Roman Road Less Traveled: Chapter 9

After taking a few weeks off for Advent, we are back in our Romans’ series. As a brief recap, Romans is a letter Paul wrote to the church in Rome. It was not divided into chapters and verses–it is one entire letter, so the context of the entire letter is important. In the first eight chapters, Paul, a trained attorney, has made the case that every human being is messed up, we are all in this mess together, yet God loves all of us deeply and provided the way into relationship with him through Jesus. Our role in this is to believe God.

I read a tweet recently that stated “Salvation is not based on believing the right *things*, but what happens as we trust the right *person*. We’re saved by Jesus Christ, not by theology.” (Brian Zahnd) This is exactly what Paul is teaching the Roman church, and what leads to Paul’s anguish in Chapter 9.

Before I dive into Chapter 9, if you’ve spent much time in the New Testament, you know that Paul sometimes writes things that are hard to understand. Two things to remember: 1. Paul states over and over that the law brings death, Jesus brings life and we are radically loved by God. 2. Christianity is founded on Jesus, so when difficult to understand passages come through someone other than Jesus, or seem contradictory to the teachings of Jesus, we look to Jesus–the author and perfecter of our faith. (Heb. 12:2)

Let’s remind ourselves that chapter 8 begins with …there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, and ends with neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:1 & 8:38-39)

Chapter 9 begins with Paul expressing his anguish over the Israelite’s rejection of Jesus as their long awaited Messiah. Paul is Jewish and highly trained in Jewish law; however, Paul refers to his training as rubbish compared to knowing Christ. (Ph. 3:8).

Paul’s conversion to Christ was radical. He knows he met the real, living, loving, grace-filled God through Jesus Christ and his life is forever changed. He invites others to trust Jesus as well. Gentiles are believing in Jesus, yet Paul’s own people, those with whom he shares his ethnic identity and culture, are rejecting the grace of God through Jesus and choosing the heavy yoke of the law. It breaks Paul’s heart.

He writes: I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel… from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! (Rom. 9:2 & 5)

Paul knows Israel’s history. Paul knows the promise given to Abraham that all nations of the earth will be blessed through Abraham’s lineage. Paul knows Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise. Paul knows how to use his knowledge of scripture to prove that Jesus is the Messiah–and yet his people are rejecting that message. He is wrestling this through, expressing his frustration, and asking his “why” questions.

He finishes Chapter 9 with these words:

So then, what does all this mean? Here’s the irony: The non-Jewish people, who weren’t even pursuing righteousness, were the ones who seized it—a perfect righteousness that is transferred by faith. Yet Israel, even though pursuing a legal righteousness, did not attain to it. And why was that? Because they did not pursue the path of faith but insisted on pursuing righteousness by works, as if it could be seized another way. They were offended by the means of obtaining it and stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written:

“Be careful! I am setting in Zion a stone
    that will cause people to stumble,
    a rock of offense that will make them fall,
    but believers in him will not experience shame. (9:30-33 TPT)

It’s important to note that, despite his questions, Paul is not writing the Israelites off. He begins Chapter 10 by saying: …the passionate desire of my heart and constant prayer to God is for my fellow Israelites to experience salvation. (10: 2). Paul knows that God has not written the Israelites off–God doesn’t write any of us off, so Paul continues to reach out to them and pray for them.

Romans 9 is a passage that can be confusing, and has been used by some theologians to deem some people are “in” and some are “out”. You could certainly come to that conclusion if chapter 9 were a stand-alone chapter; however, taking the full context of Paul’s letter to Rome into account, we see that in this chapter, he is expressing his frustration over the fact that more Gentiles are coming to faith in Jesus than Jews, he’s frustrated that his own people are choosing tradition and law (their “works” theology) over Jesus. Why is he frustrated? Because he loves them.

Has God deemed them “out”? Let’s look to the ministry of Jesus. Jesus is Jewish. He went to synagogues, taught in synagogues, respected the Jewish faith and traditions, and re-interpreted the Jewish law. In Mark 10, Jesus had an encounter with a rich man. They discuss eternal life and the commandments. The man says to Jesus:

“Teacher, I have carefully obeyed these laws since my youth.” Jesus fixed his gaze upon the man, with tender love (Jesus looked at him and loved him, NIV), and said to him, “Yet there is still one thing in you lacking. Go, sell all that you have and give the money to the poor. Then all of your treasure will be in heaven. After you’ve done this, come back and walk with me.” Completely shocked by Jesus’ answer, he turned and walked away very sad, for he was extremely rich. (Mk. 10:20-22 TPT) Jesus loved him, and Jesus let him choose.

In another account, Jesus, right before he is arrested and crucified agonizes over Jerusalem. In Matthew 23, he warns that their rejection will lead to their destruction and says in verse 37: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem—you are the city that murders your prophets! You are the city that stones the very messengers who were sent to deliver you! So many times I have longed to gather a wayward people, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings—but you were too stubborn to let me(TPT) Jesus loved them, and Jesus let them choose.

Where am I going with all of this? Do I believe God is supreme.? Yes. Do I believe that God is sovereign and above all? Yes. Do I believe that God is love? Yes. Do I believe that God loved the world so much that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him will not perish? Yes. Do I believe that God demonstrated his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us? Yes. Do I believe that God sent his son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save the world through him? Yes. Do I believe that our salvation (our healing, our wholeness) comes from believing in and trusting Jesus? Yes. Do I believe that no one is beyond the reach of God’s love. Yes. Do I believe that we human beings choose all kinds of idols to worship above God? Yes.

The Israelites, who Paul (and Jesus) agonized over, were choosing to worship their tradition, their law, their theology, their own effort. The rich man was choosing to worship his wealth. Did God love them all? Yes. Does God love you? Yes. God is love.

Will we ever understand all there is to know about God? No. He is God. But what he has revealed to us over and over is he comes to us. He doesn’t force himself upon us, but He has already turned toward us.

Adam and Eve hid from God, he came to them.

Cain killed his brother. God came to him.

Hagar was desperate and destitute. God came to her and she (a non-Jew) was the first person to give God a name in scripture; El-roi. The God who sees.

The Israelite nation turned from God over and over and over–he sent prophets and priests, and when they turned back to him, he was right there.

Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus came to him.

Paul persecuted Christians. Jesus came to him.

This is not biblical theory to me—it’s my story. I was a self-destructive mess, God drew me back, and when I turned around, there he was.

God is love and is right here. God, in his sovereignty, gave us freedom of choice. God, in his sovereignty, allows us to bear the consequences of our choices. And God, in his sovereignty, never leaves us nor forsakes us. God is always right here, always loves us, and always has open arms waiting for our return.

Return to the Lord your God, For He is gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, abounding in love. (Joel 2:13)

Return to Me,” declares the Lord of hosts, “that I may return to you.” (Zech 1:3)

Return to your God, Observe kindness and justice, And wait for your God continually… (Hos. 12:6)

Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. (James 4:8)

I have longed to gather a wayward people, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings—but you were too stubborn to let me (Mt. 23:37)

I need to wrap this up, but I desperately want to communicate that God does not reject anyone. We push God away. Paul agonized over his people choosing tradition–their theology, their system–over Him. Are we choosing our systems over God? Are we too stubborn to let Jesus be our Lord? Are we agonizing over those who don’t know Jesus’ love? Let’s wrestle it through before our sovereign, supreme, loving, living God whose arms are open wide, ready to receive us and those whom we love.

–Luanne

I don’t know how else to write other than honestly. So I will tell you plainly that, this week, I am hesitant to even begin. By begin, I mean actually start to put my own words on this page… I have spent no less than six hours digging into Aramaic and Greek words, scouring the entire Bible for the words sovereignty (which appears twice, both in Daniel, from an Aramaic word meaning “kingdom,” neither in reference to God himself) and supremacy (which occurs one time in the Greek in Colossians, in Paul’s description of Jesus), and rereading several chapters in books written by theologians much smarter than I’ll ever be about these things. I’ve looked up English definitions to these challenging words. I’ve read a few sermons from well known pastors about the ultimate power, control, and will of God, attempting to reconcile modern Christianity’s obsession over the picture of a mighty, willful, authoritarian God with the picture of God I see in Jesus, the One who bore his image perfectly–and the pictures simply don’t match.

Before I say anything else, I want to be clear– I am wrestling this week, not with any one point or any one person’s interpretation, but with the scriptures themselves, which I believe we are both invited and encouraged to do. Wrestling with words we don’t understand, asking God our hard questions–as Paul does in chapter 9 of Romans, and throughout his writings–honors both the text and God, because it means that it matters to us to get it right. None of us are smart enough to ever get it all right, however, so our lives ought to be spent wrestling, asking, growing, learning–it is an ongoing journey. If we think we’ve gotten it, we will become stoic, unteachable, unwilling to listen–even to the revelation of the Spirit. I don’t ever want to get there, and I’m assuming you don’t either.

Luanne articulated many things beautifully. I’d like for us to look at some of them again before moving on. She reminded us that:

Paul states over and over that the law brings death, Jesus brings life and we are radically loved by God.

Christianity is founded on Jesus, so when difficult to understand passages come through someone other than Jesus, or seem contradictory to the teachings of Jesus, we look to Jesus–the author and perfecter of our faith. (Heb. 12:2)

there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. . . neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:1 & 8:38-39)

He [Paul] is wrestling this through, expressing his frustration, and asking his “why” questions.

Paul knows that God has not written the Israelites off–God doesn’t write any of us off, so Paul continues to reach out to them and pray for them.

Will we ever understand all there is to know about God? No. He is God. But what he has revealed to us over and over is he comes to us. He doesn’t force himself upon us, but He has already turned toward us.

God is always right here, always loves us, and always has open arms waiting for our return.

. . . God does not reject anyone. We push God away. Paul agonized over his people choosing tradition–their theology, their system–over Him.

Luanne reminded us of the scope of Paul’s letter and the rawness of his wrestling; his love for his people, and his belief that the God who will one day restore all that’s been broken really does desire that ALL people turn toward his love. I, too, believe that this is what Paul was getting at in this challenging portion of his letter. Unfortunately, as Luanne also mentioned, this portion of his letter to the Romans has been misrepresented and used by many in damaging ways. In fact, much of today’s exclusionary theology can be traced back to a few early theologians’ expositions on this particular text. I want to share with you what pastor and theologian Bradley Jersak, PhD wrote regarding this passage, because he articulates it in a way that makes sense to me:

“Some disciples. . . parade Paul’s reflections in Romans 9 as an example of God’s will-to-choose. They see Paul bombarding readers with a series of Old Testament passages to assert God’s freedom, and so he does. But these interpreters exploit the text to pose the utter willfulness of God to hate, exclude and condemn–the flip side of God’s grace. . . If read through the lens of absolute will, this passage seems to describe a God worse than retributive and vengeful, because those attributes are merely angry reactions to wicked people. But these paragraphs (Rom. 9:13-21) don’t say that. They go further. They actually suggest that God made some people wicked–created them to be damned goats–in the first place, because he willed it. And if he then punishes them for it, don’t cry foul! Who are you to judge God? This interpretation of Romans 9 hails God’s sovereign will in pre-choosing (electing) some to salvation and actually creating others for the sole purpose of damnation–why? To glorify himself as we cower in gratitude. . .

Do we really believe that is Paul’s intent in Romans 9? The reason he wrote the epistle? The point and flow of his argument? Ludicrous! That approach makes nonsense of Paul’s life mission and his purpose in writing Romans. Worse, it represents God as unjust, unholy and unloving. Because this text is so critical to one’s view of God’s love and will, and because it’s misread when isolated, let’s pause to see its piece in the bigger puzzle of Romans.

-Paul begins Romans with the content of his ministry: ‘the Gospel of God’ (1:1-4)

-He describes his call to bring the good news of God’s faithfulness to all nations (or Gentiles) (1:5)

-He proceeds to argue at length for the universality of the gospel’s availability and significance. He announces the inclusion of Greeks and barbarians, Gentiles and Jews (starting in 1:14-16), even those in Rome.

-Thus, the apostle’s theme is the universal availability of divine salvation to all: past, present, and future. Understanding the arc of Paul’s argument opens up what he’s doing in Romans 9-11 by addressing Israel.

-Throughout his letter, Paul quotes his opponents and their favorite exclusion texts, then turns those same texts against them (a method called ‘diatribe’). In Romans 9, Paul takes passages his adversaries have used to paint God as a willful hater, but he applies them to magnify God’s freedom-in-love to graciously extend salvation to the Gentiles.

-Then Paul answers another question: Does God’s faithfulness include Israel, even when they’ve rejected Christ? Yes, God is free-in-love to save them also!

-God’s redemptive plan–his freedom rooted in love–is irrevocable and his mercy will reach the Jews, just as it had also been reaching the Gentiles.

Given the context, we at least know this: Paul’s enemies never accused him of preaching a willful and exclusionary God. Their angst was always about his message being too gracious, too inclusive and too willing to save anyone. Their God–not Paul’s–was the ‘goat-hater’ of raw will.”

As Jersak asserts, it would be ludicrous for us to read Romans 9 and decide that Paul meant to paint us a picture of an unjust, unholy, and unloving God. We must remember that Paul was highly educated in the Hebrew scriptures, and he was a skilled lawyer–a master in the art of argument. He said of himself in his letter to the Philippians:

It’s true that I once relied on all that I had become. I had a reason to boast and impress people with my accomplishments—more than others—for my pedigree was impeccable. I was born a true Hebrew of the heritage of Israel as the son of a Jewish man from the tribe of Benjamin. I was circumcised eight days after my birth and was raised in the strict tradition of Orthodox Judaism, living a separated and devout life as a Pharisee. And concerning the righteousness of the Torah, no one surpassed me; I was without a peer. Furthermore, as a fiery defender of the truth, I persecuted the messianic believers with religious zeal. Yet all of the accomplishments that I once took credit for, I’ve now forsaken them and I regard it all as nothing compared to the delight of experiencing Jesus Christ as my Lord! (Philippians 3:4-7, TPT)

Paul was a disciple of Gamaliel, one of the premier teachers of the Law in his time. Before attaining the honor of learning at this rabbi’s feet, Paul would have had to complete his educational prerequisites at an impressive level. This education included memorizing–word for word–all 39 books of the Jewish scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. His knowledge of the scriptures he referenced in his letters was thorough. So we can be confident that he was not flippantly tossing around verses. There was purpose in every word he wrote.

I want to focus on one specific word he wrote, and it relates to the last verse I included from the Philippians passage above: “Yet all of the accomplishments that I once took credit for, I’ve now forsaken them and I regard it all as nothing compared to the delight of experiencing Jesus Christ as my Lord!”

All of Paul’s education and accomplishments–which were vast–he regards as nothing compared to knowing Jesus. Hold onto that…

Pastor John spoke to us about two words in particular: sovereignty and supremacy. I mentioned both briefly in my introduction. I won’t spend any further time on sovereignty–my study of this word has left me frustrated and confused by its frequent usage within Christianity, as it does not appear in scripture even one time in relation to God and Jesus. I don’t know enough to discuss it further, so I will continue to study it on my own and I encourage you to do the same.

Supremacy, however, I will briefly touch on. A word search reveals that it appears in some of our English translations exactly one time, in Colossians 1:18: And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. It is Paul who wrote it in its Greek form, prōteuō, meaning “to be first, to hold the first place.” It appears in a verse sandwiched between verses about how God was revealed–and pleased to be so–in Jesus. I want to show you this passage from the Message paraphrase because Eugene Peterson wrote it so beautifully:

We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body. He was supreme in the beginning and—leading the resurrection parade—he is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)

The NIV translates verses 19-20a this way: For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things

This is why Paul was happy to forsake all that had previously made him who he was, to count it all as nothing. He had met the fullness of God in the person of Jesus. He knew personally that God doesn’t willfully exclude any, but wills that all come to him–he was one of those ‘all’. He grieved that some had not yet turned toward the love that, as Luanne gorgeously stated, had already turned toward them, but he knew that there was nothing powerful enough to separate us from the love of God in Jesus. He had experienced that love firsthand, and was desperate for everyone else to experience it, too. He wrote of Christ’s supremacy in his letter to the Colossians to explain that Jesus was–and had always been–first. Before all. The one who bore the original purpose of God in creation, the first of all who would be reborn among the dead as the reconciling of all things to himself began with his resurrection.

This is the supremacy, the first-ness of Jesus, with whom Paul was so enamored. He knew that Jesus was, as the gospel writers testified to, the image of God himself. He emphasized that God was pleased to have his fullness–all of his God-ness–dwell in Jesus. We understand through the writings of Paul that the character of God, his divine attributes, are most clearly demonstrated through the person of Jesus. So when we get to hard passages like Romans 9, we must remember the broader context in which it is found. We must remember, to borrow Luanne’s words once again, that: Christianity is founded on Jesus, so when difficult to understand passages come through someone other than Jesus, or seem contradictory to the teachings of Jesus, we look to Jesus–the author and perfecter of our faith.

Or, as pastor and author Brian Zahnd loves to say, God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus. We haven’t always known this, but now we do.

–Laura

Image of the Invisible God | Apologeet.nl

The Roman Road Less Traveled: The Bad News

Last week we began our series in the book of Romans. Before we get into this week’s text, I want to remind you that the “book” of Romans is actually a letter, written by Paul, to the church in Rome. It was not divided into chapters and verses, and Paul never intended for a sentence or two to be pulled from the entirety of his letter and used to clobber people. This week, we travel through some verses that have been used to harm others. We must resist that temptation.

I want to begin with the final verses we studied last week: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes…for in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (1:16-17)

And this reminder:

Salvation = That which comes from, and is, our Savior’s life that has saved-and now lives in-us; the balm that promotes healing and leads to wholeness.

Righteousness = Dikaiosýnēequity (of character or act)The “equitable (in character or act); by implication, innocent, holy (absolutely or relatively):—just, meet, right(-eous).”… “used of him whose way of thinking, feeling, and acting is wholly conformed to the will of God.” (Strong’s concordance)

And from our Sermon on the Mount series: Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to youLove your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Continuing with the last becoming first theme, I’m going to begin with the final verse from this week’s passage…

Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (2:4 NLT)

Right before Paul talks about the kindness of God that leads us to repentance (changing the way we think), he lists a number of behaviors and attitudes that separate us from God. That list includes: sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. It includes backstabbers, haters of God, the insolent, proud, and boastful. Also, those who invent new ways of sinning, and disobey their parents, refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy... do whatever shameful things their hearts desired...they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptileswomen turned… to have sex with each other, the men… burned with lust for each other, also people wouldn’t worship God or even give him thanks; and some began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like … (From Romans 1: 21-31) That’s quite the list, don’t you think? Everything from gossip to promiscuity is listed. I find myself on this list and I’m going to make the assumption that you find yourselves on it as well.

And just in case we’re tempted to try to evaluate which shortcomings are most offensive and which are least, Paul writes: You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things. And we know that God, in his justice, will punish anyone who does such things. Since you judge others for doing these things, why do you think you can avoid God’s judgment when you do the same things? 

If these verses frustrate you and you’re ready to give up–remember that this is the bad news part of the letter…but don’t lose hope, the next verse is:

 Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you?… Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:1-4)

Last week we looked at Romans 1:1-16 which includes Pauls motivation for his ministry:  Love obligates me to preach to everyone, to those who are among the elite and those who are among the outcasts, to those who are wise and educated as well as to those who are foolish and unlearned. (14 TPT) And, through him (Jesus) we received grace and apostleship (v.5)… Notice, again, that Paul lists grace first. That’s important. A ministry of Jesus that’s not immersed in the grace we have received can quickly transfer into a ministry of law that becomes mean.

I’m so tempted to jump ahead in this letter and not leave us in the bad news. I want to head into the territory of Paul’s message that includes: God loves us all exactly as we are–no one is condemned in Christ Jesus, we are all saved by grace and not by our behavior… and we’ll get there.

But for today, remember that Paul is writing one letter. It’s not divided into chapters and verses. Paul is a trained lawyer and in the “bad news” section he is setting up his argument, that ALL of us truly are a mess–we’re all in this together–so that when we get to the lavishness of God’s grace, we’ll realize how beautiful God is and fall deeply in love with God.

So, the bad news of today’s message: We (humanity) have rejected God as the center of it all. We were created to revolve around God, but we’ve exchanged that for revolving around ourselves. We worship ourselves, we worship created things (in our consumeristic society this is a real battleground). Our thinking is skewed. God allows us to make our own choices, and God allows us to reap the consequences of our own choices, but God never stops loving us. God never stops expressing kindness toward us. God never gives up on us.

One more quick thought before I pass the baton to Laura–Romans 1:18 says, But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. Ouch! In the NLT translation, there is a footnote after the word wickedness which says “Or who, by their wickedness, prevent the truth from being known. God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who prevent the truth from being known. That little footnote gives this verse a completely new context.

As I ponder that footnote, I ponder what truth we prevent from being known. Could it be the truth that God is love. God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son…God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.?

Could it be people like the Pharisees to whom Jesus said: What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces...?(Mt. 23:13)

Do we do that? Do we try to determine who is in and who is out?

As we continue to work our way through this letter, let’s humbly admit our own shortcomings, face our own bad news and our need for grace. Let’s be committed to offering grace and demonstrating God’s kindness to those around us. Let’s not make it hard for people to know they are welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven exactly as they are. Let’s not be the reason that people don’t know the truth of how extravagantly they are loved by God. Let’s make it easy for people to enter in…

–Luanne

Like Luanne, I am so tempted to jump ahead in this letter, knowing that what is coming changes everything about what we think Paul is saying here. I actually planned to do just that–to take us into Romans chapters 3 and 5, and highlight all the good, beautiful news that Paul’s about to share–until I re-read Luanne’s portion. Sometimes we need to wrestle a thing through when what we really want to do is rush past the conflict it creates in our minds and hearts. This week’s focus is on the bad news, so I’ll choose to stay here, in the discomfort these verses create within me.

I want to highlight something Pastor John mentioned on Sunday. He told us about the Polish astronomer, Copernicus, whose assertion in the 1500s that the earth was not the center of the universe challenged everything he and his contemporaries believed about how the universe worked. There were discoveries that hadn’t yet been made, exploration yet to come that would turn things upside down.

Why does that story matter for us as we look at this week’s passage? Because sometimes we come to scripture assuming we know what it means, the one right way to interpret these words that were recorded thousands of years ago in a different culture and time; words that have passed through many different language translations and interpreters’ modifications. We don’t always know what we think we know–Can we agree together to stay humble enough to invite the Spirit to breathe fresh life into our minds and hearts as we consider these hard passages–and all passages–of scripture? Are we willing to see it from a different perspective? I hope so. There is so much to learn, so much to explore… It’s one of the things I love most about our God, the mystery and wonder and vastness of who he is. There’s always something new I haven’t seen before–and learning more about him and his love never gets old. My prayer is that each of us will desire to go deeper, to explore what’s below the surface as we read.

There are parts of this passage that are hard for me, verses that make me pause and ask some questions, because they don’t seem to line up with the character of God revealed in Jesus. It’s important to pause and ask the questions. Because God’s character doesn’t change. He is love. His disposition toward all of his sons and daughters is kindness and grace. All the time. He doesn’t relate to us through condemnation, shame, guilt, or vengeance. We sometimes project those things onto God and make assumptions about how he feels about us–and passages like the one we’re looking at this week can help us build a case for that if we’re not careful.

But as Luanne reminded us, the “book” and “chapters” of Romans is a letter to a people living in Rome at a specific time in history. She wrote last week that it is, “One letter, bathed in grace, bathed in equity, bathed in inclusion, bathed in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit–bathed in God’s unconditional love.” It is essential that we hold tightly to the overall theme that Paul himself told us in the very beginning of this letter he was writing about as we pick up different verses throughout the letter. Sometimes we do the opposite–we grab onto a verse here and there with a white-knuckled grip and let go of the context in which the words are written.

With all of that said, let’s take a moment to explore the “wrath” that Paul brings up in this passage. Verse 18 begins with, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven. . .”

But… Paul is writing this letter post-cross, right? Hadn’t Jesus already absorbed all of our sin and violence on the cross and come back from Hades, after setting its captives free, holding the keys to death itself? Is Paul saying that God has wrath to pour out on humanity even though Jesus already conquered sin and death for the world? That doesn’t make sense… So let’s look a little deeper…

As Luanne wrote above, Paul is making a case, and this week we don’t get to see beyond the prosecution’s case against all of humanity. We’ll get there soon, but for now, there’s a long list of things that appear to separate us from God and cause his wrath to be revealed. But, what if wrath doesn’t mean what we’ve always thought it means? What if God’s nature really is love, and we’ve misunderstood this wrath thing? I’m not writing as someone who knows the right answers. This passage brings up so many questions within me as I read it. But what if we considered a different perspective and asked God to grow our understanding? Can we do that together?

In the book A More Christlike God, A More Beautiful Gospel, Brad Jersak offers this regarding wrath:

“Literal human ‘wrath’ combines emotional anger with violent retribution. We describe ‘the wages of sin’ (self-destructive consequences) as ‘the wrath of God’ because we infer sin’s consequences as God’s reaction. In actuality, biblical wrath is a metaphor. It signifies the intrinsic consequences of our refusal to live in the mercies of God.”

Whether we agree fully with this assertion or not, I think it’s worth considering.

With this working definition of wrath, let’s look at the first passage in Ephesians 2:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins. . . gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:1, 3-5, my emphasis)

Our sin made us all ‘deserving of wrath’–of the intrinsic consequences of turning away from the mercy and love of God–and that wrath led us all the way to death. But… because of his love, God came to us again–all the way around to where we stood with our backs to him, arms crossed in defiance–and stood facing us in the person of Jesus, who conquered death by his life and now holds the keys to every grave. It’s so beautiful.

Later in this same book, the author says:

“Paul clarifies throughout Romans 1, what had been described in the narrative as active wrath is in fact a metaphor. He defines ‘wrath’ three times as the ‘giving over’ (God’s consent) of people to their own self-destructive trajectories–even when the shrapnel of our actions accrues collateral damage on others.”

This makes sense to me. God doesn’t actively lead us into–or hand us over to–evil, destructive ways. But as the Giver of free-will, he allows us to choose for ourselves who we will serve. When we choose to live in the inexhaustible mercies and grace of God, we don’t experience ‘the wages of sin’. When we choose to step away from the flow of mercy and choose to live for ourselves–make ‘me’ the center of the universe–there are consequences. Harm is done to ourselves and to others.

Luanne explained the same concept this way:

“We (humanity) have rejected God as the center of it all. We were created to revolve around God, but we’ve exchanged that for revolving around ourselves. . . Our thinking is skewed. God allows us to make our own choices, and God allows us to reap the consequences of our own choices. . .”

So, when Paul–called by some the “Apostle of Grace”–lists the things that God “gave them over” to, he is telling his readers that there are intrinsic consequences to choosing to live a self-centered life. Outside of the flow of God’s mercies (which he never shuts off, but we can choose to live in ignorance of) we find ourselves on a path that leads us to indulge in all kinds of excesses. He writes of the evils that result from selfishness, and includes sexual indulgences that are unnatural to how a person is designed. I do want to note that throughout his list, Paul is not identifying a specific community or group–he is writing an exhaustive list of the consequences of choosing a self-focused, self-indulgent life that doesn’t exhibit the kingdom principles of loving God and loving others.

Finally, as we’ve written about so many times before, we need to be aware of our own filters as we read scripture, and commit to reading everything through the lens of Jesus. Even the writings of Paul, as brilliant and wise and stirring as they are, must be read through a Jesus lens. Does our understanding of a particular passage line up with the nature of God revealed in Jesus? Do our filters line up with kingdom values and the way of self-giving love modeled by Jesus? Do we have an agenda as we read certain parts of our Bibles? Are we searching for something that will back up our positions and personal convictions? Or are we bringing everything back to the good news of Jesus? He is the foundation of our faith. He is the perfect Word who was with God and was God from the beginning, through whom all things were made. (John 1:1-3, paraphrased)

As I close, I’ll say again, I don’t have the answers. I’m wrestling through things I don’t understand, as we all are. What Luanne and I hope to do in this space is dig in and give all of us space to explore what’s buried in the depths. Ultimately, our hearts are totally captured by Jesus and his kingdom, and our desire is to learn and grow into kingdom people who carry his heart to the world around us. What we write here evidences our wrestle, our processes, as we journey with Jesus. We hope you will dig in and do your own exploring, trusting the Spirit as your guide. There is much to be found if we’re willing to learn and listen and grow.

This week’s message brought us what appeared to be some bad news. But this passage is one small portion of a complete letter, and the theme of this letter is grace. Hold on… there’s so much more to come.

–Laura

Paul and the Letter to the Romans, Part 3 | by Church of God, AIC | Medium

The Roman Road Less Traveled: An Apostle’s Attitude

Last week we wrapped up our series that covered the sermon on the mount, Jesus’ kingdom manifesto. Sunday, we started a new series that will take us through the book of Romans, believed to be the last of the letters written by the Apostle Paul. Before we dive into this letter, let’s consider the author–Paul (previously known as Saul)–as well as the historical and cultural context into which this letter was written and received.

The book of Acts introduces us to a man named Saul. We first hear about him at the trial and subsequent stoning of Stephen, a servant-leader in the early church. “…Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul…And Saul approved of their killing him.” (Acts 7:58b, 59b, NIV) Who was this young man named Saul? Later, in a letter written to the Philippians, he writes of himself:

I was born a true Hebrew of the heritage of Israel as the son of a Jewish man from the tribe of Benjamin. I was circumcised eight days after my birth and was raised in the strict tradition of Orthodox Judaism, living a separated and devout life as a Pharisee. And concerning the righteousness of the Torah, no one surpassed me; I was without a peer. Furthermore, as a fiery defender of the truth, I persecuted the messianic believers with religious zeal. (Philippians 3:5-6 TPT)

Saul’s credentials identify him as one of the most religious, zealous men of his day. Acts chapter 9 tells us that he breathed out “murderous threats” against followers of Jesus and arrested and imprisoned as many of them–men and women–as he could find.

In the Philippians chapter referenced above, Paul continues:

Yet all of the accomplishments that I once took credit for, I’ve now forsaken them and I regard it all as nothing compared to the delight of experiencing Jesus Christ as my Lord! To truly know him meant letting go of everything from my past and throwing all my boasting on the garbage heap. It’s all like a pile of manure to me now, so that I may be enriched in the reality of knowing Jesus Christ and embrace him as Lord in all of his greatness. (Philippians 3:7-8, TPT, emphasis mine)

What caused this about-face? How did the murderous, arrogantly righteous Saul become enraptured by the singular passion of knowing Jesus as his Lord? He had an encounter that changed everything. Acts 9 tells the story, which we won’t go into here, but encountering the risen Jesus altered this young man’s course for the rest of his life. Encounters with the real Jesus have a way of doing that…

It is believed that the letter to the Romans was written during Paul’s third missionary journey, around 56 AD. He addresses both Jewish and Gentile believers in his writings, and makes it clear that he is including all those in Rome who are loved by God (Romans 1:7). He expands this thought, as we’ll see throughout the coming weeks, to make clear the power of God to bring salvation to all who believe, without exception. It is important to note, as we begin, that the church grew out of a Jewish culture, in a land under Roman rule, where Greek intellectualism was becoming more and more prevalent. As Pastor John emphasized Sunday, knowing the context as we dig into scripture is extremely important.

Author Tim Stafford wrote in his introduction to Romans in Zondervan’s God’s Justice Bible:

“Paul brings good news about a new king for the ages, Jesus Christ, God’s own Son. . . All people, from all ethnic and religious backgrounds, are called to put their faith in him. . . to be filled with his Spirit, and as God’s new people to live a life pleasing to him–a life of justice. This new people become the living embodiment of God’s presence on earth. We live, Paul says, in the final act of God’s story. . . For Paul, justice is bigger than politics or sociology, as important as those are. Justice is cosmic, summed up in the reign of Jesus and a world set free.”

This is the set up for the book we’re about to explore. It is packed with theological ideas and stirs questions and considerations that still leave many theologians confounded today. That means the Spirit has new things to teach us, as the Spirit always does, if we’re willing to lean in and learn.

So (finally!), let’s begin…

In Sunday’s message, Pastor John outlined the attitude with which Paul carries himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ, and what we, as modern-day followers of Jesus, can learn from his example. He covered the first seventeen verses of Romans chapter 1. If you’re at all familiar with the way Paul writes, you know that seventeen verses is a lot of words. So I won’t include the whole passage here. Rather, before I wrap up my portion, I want to come back to something I touched on earlier…

The only reason we have the book of Romans and all of Paul’s other letters in our Bibles today is because Saul had a real, life-altering encounter with Jesus. Without that experience, the Apostle Paul would have remained the zealot Saul, and we might not even know who he is today. What a tragedy that would be. Fortunately, for him and for us, we follow a Jesus who doesn’t disqualify any one of us because of our stories, but rather pursues us in the midst of our mess to infuse and transform our stories into clarion calls for the kingdom of God.

It is precisely because of who Saul was before he met Jesus that he was able to reach the world as Paul, a (willing) slave to Jesus and his ways; called, set apart, and empowered by the Spirit (whom I’ll call Grace, taking my lead from author and theologian Bradley Jersak) to carry the gospel of salvation (we’ll look at this word in more detail in just a moment…) to the world. As Pastor John articulated in his message, we may not have the ‘credentials’ we think we need to do the work we are called by God to do, but our encounters with Jesus transform us. Our encounters, our stories–they speak. Our stories become our credentials.

Back to salvation… this is a word we’ll encounter frequently in our study of Romans. It’s a word that has been used in a variety of ways throughout the history of the Church, one that is important to our understanding of faith and the work of Jesus in our lives. So I want to revisit what the word means in scripture.

In a message Pastor John preached a couple of years ago, he told us that our English word “salvation” has Latin roots. I wrote in my portion of the blog that week:

“The word “salve” is the foundation of this word that we talk about all the time in church. What is salve? It’s an ointment or balm used to promote healing. Hold onto that for a minute. The word Paul used in the original Greek is soteria. The root of this word is a word that means “Savior”; the primary root is sozo, which means save, make whole, heal. So… Salvation… If I were going to combine the meanings of the root words in each of these translations, my definition would read something like this: That which comes from, and is, our Savior’s life that has saved-and now lives in-us; the balm that promotes healing and leads to wholeness.

We were in the book of Philippians that week, not Romans, but the Greek word Paul uses in chapter 1 of Romans that is translated into the English word “salvation” is the same word defined above, soteria. On Sunday Pastor John emphasized the safety and security, the invitation into wide open spaces and freedom that is implied in a thorough understanding of the salvation Paul is writing about in this letter. Wholeness, a balm that leads to healing, safety, security, and freedom for all, for everyone–this is the definition of salvation we’ll be referring to during this series. Salvation, as John said in his message, is never about “behavior modification.” That was never God’s idea. Humanity superimposed that framework onto the healing work of Jesus.

However… when we encounter the living Jesus, when his life enters our stories and brings us to life, the healing and wholeness his love brings changes everything–including our behavior, especially identifiable in the way we treat others. Paul writes in Romans 1:14: Love obligates me to preach to everyone, to those who are among the elite and those who are among the outcasts, to those who are wise and educated as well as to those who are foolish and unlearned. (TPT)

What does he mean when he says that love obligates him? Furthermore, what does it mean for him to identify himself as a slave of Jesus? Don’t these words seem counterintuitive to the idea of salvation that we identified above? It certainly doesn’t sound like freedom, does it?

It is helpful to look at what the word translated “obligates” means in the original language. The Greek word, and its root forms, means to owe, be bound, offer the advantage, and can be used metaphorically to mean, “the goodwill due.” I like that last one best. Because when we encounter the love of Jesus and that love begins to grow in us, we want others to encounter him, too. If I am learning to love my neighbor (all others) in the same way I am loved by Jesus, then I will naturally want to offer in goodwill what I myself have received by grace.

Brad Jersak writes in his book, A More Christlike Way: A More Beautiful Faith,

“By the Grace (transforming energies) of the indwelling Spirit, love becomes a law of nature–our new nature. . . Triune Love is a divine verb Who entered space-time history through the Incarnation. Divine Love necessarily appears or it is not love at all. That act of love is Jesus Christ–the eternal Word enfleshed as perfect, cruciform Love. . . Jesus repeatedly insists that our identity in him be expressed in the Way of our being, humbly demonstrated when his Grace-energized life lifts us up just as he was lifted up–to give ourselves unselfishly, to forgive others supernaturally and to co-suffer with others according to Christ’s compassion and empathy. (Note: Grace is another name for the Holy Spirit, just as Word is another name for Jesus Christ. The transforming Grace who lives in us bears the fruit of love. In fact, all of Grace’s gifts and fruit are expressions of love.)”

“Love becomes a law of nature–our new nature” when we have a personal encounter with Jesus. It is his love and goodness in its power and fullness that so captivates our beings. Enraptured (the literal meaning of “fear of God”) by his love, we willingly choose the same surrendered, self-emptying, cruciform ways of living and loving that Jesus himself modeled. Our willing enslavement is perhaps better understood in terms of a covenant relationship. He has promised and demonstrated his perfect faithfulness, his unconditional love, his with-ness to us; he’s offered us the cup of his love in the manner of a marriage proposal, inviting us to commune with him forever, to allow his life to be born within us and produce kingdom fruit for the world. He himself is irresistible. Paul’s identifying himself as a slave to this Jesus is evidence both of the change in Saul-now-Paul, and also the captivating love and Grace he encountered on that road to Damascus.

My fingers are cramped from typing that last section, because the words flowed out faster than I could write them, like a fire within my bones that had to get out. That passion, that energy, is Grace, the Spirit of Jesus that I have encountered on the most unlikely days, during the ugliest seasons, in the midst of the most destructive choices I’ve made in my life. There are so many labels I could give myself, so many points along the way that I “should” have been disqualified from God’s call on my life to carry his kingdom within this messy, broken vessel. But those labels, those choices–they don’t define me, so I won’t even mention them here. Because I have encountered Jesus and his healing, freeing salvation over and over and over again. And his love has become my law of nature as he changes me and grows life where death once reigned.

There is so much more I could say, so many stories I could tell, but I’ll save those for another week. It’s about time I wrap up my portion and hand this over to Luanne. So I’ll conclude with this… Part of our call as Jesus-followers is to leverage who we are–our stories–and all that we have to carry Jesus to the world. Living as our real selves–with our scars, failures, and every part of our histories–is what makes us effective kingdom-bearers. Our stories are to be leveraged for the kingdom of God. Saul was not disqualified. I am not disqualified. You are not disqualified. We are set apart and empowered by Grace, as slaves only to Jesus, to carry the kindness and love and story of God to the world around us. I think that’s so beautiful.

–Laura

Laura did a beautiful job of setting us up for this series, and I’m not going to add much to what she wrote; however, it is deeply important that we understand Paul’s greeting and the first portion of the letter he wrote to real people in order to set the stage for the rest of the series. A lot of these verses are familiar to us; let’s commit to willingness–willingness to see things through a new lens; to resist the temptation to settle into familiar interpretations, and to pick and choose verses. Paul’s overall message is inclusive and grace-filled…sometimes we miss that. Here we go…

I’m going to be super honest here–people I love have been hurt by verses from the book of Romans; there are scriptures in the book of Romans that have been pulled out of context and used to “other” and harm people, so I want to throw out a reminder–when Paul wrote this letter, it was not divided into chapters and verses. It was written as one long letter. Ten or eleven years ago, I decided to read it as a letter. I read it over, and over, and over again. I read it in multiple translations. I listened to it read to me. I don’t know how many times I read/heard it, but what I came away with is this: Every human being on the face of the planet is messed up. God, through Jesus, entered our mess, introduced us to his all encompassing grace and his incredible unconditional love—for all of us. No one is left out of God’s love. As we move through this book–we must resist the temptation to pull a verse here or a verse there out of context in order to fit a narrative or agenda. Romans is one whole letter with a beautiful overall message.

Paul in his greeting and introduction makes that clear.

A couple of things to note: In Romans 1:5 Paul writes through him (Jesus) we received grace and apostleship… Notice that he lists grace first. That’s important. A ministry of Jesus that’s not immersed in the grace we have received can quickly transfer into a ministry of law that becomes mean.

Continuing in verse 5–the grace that came before the ministry of apostleship empowered Paul …to call all the Gentiles… for his (Jesus) name’s sake. This is a huge statement. Before Jesus, Paul was a fanatical, war-mongering, violent, self-righteous, zealot. After getting to know Jesus, not only does Paul tell the Jewish people that Jesus is their Messiah, he tells them that they are accepted by God; that God’s way is the way of grace; therefore, they are accepted right now. He tells them they are set free from the weight and impossible expectations of the law. And he extends that message to the Gentiles as well.

If you close your eyes and picture “the Gentiles”, who do you see? I most often see people who look like me, which is an inaccurate picture. The Gentiles include every single person who is not Jewish. Revelation 7:9 gives us the description: I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. Do we picture this great ethnic diversity when we picture Paul’s audience? The ministry of Paul was ground-breaking. It was radical. It was inclusive. And it was God-called and God-ordained.

Another thing to note: Paul didn’t set himself up over the Roman believers. In verses 11 and 12 he writes: I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong–that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.

We are all in this together, and each one of us has gifts to bring to the table. We mutually encourage one another. I am deeply grateful to have friends who both challenge and encourage me by what God is showing them, and who allow me to to do the same. New lenses, new understanding, stretching our faith, growing as we share stories of our unique life experiences and what God is teaching us through those experiences–it’s all part of being God’s kingdom-people.

And one last thing to remember as we move through this letter–the most famous verse from this greeting: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes…for in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (1:16-17)

Laura wrote this beautiful definition of salvation based on the original language: That which comes from, and is, our Savior’s life that has saved-and now lives in-us; the balm that promotes healing and leads to wholeness.

The power, the energy of God brings healing and wholeness to everyone who believes, then three times Paul writes… righteousness….righteousness…righteous.

What does Paul mean by righteousness? You all, it’s the same word dikaiosýnē that we wrote about in The Sermon on the Mount series. Jesus used this word twice in that sermon: blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (dikaiosyne) for they will be satisfied. And seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (dikaiosyne)…

Dikaiosýnē; equity (of character or act). The “equitable (in character or act); by implication, innocent, holy (absolutely or relatively):—just, meet, right(-eous).”… “used of him whose way of thinking, feeling, and acting is wholly conformed to the will of God.” (Strong’s concordance)

In some Bibles, the word dikaiosýnē is translated as the word justice–that’s how it is in my Portuguese Bible–blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice; seek first the kingdom of God and his justice. It’s hard to grasp the full meaning of this word, since it’s not native to our language, but it encompasses being rightly related to God, being rightly related to others, equity—-shalom…

Equity can be hard for us human beings to grasp. We like to earn/deserve things and compare ourselves to others. We want things to be fair. To the Jews of the day, the fact that God included the Gentiles in the kingdom; the fact that Jesus wasn’t just their promised messiah but the messiah for the whole world; the fact that the Law they had sought to obey in order to have a relationship with God wasn’t required of Gentiles; it all seemed unfair. The first shall be last and the last shall be first doesn’t seem fair. God’s way is the way of equity. Through Jesus, all have the same access to the kingdom of God; to God’s love; to God’s grace…it’s all about God opening the Way to all of us. We don’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. We don’t choose who is worthy and who is not. We must pause here and think: is there anyone that you or I think is not included–at least not until they change?

God’s way is not our way. God’s way is not based on human behavior–ours or anyone else’s. God’s way is wide open to everyone everywhere. That’s why it’s such good news!

So Paul says…I’m not ashamed of this inclusive message of God’s healing and wholeness. It’s in this gospel, this good news, that we see the real God. We see God and experience God’s love and grace. We extend to others, for the sake of Jesus, this ministry of grace and love–and it happens as we live by faith.

The righteous will live by faith (NIV) . The just will live by faith. Those wholly conformed to the will of God (dikaiosyne), will live by faith.

One letter, bathed in grace, bathed in equity, bathed in inclusion, bathed in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit–bathed in God’s unconditional love. Paul’s letter to Rome. Together, let’s explore the Roman Road Less Traveled.

–Luanne

Poetry of the day: “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost (1874-1963) —  Steemit