Jesus Christ is Lord

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.

 

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Letting Go of the Locust Years

If you’re going to hear from prophets past or present, there are three overarching messages they’ll use repeatedly. Understand these broad concepts, and you’ll understand how prophecy remains relevant and life-changing even today.

I’ll work from the book of Joel today, including our reading, Joel 2:23-32. It’s a concise little book of prophecy, just three chapters, and it illustrates these three messages well. I would encourage you to read the whole book start to finish to get a feel for it.

Message no. 1: Life actually is full of trouble.

Joel had a particular form of trouble that was the context for his prophecies. Locusts had overwhelmed the land of Judah, destroying everything in sight, and then a drought ensued. The livestock longed for food; we can assume people were starving to death. Joel prophesied during a particularly bad time, but it was the kind of bad time the world has seen repeatedly.

Trouble as an ongoing event is an underlying theme of the Bible. The Bible as a whole doesn’t pull any punches about that particular truth. If you know your Book of Genesis, you know the root of that trouble, sin. God made things right and holy, but he also gave his creation free will. When that free will was exercised wrongly, sin occurred.

It was like tapping a perfect porcelain vase with a hammer. Cracks ran everywhere, and the brokenness impacts every aspect of our lives.

Fortunately, the prophets never just leave us with our troubles.

Message no. 2: God gives us tremendous promises and signs assuring us of his love. Despite our unholiness, God relents in regard to the punishment we deserve.

Much of the Old Testament contains promises that God will provide us a way out of trouble. That promise largely has been fulfilled through Jesus Christ, whom Christians acknowledge as the promised Jewish Messiah. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, sin has been overcome, extending God’s grace to all the world. The resurrection of Christ is a sign this work has begun.

Pentecost, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the early church, is another sign of God at work in the world. Look at Peter’s Pentecost sermon. He spent a lot of time quoting Joel, placing Christ and the church in the context of Joel’s promises.

Message no. 3: Full, permanent restoration of creation is coming. God’s work will be complete; creation will be re-made as holy and unbroken.

It’s a fulfillment we await today. Faithful Christians know they move toward this time each day, regardless of what trouble we may face now.

As we hear from Joel or any other prophet, the question before us becomes simple: Where in the prophetic pattern are we going to live? Do we stay mired in misery, letting the locust years of our lives consume us? At a minimum, I would prefer to live in a state of expectant watchfulness, excited by glimpses of God at work now and trusting the signs that there is more to come.

Occasionally, we even run across people who seem to be able to live at least some of their lives as if the promises already have been kept in full. Call them what you want—kingdom people, the perfected ones, saints. I call them “forward thinkers.” At the end of his life, Paul was one of these people, facing trouble after trouble yet clinging joyously to what was already his, eternal life with God.

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,” a battered Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:7-8. “From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

I also feel I’ve known such people. In particular, I think of a woman prayer warrior I once knew who could take any situation and make you see it in the light of the resurrection and a fully restored relationship with God.

Spiritually, these forward-thinking people already are what we hope to be when Christ returns and completes his work in the resurrection of creation. I look at them and wonder what the world would be like if more of us were to bear such holiness now.

Wind in Our Sails: Our Witness

We’ve reached the last mast on our Lenten ship, the final part of our membership vows that allow us to catch the Holy Spirit and propel our church into the future. Today, we’re going to talk about our pledge to be a witness for Jesus Christ in the world.

This requirement for Christians is straightforward; the Bible records Jesus making clear his expectations on this matter in several places. Today I’m working from Acts 1:6-8, a record of the resurrected Jesus’ words just before he ascends into heaven.

Jesus was speaking to his followers standing before him, of course, but he also was speaking to those of us who follow him centuries later. Those in his presence would tell his story in Jerusalem, all Judea, Samaria and even more distant points. But for the word of Christ to spread to “the ends of the earth,” every generation of Christians must be involved.

While the requirement is straightforward, many Christians behave as if the act of witnessing is too complicated or involves words and phrases that are somehow embarrassing to utter. I have just one goal today. I want to give you a simple strategy for explaining Jesus to someone who has not accepted Jesus as Savior.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier sermons and teachings, it helps if you have a relationship with the person already. Step 1: Be friendly. For a Christian filled with God’s love, this should not be too difficult.

If your new friend doesn’t know Christ, opportunities to be a witness will abound. Trust me. I’m continually amazed at how those who don’t yet know Christ will steer the conversation toward the nature of my faith without my prompting. And yes, this used to happen before I was a pastor.

To give that conversation some structure, learn this simple sentence: “Jesus Christ is Lord.” One of my seminary professors used to say that this four-word sentence is the core of Christianity. It was perhaps the earliest creed of the church.

Let’s break the sentence down.

Jesus is a historical character, one of the best attested historical characters of his era, with four accounts of his ministry in the gospels and numerous mentions of his life and work in letters from his followers. There also is evidence of his existence outside the Bible.

As he was very real in human terms, I like to imagine what he looked like. We don’t have a lot to help us describe Jesus’ appearance; writers in the New Testament era simply didn’t provide information about a person’s physical characteristics like we see in modern writing.

He was Jewish; it’s not hard to think of him with black curly hair and a beard. Tall or short, Jesus also likely had a powerful physique. We translate his occupation as “carpenter,” but the Greek word teknon really has a more generalized meaning like “construction worker.” Jesus worked hard in a pre-power tool era, and by the time he was in his thirties he surely had the muscles to go along with the work. I also have trouble imagining a frail Jesus clearing the temple with a whip of cords.

I point this out to emphasize his humanity, and to counter an image of Jesus that troubles some men and makes church unattractive to them. Artwork, movies and the way we speak of Jesus or read his words sometimes make Jesus look frail or effeminate, a wispy, doe-eyed figure exuding a weak, false image of spirituality. When that happens, we lose Jesus as a strong male role model.

And yet, this man’s man preached love and forgiveness. Like God, in strength and power there is peace.

We take the man to a new level when we call him Christ, another word for Messiah. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Jews’ hopes, and of our hopes.

In God’s covenant with Abraham, the man who would father the Jewish people, there were three basic promises: that the Israelites would be a great nation, with land; that his descendants would be numerous; and that blessings would abound, including a blessing for all the families of the earth.

When we call Jesus “Christ,” we place him in that stream of history recorded in the Old Testament. He is that blessing for all the families of the earth.

The tiny word “is” holds a place of great importance in this sentence because of its present tense. Jesus is not a history lesson. He is for today, ruling in heaven as part of the Trinity. He also continues to work among us by sending us the Holy Spirit, the same aspect of God empowering Jesus’ ministry.

When we speak of Jesus in the present tense, we affirm that his sacrifice on the cross was effective and that the resurrection happened. Jesus died, but now he lives.

The last word, “Lord,” declares that Jesus is over and above all things. As Christians, we test all of our other interests and loyalties by whether they supersede our allegiance to Christ as Savior.

If they do, they have to go. Calling Jesus “Lord” is what got the early Christians in trouble. They were using a title that was supposed to be reserved for the Roman emperor.

That’s the core understanding of Christianity; we pray that those who hear our witness will accept that Jesus Christ is Lord.

We also need to be conscious that when we take people to that point of understanding, they still need our help. They now have a new belief system, but as they explore it, they will find significant parts of their lives are in conflict with Jesus’ teachings.

James wrote of the danger of being double-minded. Psychologists talk of cognitive dissonance, the pain experienced when we try to hold conflicting ideas in our heads. While we’re saved at the moment we believe, a conversion is not truly complete until that double-mindedness is resolved.

Such resolution is worth pursuing. It is the moment we achieve our greatest joy and peace.

That truth reminds me of one of the best reasons for witnessing. Telling people of Christ ultimately is an act of love, a gift from God that we’re allowed to deliver.