated the freedom of thought many of them gave me, but in the end, I did what they told me to do to earn those pieces of paper hanging on my wall.

Some of you here may be thinking, “Well, none of this applies to me now.” Maybe you’re retired or own your own business. “No one tells me what to do.”

Right. Call the IRS and inform them of your independence.

From a spiritual perspective, once we overcome the delusion of being beholden to no one, we should be delighted we can choose the perfect master. We have the opportunity to enslave ourselves to one who gives perfect, sacrificial love.

Our time as a slave to Christ is returned to us in immeasurably vast ways. We enslave our finite lives and receive eternal life.

Jesus said in Matthew 11:29-30: “Take my yoke upon you.” (When Jesus spoke, we were  metaphorically reduced to beasts of burden!) “Let me teach you because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find a rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

I don’t know about you, but I want a master who speaks such words, a master I can trust. To go back to last week’s imagery, I want to work in a safe field under a gentle master, with the assurance I have nothing to fear. When Satan was my master, fear ruled my day.

So, what does the new master call us to do? What are the tasks that “lead to holiness and result in eternal life?”

I hinted at them before as we looked at Acts. There is Scripture, where God reveals truth to us. There is fellowship, life in the church, where we find we are never alone. There is prayer.

Or, to boil it all down, there is a deep, loving relationship with the master and with each other.

Let me ask a question of those of you who are or have been married. If you spend just two minutes a day with your spouse, how will your marriage fare?

And yet, that’s how many of us approach our relationship with God, if we spend that much time. A quick devotional and we’re off to the daily races. We find time for other things—and there are so many other things—but God gets two minutes. Or less.

Saturday I saw some evidence of what it’s like to be in a community of people who take Scripture and prayer very seriously. Connie and I went to a gathering of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. It is a reform group within the United Methodist Church calling us as a denomination back to our roots as Jesus-centered, Holy Spirit-filled people rooted in Scripture.

I was sitting in a lecture on “The Call to Holiness” and the speaker referenced the image in the sixth chapter of Isaiah of the angels surrounding the throne of God, crying out to one another … .

Well, that’s when it became interesting. A large ballroom filled with people suddenly resounded with, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory!” The crowd had finished his sentence without missing a beat.

The speaker stopped in his tracks, his eyebrows raised in surprise.

Perhaps he was taken aback at being in a room full of Methodists who actually knew their Bible. Not only that, they knew their Bible well enough to speak in confidence and in unison.

Their knowledge also clearly enhanced their prayer lives. For you see, in their unified voices, they joined in a prayer of praise that we believe goes on for all eternity.

It was a Holy Spirit goosebumps sort of moment.

I want us as a little church in Ten Mile, Tennessee, to have such moments. I want us to all know the stories. I want our prayer lives to be rich.

Here’s what I will devote myself to today: I will do all I can to make such moments happen. It is my particular job as a particular slave to Christ to help us toward such moments.

I cannot do it alone, however. If you are willing to devote yourselves, come let me know, and we will find a way.