Salvation

The Grafting Plan

Romans, Chapter 11

As we’ve moved through Romans the last few weeks, I’ve already made the point a couple of times that Paul is writing with a particular question in mind. Why are so many Jews not accepting Jesus as Messiah, while at the same time people from other cultures and belief systems are turning to him in great numbers?

In that context, we have learned much about what Paul has to say regarding the core beliefs of Christianity, and how important it is for us to spread the Good News to nonbelievers. We’re looking at an unusually large chunk of Romans today, all of chapter 11, in part because Paul does some reviewing of what he has said.

As he returns to the matter of the Jews and their relationship to Jesus, he lays out what he sees as God’s plan from the birth of the Christian church to what we sometimes call “the end of time.” If you’ve ever asked the question, “How do we know the end is near,” Paul’s words will certainly contribute to the answer.

As he explains this four-part plan, Paul uses the image of an olive tree, an Old Testament symbol of Israel. This tree is pruned over time and even has new branches grafted into it.

If we’re not familiar with olive trees or grafting, we may have a little trouble imagining what he’s talking about. For those uninitiated to gardening, the best example might be one of those little grafted cactuses you can find in stores, where the colorful top of one plant has been attached to the green base of another, two plants sharing one root and vascular system.

Part 1 of God’s Plan

These were the earliest days of Christianity, just after Jesus’ ascension into heaven and the arrival of the Holy Spirit upon what was, at the time, a very Jewish community. In fact, the vast majority of these early Christians simply thought of themselves as Jews who had seen or experienced the work of their expected Messiah.

They followed Jewish practices, going to the temple or synagogue for worship but also rejoicing in Jesus’ resurrection with other Christians.

It proved to be a relatively short stage, though. Alarmed, the leaders of Judaism quickly began to push back and distinguish between traditional Jews and followers of Christ. Paul saw the Jews who rejected Jesus as Messiah as branches broken off the olive tree for their lack of fruitfulness, or belief.

Part 2: The Wild Tree Grafted In

This was the era Paul found himself in as he wrote Romans around the year 57. Gentiles were becoming the dominant force in Christianity. Paul thought of Gentiles as a “wild olive tree” grafted into the old root system, dependent on what had come before.

In Romans, he has a particular message for this group, and for all Christians who are not of Jewish descent in any era. In short, he’s telling us not to get cocky. Just like the unfruitful branches in the early days of Christianity, the grafted branches can also be cut away if they fail to exhibit belief.

This is such an overt warning, I am left wondering how some Christians manage to maintain the idea of “eternal security” or “perseverance of the saints,” the notion that once a person is truly saved, she or he cannot fall away from salvation. Clearly, Paul speaks to people he thinks of as “grafted in” believers, but he tells them, “If you stop trusting, you also will be cut off.”

In interpreting Paul’s account of God’s plan, the hard part is figuring out what part we are in today. I would like to think we are in Part 2 of the plan but hovering somewhere near Part 3.

Part 3: The Return

Paul asserts something very important: God never breaks his promises. The Jews are his people, and they will make up a significant number of those who find eternal life with God. In fact, their turning back to God through Jesus will mark nearness to the end of time, or the beginning of eternity in the undeniable presence of God, depending on how you look at it.

This assertion made me wonder whether there is any evidence of Part 3 happening now. There are days I love the internet.

I went to the website of Jews for Jesus to do a little research, and I actually got personal, online help. A chat box popped up, and a friendly volunteer named Jeanne began to answer my questions for me.

As you might imagine, it is hard to estimate how many Jewish Christians there might be. She said different studies show there are anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 Jews who call Jesus Christ Lord and Savior. The most generous estimates from census data say there are about 15 million Jews on the planet right now, although some estimates are much lower.

“What is clear is that Jews are coming to Jesus at an unprecedented rate!” Jeanne told me. The original branches are being grafted back into the ancient olive tree.

Complicating potential Jewish conversions is the atrocious record self-described Christians have had historically in their relationship with Jews. Too often, kings, popes, bishops and even leaders of reformation movements have seen Jews as a group to be converted at swordpoint or gunpoint, or as opponents of God who could be killed with impunity.*

Such atrocities demonstrated deep ignorance of Jesus’ teachings and of what Paul, a Jew himself, is saying in Romans: “They are still the people [God] loves because he chose their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For God’s gifts and his call can never be withdrawn.”

Part 4: Glory!

This is what we live for. This is what gives us hope. We reach the point where God considers the community of Jewish and Gentile believers complete, and the promised resurrection of the dead occurs.

We celebrate as children of God together for all eternity! What a glorious plan it is.


*To read more about why Jews are resistant to the Christian message, I would recommend a paper by David Brickner.

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The Struggle to Believe

Romans 10:1-13 (NLT)

Dear brothers and sisters, the longing of my heart and my prayer to God is for the people of Israel to be saved. I know what enthusiasm they have for God, but it is misdirected zeal. For they don’t understand God’s way of making people right with himself. Refusing to accept God’s way, they cling to their own way of getting right with God by trying to keep the law. For Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the law was given. As a result, all who believe in him are made right with God.

For Moses writes that the law’s way of making a person right with God requires obedience to all of its commands. But faith’s way of getting right with God says, “Don’t say in your heart, ‘Who will go up to heaven?’ (to bring Christ down to earth). And don’t say, ‘Who will go down to the place of the dead?’ (to bring Christ back to life again).” In fact, it says,

“The message is very close at hand;
   it is on your lips and in your heart.”


And that message is the very message about faith that we preach: If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. As the Scriptures tell us, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced.” Jew and Gentile are the same in this respect. They have the same Lord, who gives generously to all who call on him. For “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”


Paul’s heartfelt desire in this portion of Romans continues to be for all Jews to know what he knows—Jesus is the Christ, the promised savior, the one who will bless all the world.

While he has brought up the subject before in Romans, Paul describes in a new way the Jews’ struggle to believe, saying they have “misdirected zeal.” In the case of the Jews, this means they have become so enamored with the Mosaic law that they cannot see the bigger picture of what God has accomplished through that law. They “cling to their own way,” and miss the incredible gift God has given all the world.

As a pastor, I have seen the same struggle in other kinds of nonbelievers. They know little or nothing about the law given to the Jews, but they have their own kind of “misdirected zeal,” chasing righteousness with God or some sort of higher power  in completely wrong ways.

In many ways, this struggle to believe is a struggle to understand the incredible simplicity of what God has done in the world through Jesus Christ. People have trouble with the idea that heartfelt belief is enough for salvation. So long as that belief makes you able to say “Jesus Christ is Lord” and declare the resurrection real, you are made right with God despite your sin.

Surely, there must be more to do, the zealous strivers think. Surely, it’s not so easy that anyone can find salvation. Surely, some good works on our part must balance out the evil that we have done; surely, there is a price we must pay.

Nope. There was a price for our sins, a terrible price, but Jesus picked up the tab by going to the cross. Any good works we do are simply a joyous response to the truth that we are already saved simply because we have believed.

Simplicity can be perplexing, I suppose. God’s work is so simple that it astonishes the angels. If we read our Bible carefully, it would seem they are puzzled about what God is doing for his little humans.

I’m thinking particularly of 1 Peter 1, where Jesus’ most impulsive apostle sounds much like our Romans text today. Like Paul, Peter rejoices in how we are saved by faith in Christ raised from the dead.

In verse 12, he says, “It is all so wonderful that even the angels are eagerly watching these things happen.” The original Greek creates a picture of what is heavenly peeking in amazement into God’s work on earth. With this sermon today, I included the image of Jocopo Tintoretto’s 16th-century “Last Supper,” as it includes angels hovering in the smoke, watching Jesus prepare his disciples for his trip to the cross.

In theory, those of us who call ourselves Christians have grasped salvation’s simplicity, even if the angels have not. But I think we have to acknowledge that we also demonstrate some of that misdirected zeal first attributed to the Jews. Our problem is more rooted in forgetting why we exist as a church.

All churches, and consequently, all church members, have a scripturally defined vision and mission, both aligned with what Paul calls “the very message about faith that we preach,” this simple good news about Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

At Luminary, we state the vision and mission in our communications. For example, look at the cover of our bulletins or the front page of our web site. Our vision is “a world conformed to Jesus Christ,” and our consequent mission is “to draw people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.” Our daily job as a church is to figure out how to localize the mission and then live into it.

This next part is hard for me to say, but I think it’s true. Even with our vision and mission before us, we too often go off on tangents, sometimes quite zealously. As a church, we have to be careful not to lose our way.

One example: We love to gather, particularly on Sundays and Wednesdays, but to what end? Fellowship is good, but ideally our fellowship should draw us and those currently outside our church circle into a deeper relationship with Christ. Are we structuring our gatherings in the fellowship hall, the Sunday school room or the small group gathering to such an end?

Another example: We love music at our particular church. We often revel in it, and there is a real effort there to glorify God as we worship. But again, we have to be sure we are always asking ourselves, “Are we using our love for music to draw others into a relationship with Christ?” And even if we are, how can we do it better?

There are a couple of tests we can apply to any of these environments, or to the church as a whole. The first one is simple: Are we working alongside the Holy Spirit to make new Christians? We did have an adult baptism and a reaffirmation of faith last week, examples of two people publicly engaging with Christ’s kingdom in new ways.

So, the answer is yes, occasionally. We’re not really changing lives enough to qualify us as some sort of dynamic force for the kingdom, however.

The second one is a little harder to quantify. Individually, are we growing in our depth of understanding and our commitment to the kingdom? I try to make an overall assessment as a pastor, but the answer for each of you individually lies in your own hearts. Are you closer to God each year, or are you casually chugging through life with God in the background somewhere?

I’ll simplify all of this with an old cliché: We too often fail to keep our eyes on the prize. We forget that we live to see evil destroyed and creation fully aligned with God. We live to see progress made toward those ends in our community now.

We forget that we have eternity ahead of us, and we let the concerns of this brief worldly existence pull us off a very clear, very simple mission.

We have to remember that when we operate with misdirected zeal, we are chasing something of far less value than what Christ is offering the world, and we are failing to live into what we are called to be as Christians.

Maybe our zeal is for a good feeling about good works. Maybe we chase a kind of status or respect we’ve failed to find elsewhere. Maybe we desire human relationships to the exclusion of a relationship with our creator, redeemer and sustainer.

Maybe we become so used to operating like a club that we forget what it means to function as an active, living part of God’s universal church.

Next week, we’ll dive into what Paul has to say about really preaching this simple good news about Jesus Christ as our risen Lord and Savior. In the meantime, I hope you’ll do what I’ve been trying to do the past several weeks.

Spend some time assessing how deeply you’ve let Christ in and how committed you are to letting him use you for his kingdom. What we determine in that assessment will help us as we move further into Romans.

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.

At Just the Right Time

Romans 5:1-11 (NLT)

Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.


We are making a major shift in Romans as we reach the fifth chapter. By this point, Paul feels he has clearly established that faith in Christ’s work on the cross is all we need for salvation. Believe, and we are made right with God.

Paul now wants to explore the benefits of faith. We will hear some of these interrelated concepts come up again over the next few weeks. He mentions:

Peace. Paul’s notion of peace is what I would call beautifully complicated. At times, Paul uses “peace” as if he means the cessation of hostilities. In other words, we have been at war with God because of our sinful natures, but through faith in Christ’s work, hostilities end. “Peace” also represents what we receive from this reconciliation: a constant sense of well-being, an understanding there is nothing to fear.

Joy and Rejoicing. We are so assured by the Holy Spirit of the truth about our salvation that our basic way of experiencing life is changed. We are lifted up in a way that is hard to describe until it has been experienced.

Endurance and hope. Yes, suffering continues to be a part of our lives, but we are changed so we can endure what others might find unbearable. We talked about this some last week as I asked you to think about the future.

Paul pulls no punches. Life can be hard, and we should expect difficulties to arise. But filled with the assurance the Holy Spirit has given us, we know what lies ahead, and we can plow through life without losing our ability to rejoice.

Our Focus: God’s Timing is Perfect

Palm Sunday is a special day in the life of the church, and I want to focus on a timely thought in our passage. “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time for us sinners.” Today we celebrate the image of Christ coming for us, riding into Jerusalem to save us in a most unexpected way.

We hear the story of this timely arrival told in slightly different ways in all four gospels, in Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-40, and John 12:12-19. In short, Jesus rides a donkey into the city as a prophetic act, and the Jews who have packed the city for the Passover cheer him like a king as he enters. “Hosanna!” they cry in a cheer of praise.

They didn’t really understand what they were seeing. They were in the right place at the right time, but they cheered for shortsighted reasons. Most of them assumed Jesus had the potential to overthrow the political system and establish himself as an independent Jewish king, restoring the Jewish people to their former glory.

In less than a week, many of these same people would take up the cry, “Crucify him!” They would see Jesus as a failure, another rebellious wanna-be king crushed by the people in power. As big as their dreams had been, they could not see the incredibly big picture of what Jesus, truly the Christ, their promised Messiah, was doing.

When we read the story of the “Triumphal Entry,” it looks like a joyous scene, but it is actually a sad scene to contemplate. Of all the people who had ever lived and will ever live, the people gathered in Jerusalem were the privileged few allowed to be present at the pivot point of history. Remember the promise made to Abraham thousands of years earlier—these Jews were to result in a blessing that would impact every family on the earth.

Jesus was on his way to make that blessing possible. All of us who have walked through Holy Week with Jesus in past years know what is coming. Jesus offers some of his most intense and disturbing teachings to his followers, to the point where most abandon him.

His conflict with the Jewish leaders grows and grows until they determine they must get rid of him. And, working with the Roman Empire, they do—but not for long.

We will talk more about the “not for long” next week, of course, on Easter Sunday. Let’s stay focused right now on the work Jesus arrives to do in Jerusalem.

Paul is telling us that Jesus’ life and ministry, in particular the moment Jesus died on the cross to make it all effective, happened “at just the right time.” As time has passed, Paul’s meaning has become more and more self-evident.

Think about the time and place Jesus was crucified. What’s miraculous is that we ever heard about it at all. From a human perspective, if you wanted to plan a martyrdom to change the world, the last place you would start would be through the crucifixion of a backwater rabble-rouser who had lost most of his following, to the point that only a tiny remnant showed up at his execution.

From God’s perspective, though, this was the golden moment for the divine sacrifice to atone for all sin. Over nearly two millennia, it has proven to be golden. What an astonishing thing to consider; by our time in history, we can see how word of this obscure crucifixion and what follows has spread globally, touching nearly every culture on the planet!

Yes, God controls the big picture in ways we cannot see. And here’s some more good news: We’re part of that picture. And as tiny a part of it as we are, God’s perfect timing also is at work in our lives.

God’s grace—that is, the unmerited, unearned love he pours out on us—doesn’t always make itself evident when we think it should, but it certainly is poured out when it can be most effective.

At just the right time, we feel that gentle tug inviting us to turn toward him.

At just the right time, we are given the opportunity to understand salvation is being offered to us through the simple act of belief. And guess what: If we don’t respond right away, at just the right time we will get another opportunity, and another. God wants us to come back to him.

At just the right time, the grace we need to grow as his followers will flow to us. We will find ourselves open, vulnerable, and God will not miss that opportunity to pull us further from sin and closer to him.

At just the right time, when we think we cannot bear pain or grief anymore, God will be there, and we through his presence during our suffering will develop a deeper understanding of just how much God cares. Our endurance will grow, our character will grow, and we will be filled with a new hope.

At just the right time, we will see God with restored eyes, praise him with perfect voices, hear the angels singing with incredible clarity, and know that everything has been made righteous and holy. Certainly, we will see this in some way at our deaths. Perhaps some of us will see this in a resurrection that precedes our dying.

Either way, we are all subject to God’s timing, and we know we can trust him.


The featured image is “Christ Enters Jerusalem,” Wilhelm Morgner, 1912.

Crux of the Solution

Romans 3:21-31 (NLT)

But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.

Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law.

After all, is God the God of the Jews only? Isn’t he also the God of the Gentiles? Of course he is. There is only one God, and he makes people right with himself only by faith, whether they are Jews or Gentiles. Well then, if we emphasize faith, does this mean that we can forget about the law? Of course not! In fact, only when we have faith do we truly fulfill the law.


Yes, Paul emphasizes the fact we all have sinned. But what should be a sad or even terrifying message becomes instead Good News that brings great joy to all people, to borrow a phrase from the Gospel of Luke.

This is core gospel, folks. People sometimes ask, “Why doesn’t God just fix everything?” He did; he continues to do so. The work done on the cross fixes broken creation in ways we can barely begin to imagine.

There is one particular assertion in Paul’s words today I find astonishing. When I read them, I get the sense that the final work of the cross may permeate creation far more deeply than the human mind can grasp.

Jesus once said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough” (Matthew 13:33). But what if we were to discover the woman’s yeast also managed to permeate all the unleavened bread that had existed for thousands of years before she was born?

It’s a strange idea, I know, but not any stranger than Paul’s when he writes, “This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time.”

The translation we are using for this series brings the matter forward a little more plainly than others, but the assertion has always been there in Paul’s original Greek, which uses a long, complex sentence to express the thought. More traditional English translations talk about God’s “forbearance,” a word that can slip by us. The point is, the cross is effective for the cancellation of all sins in all times.

When I try to grasp the fullness of the cross, I think of a now-closed attraction in Atlanta called the Cyclorama. It featured a 42-foot-high, 358-foot-long 19th-century painting of the Battle of Atlanta on the inside of what was essentially a huge cylinder. Audiences viewed it from the inside, of course, and three-dimensional dioramas at the foot of the painting supplemented the image.

Imagine if all of history, every event from beginning to end, could be captured on such a painting. (The painting of the battle of Atlanta would be a mere thread in such a larger work.) Christ’s death on the cross would not be on the painting itself—it instead would be in the center of the room, the gracious light of the moment touching and changing everything on the canvas.

The Christ light touches Adam and Eve as they bite into the fruit and tremble with fear.

The Christ light touches Cain as he attacks and kills Abel.

The Christ light touches the wicked as they drown before the closed doors of Noah’s ark.

The Christ light touches the people of Israel as they dance before a golden calf of their own making, defying the God leading them toward holiness.

The Christ light touches the 10 spies who have seen the goodness of Canaan but place fear in the hearts of the Israelites, condemning a generation to desert wandering.

The Christ light touches Korah and his followers as the earth swallows them for rebelling against Moses.

The Christ light touches the leaders of the Kingdom of Israel as they turn from God repeatedly: as Saul resorts to witchcraft, as the priests extort the people, as David lusts for a woman not his, as Solomon’s many wives cause him to seek the favor of other gods.

The Christ light touches the prophet Jonah as he sits sulking.

The Christ light even manages to touch King Herod and the soldiers who execute babies in Bethlehem in an attempt to thwart the Messiah.

We receive a few hints in Scripture of how this Christ light might work backward through time. In 1 Peter 3:18-20, we hear that the gospel was preached to “the spirits in prison.” That and other obscure texts are the origin of the line in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended to the dead.” As Methodists, we often skip the line entirely, unless we are reciting it as part of the baptismal liturgy.

When we do say it, we are asserting that somehow during Jesus’ time in the grave the Spirit of Christ was able to witness to those who had died and awaited judgment.

All of that is tough to work out theologically and remains mysterious. Bible scholar Robert Mounce once called 1 Peter 3:18-20 a passage that is “perhaps the most difficult to understand in all of the New Testament.”

But here’s what we can take away from this complex assertion with great certainty. The power of the cross is infinitely pervasive, yet easily accessed by having faith in it.

Never think for a moment God cannot reach you. Never for an instant believe there is no hope for you.

The Christ light is perfectly capable of touching every corner of your soul, if only you will let it.  Many of us have some kind of ongoing sin we cannot shake, and it’s easy to think, “That shame will always be there.” It need not be. Let it go.

Many of us bear pain from sins committed against us. That pain can be so great it keeps us from knowing God in full. Our anger may even cause us to commit new sins as we cope in very wrong ways, hurting others in the process. This also need not be. Let the light of the cross heal that pain.

The Christ light shines into our future, too. It changes all of creation so much that we are told a day is coming when “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Such a vision of the future is truly panoramic.

God Is Faithful

Romans 3:1-8 (NLT)

Then what’s the advantage of being a Jew? Is there any value in the ceremony of circumcision? Yes, there are great benefits! First of all, the Jews were entrusted with the whole revelation of God.

True, some of them were unfaithful; but just because they were unfaithful, does that mean God will be unfaithful? Of course not! Even if everyone else is a liar, God is true. As the Scriptures say about him,

“You will be proved right in what you say,
   and you will win your case in court.”


“But,” some might say, “our sinfulness serves a good purpose, for it helps people see how righteous God is. Isn’t it unfair, then, for him to punish us?” (This is merely a human point of view.) Of course not! If God were not entirely fair, how would he be qualified to judge the world? “But,” someone might still argue, “how can God condemn me as a sinner if my dishonesty highlights his truthfulness and brings him more glory?” And some people even slander us by claiming that we say, “The more we sin, the better it is!” Those who say such things deserve to be condemned.


Paul continues to speak about the Jews. They are a special people, he tells us, chosen by God to be the revealers of his true nature. God has made many promises to them as a people, and those promises will be fulfilled.

For several centuries, people calling themselves Christians have conveniently forgotten this truth about the Jews’ special place in God’s great plan. These people have dared to go so far as to persecute and kill Jews. Their faulty logic and failure to heed Scripture don’t need rehashing here.

As Methodists, our biblically rooted first rule for living, “Do no harm,” should tell us all we need to know about persecution. We don’t persecute others, regardless of their beliefs. We don’t persecute Jews, we don’t persecute Muslims, we don’t persecute Hindus, we don’t persecute anyone. When in a part of the world blessed with freedom, we preach and teach biblical truths to anyone who will listen, but we live peaceably with others regardless of how they receive that preaching and teaching.

As Paul discusses the special role of the Jews, he also reveals something about God’s nature that’s worth focusing on today.

We of course know we are supposed to be faithful to God, to be true to God. But lo and behold, it’s a two-way street, one God drove down first! God remains faithful to the Jews, even though many have turned away from him. And in revealing himself in full through Jesus, who is Messiah first to the Jews and then to the world, God showed his faithfulness to all of humanity.

In fact, I think it’s safe to say that God’s faithfulness toward us is the driving force behind history. If God were not faithful toward his creation, there would be no history.

We have no reason to expect such positive treatment from our creator. There are a lot of indications in the Bible that God feels what we would call “pain” when humans sin.

Genesis 6:5-8, the beginning of the Great Flood story, is a good example:

The Lord observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. So the Lord was sorry he had ever made them and put them on the earth. It broke his heart. And the Lord said, “I will wipe this human race I have created from the face of the earth. Yes, and I will destroy every living thing—all the people, the large animals, the small animals that scurry along the ground, and even the birds of the sky. I am sorry I ever made them.” But Noah found favor with the Lord.

In the Great Flood story, death and chaos did follow. The surprising part is it was not complete. God left an escape clause for humanity, a way to continue. Noah found favor with the Lord.

It’s not that Noah was perfect or sinless. As best we can tell, he simply craved a relationship with God. He wanted to be right with God, to be aligned with God. And for God, that was enough to keep trying to heal that broken relationship with humanity, despite our sinful nature causing him pain.

Apparently, the merest turning of our eyes toward God is enough to warrant a response. God is holy; that is, his very being defines what is right and what is wrong, and he cannot tolerate sin forever. God also is love, however, and the loving nature of God makes him very patient. God chooses to keep loving us despite our sins.

This understanding of God’s ongoing faithfulness takes us to the core of Christianity, to that John 3:16 truth of what God is doing. God loves his creation so much that he took on flesh and lived among us. Being in pain already because of our sin, God went ahead and made his pain real in our world, dying on the cross for our sins.

He loves us so much he made reunion with him easy. Just believe in the work he has done.

A lot of people struggle with the idea of God being so faithful toward us that he actually pursues us. In fact, the ease with which salvation is received may be one of the biggest hurdles some people have to overcome to be able to believe in Jesus Christ as Savior.

A relationship with God is something to be earned, a lot of people think, particularly if they have striven for success in other areas. Don’t we first have to clean up our act?

No, we don’t. It’s that simple. God is so faithful in the promises he has made through time—to Adam and Eve, to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses and the Israelites, to the Israelites again through the prophets, and ultimately to all of us through Jesus Christ—that he is just waiting on us to let him fulfill them.

Do you want a relationship with God? Just say yes. There’s no asterisk here, no fine print on a back page of a contract. Just say yes.

We don’t want to stop there, of course. God has also promised restoration, a driving out and destruction of sin. We can be the people God intended us to be. Don’t forget to say “yes” to that offer, too.

Sometimes, this process of spiritual growth does take time. It’s hard to lay down old habits and walk away from the comfortable mud holes where we’ve learned to wallow. We have to say yes to God’s offer of restoration on a daily, or even hourly, basis.

The offers of salvation and restoration are always before us. Why? Because God is faithful first. Our faith in him by comparison is a tiny, almost token response, but it is enough to gain us the eternal life we are continually offered.