Be An Encourager!

We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is . . . serving, then serve; . . . 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement . . .(Romans 12:6-8).

Charles Swindoll tells the story of a mother who took her young son to hear a famous pianist. She hoped it might spur the boy to take an interest in music.

Before the concert started, the mother, busy chatting with friends, became oblivious to the fact her son had left his seat. Drawn to the stage, the boy made his way down to inspect the gleaming black Steinway. He ran his fingers lightly over the shiny white keys. No one noticed until he sat down and began to play (you guessed it) “chopsticks.”

The mother was horrified, the crowd became loudly indignant. But the pianist, hearing the boy and the noise of the audience quickly surmised what had happened and, grabbing his coat, ran on stage to the child. Reaching around the boy he began to improvise a tune to accompany “chopsticks,” all the while whispering in the child’s ear: “Don’t stop. Keep on going. You’re doing fine. Don’t ever give up.”

How often have you failed to achieve something wonderful because you fell under the weight of insurmountable criticism? Worse, how often have you been the deciding factor in someone else’s failure because you were a griper or complainer rather than an encourager?

The Bible teaches that the ability to encourage is a gift from God. Indeed, Luke says it is a work of God Himself (Acts 9:31 NIV). Let’s join in the work of God and be encouragers! And when we need it ourselves, let us look to the Lord from whom all blessings flow!

Wednesday, November 19. Romans 14 – 16

Romans 16 contains the largest list of names in any of Paul’s letters.

There is Phoebe, a special “servant” of the church in Cenchrea whom Paul is recommending.  Might she have carried this letter to the Roman church from Paul?  Might she have been his emissary?  Paul says she has been a “great help” to him, a translation of a word that occurs only here in the New Testament.  Outside the New Testament, it refers to one who acts as a guardian or protector or benefactor.  She was certainly an important figure yet, she took the Christ-like call seriously, content to be, like Paul, a “servant.”

There are Priscilla and Aquila, whom Paul met on his second missionary journey.  Always mentioned together (and usually Priscilla first), they had been residents of Rome, but moved to Corinth by the time Paul met them.  Here they are back in Rome.  There is, in Rome, an ancient cemetery called the Cemetery of Priscilla, the traditional burial place of the couple.  It is also the burial place of Manus Acilius Glabrio, who was one of two consuls of Rome in 91 AD.  He was killed by emperor Domitian in 95 AD because he was a Christian, having been forced to fight a lion and two bears in the amphitheatre adjoining the emperor’s villa at Albanum.  Acilius is sometimes written Aquilius and his family was one of the most powerful and wealthiest of Rome.  Might it have been that this couple played a cricual role in bringing this powerful family to Christ?

There is Nereus in verse 15.  During the reign of Nero, the city prefect of Rome was a man named Titus Flavius Sabinus.  He was the brother of Vespasian, who became emperor in 69 A.D.  He was also  the grandfather of Titus Flavius Clemens, who married Vespasian’s grand-daughter, Domitilla..  The both of them became Christians.  They had a servant named Nereus.  Might it be the same man?  Did he lead his master and mistress to Christ?

And then there is Ampliatus. The largest of the catacomb burial places in Rome is the cemetery of Domatilla., where Flavia Domitilla (mentioned above) was buried. In that cemetery, most of the inscriptions are of Roman citizens., You can tell that because they have 3 names. But one of the largest of the grave markers has only one name on it – likely the name of a slave.  That name is Ampliatus. That this is a Christian burial place, the fact that the name appears singly and so prominently, is a sign of great tribute to this one who may have been a slave, known by Paul and addressed here.

Wednesday, November 19. Romans 14 – 16

Who are the “weak” Christians?

Paul definitely believes there are some. But who are they?

Likely, all those being addressed in Romans 14 had a “scriptural basis” for what they believed: the vegetarians, the meat-eaters, the holy-day observers, and the free spirits who regarded all days alike.

So who was right?

In this chapter, it would appear Paul says “it doesn’t matter.”

While all of these matters are mentioned in scripture, there was no clear ruling on any of them for the Church. They are, in Paul’s words, “disputable” matters. Frankly, I doubt seriously any of the proponents reading this letter were convinced their side was disputable.

But that really wasn’t the point.

Paul was concerned about how they treated one another. After all, they were, in Christ, brethren. Each had been accepted by God into the family of God. To look down on a brother, regardless of what he believes, or mistreat him, was, in the mind of Paul, of greater concern than the differences between them.

We’d do well to remember this. There are matters about which God has specifically spoken. These are beyond dispute. Other matters we get to by a variety of religious gymnastics. Perhaps we get it right. Perhaps we don’t. But regardless, the call is, among brethren, to make every attempt to do what leads to peace. In the end, it’s the weak who insist on binding their ways in disputable matters on others. The strong are strong not because they are pliable of conscience, but because they put the concerns of the weak above their own.

Friday, November 1. Romans 13 – 16

The early part of chapter thirteen would not have gone over well in the ancient world (any more than it does in our own day). Rome was not a democracy – at least not in the sense we think of it. Its emperor was a profligate but he was not the only one. Corruption was rife. Oppression was brutal – especially of the underclass. Why would God command the support of such an unworthy entity?

It has to do with respect for established authority. Government is there to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. It may not do its job well, or at all, but that’s its job. It is not under the oversight of the ruled, but the oversight of God and (despite American views to the contrary), answerable really only to Him. Because government is a full-time servant of God, it deserves to be supported (with taxes, revenues etc.). Christians must respect and obey governmental rule unless it conflicts with the revealed will of God but even then, civil disobedience is limited to the issue at hand. For example, just because the government protects a womans’s “right to choose” or a same-sex couple’s right to marriage, conflicting with God’s will, does not give Christians the right to overthrow the government or refuse to pay their taxes. The government is answerable ultimately and solely to God.

The matter of government sovereignty was highlighted recently in the 2013 governmental shut-down. Privately owned businesses situated on government land had to close. Why? Because though the building might be privately owned, the land on which it sits is the sovereign property of the United States which has total authority. One may not even sue our government without the government’s express permission.

Christian people were often accused of crimes against Rome. Even Jesus was accused. But they were never guilty. Christians, as far as it is possible, must be seen as law-abiding, respectful citizens.

Thursday, October 31. Romans 10-12

When christianity is reduced to elements of “religiosity” (heritage, custom, liturgy, denominational preference etc.) one can be “faithful” without exhibiting much faith. This is the cause and result of the division in the Roman church, and a cause of division in the modern church. I do not necessarily mean a division characterized by ill-will. Division often occurs not because people don’t like each other, but because they neither know nor care to know one another.

Having established that no one stands well before God because of religiosity, and that the basis for any standing at all before God rests solely on faith, Paul launches in chapter twelve into the application of this truth. It involves life-change and positive and specific life action.

It’s not as though Paul has not addressed this before. It is really at the heart of his presentation in chapters 6 – 8, but in chapter twelve he comes back to address it more specifically.

I find it interesting that the first kind of behavior he mentions is involvement with church. While the opening of chapter twelve has been used to teach the quite inane notion that “all of life is worship,” Paul’s point is much different. Early Christians would have thought of worship as something they do “together,” not alone. Thus the presentation of one’s life as a “living sacrifice” has to do with self-sacrifice within the community of faith. Paul writes: “just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. [Use your gift] in accordance with your faith.” He lists some of the gifts: prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, leadership, showing mercy, and contributing to the needs of others. All this lays the foundation for the very rapid series of commands that follow in verses 9-13, and while some of these commands reach beyond the context of the church family, all of them must include the church community. It is the community that matters most in the life of faith.

Wednesday, October 30. Romans 7 – 9

Chapter nine of Romans begins a difficult section to be sure, culminating with the continually confusing line “and so all Israel will be saved.” This one line has led commentators and other Bible students to the conclusion that all Jews are going to heaven; they being saved by their Jewish heritage and the rest of us being saved by faith and it all being possible through the sacrifice of Jesus.

The problem with this is that it overlooks the plain statements of chapter nine.

Paul begins that chapter with his continuing anguish over the general lostness of his ethnic group, the Jews. It seems to me to be a waste of good emotion for him to be so upset at their alienation from God if, in fact, he is going to affirm that they are not really alienated at all!

Chapter nine points to the “election” of God. Abraham’s descendants were God’s chosen people – but not all of them. Only Isaac’s descendants. But not all of Isaac’s descendants were the chosen, only Jacob’s. Is this unfair? “No,” Paul writes, because election is always by the sole choice of God.

God’s intent to make election broader, and narrower, than just “descendants of Isaac” is revealed by God’s statements in Hosea, Jeremiah, Joel, Amos, and Isaiah – which Paul cites in the chapter. Election is broader because it includes gentiles. Election is narrower because it doesn’t include those Jews who seek righteousness on the basis of their Jewishness rather than faith. Only the people of faith – Jews and gentiles – will be saved and Paul seals the matter and ends the chapter with a quote from Isaiah.

Why is this important to us?

Because Christians, like the Jews of the Roman church, often feel that our “Christianness” (if I can coin the word) will save them: church attendance, moral and ethical purity, Bible reading, prayer, the outward signs of our religion. Surely all these are important, but they must spring from a heart of faith, a heart that trusts God with neither doubt nor reserve and is seen in the confidence with which one lives his life, following the leading of God. It is possible to seem religious without trusting God, but it is not possible to do that and be saved.

Tuesday, October 29. Romans 4 – 6

Paul’s question at the beginning of chapter six is a variation of a phrase used in 3:8 – “Let us do evil that good may result.”

It’s hard to understand how anyone, conversant with Christian theology, could get the idea that good comes from doing bad – but there it was in the Roman church.  If grace covers my sin and makes me “right” with God (righteous), then the more I sin, the more grace I get, the more righteous I become!

In chapter six, Paul says “no no no no no!”  Such a convoluted reasoning is totally contrary to what we become in Christ.  We enter Christ’s death to participate in his resurrection.  If Christ died to free us from sin, entering his death cannot allow us to continue in the same sin that Christ died to free us from (verses 7 and following).  Second, freed from sin, we must become the servants of God.  You cannot be both the servant of God and the slave of sin.

It is important just here to make a distinction: Paul is not saying a Christian cannot possibly be a servant of sin – for he very well can!  Paul’s previous chapters have affirmed that these Christians were indeed sinning.  Paul is saying that sin may not be a viable option for a Christian’s life – not if he intends to live in harmony with His new status in Christ.

I’ve never known a Christian to make the argument evidently the Romans were making – the one about getting more grace by sinning more.  But I have known Christians to live as if they believed it, whether they actually said it or not.

Monday, October 28. Romans 1 – 3

The Roman church was deeply divided ethnically. Jews against gentiles. Gentiles against Jews. The Jews felt they were superior because they were Jews. The gentiles felt they were superior because they weren’t Jews. After all, hadn’t the Jews rejected Christ? Isn’t that why Jesus was put to death?

These ideas had some deleterious effects on the church in Rome. Jewish Christians, trusting in their heritage, were ignoring the lifestyle requirements of that heritage. Gentile Christians, rejecting Judaism altogether, rejected the lifestyle requirements of the law. Both were rejecting the Old Testament requirement of faith.

In chapter three, Paul sums up his point thus far: despite the great value of Jewish heritage, both Jews and gentiles stand alienated from God because of sin. The gap between them and God can be bridged by only one thing: faith in Christ Jesus.

But wait: it is actually two things – not made plain by the English text. First, there must be faith in Christ, specifically what he did on the cross in sacrificing himself for the sins of mankind. Do you believe that it is what Jesus did that reconciles you to God and not any merit you might possibly think you have with God? Answering “yes” to this question simply destroys the divisiveness of these self-righteous Christians.

Then, having lain all personal merit aside, there must be the faith of Christ, the faith Jesus had, living as Jesus lived.

There you have it: Paul’s point in Romans. Followers of Jesus must be totally dependent on what Christ has done for their relationship with God (called in this book “righteousness”). That dependence on God will lead them to live as God has directed in His law.

Reading Through the Bible, Sunday, November 20. Romans 15 – 1 Corinthians 2

    “I have written you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:15-16).

    It’s a complicated, fully packed two verses.

    In the Roman church, the behavior of some Christians is not only a distraction, but a deterrent – keeping others from becoming and being Christians.  The task before Paul is the same one given us all by God: to enable others to become acceptable to God.  It happens not by any power we might have to make them so, but by the power of God when we lead them into it.  They follow us best, and most willingly, when we lead them in a Christ-like way.

Reading Through the Bible, Saturday, November 19. Romans 11 – 14

    At the end of chapter eleven, the letter to the Romans takes a second turn (the first was at the end of chapter eight).

    Paul has focused intently on the notion that salvation, and standing “right” with God, is inherently a matter of faith – now faith in Jesus.

    But in a congregation like the Roman one, beset by racial trouble, all of this is making the Jewish Christians look bad.  They have, after all, depended heavily on their “Jewishness” for these blessings, not faith.  In 9 – 11, Paul takes a side trip to underscore that God has not rejected the Jewish people.  He simply requires of them what He has always required of them: faith – a point many of them have forgotten.  Additionally, the gentile Christians of the Roman church owe a debt to the Jews.  Because of the general Jewish rejection of Jesus, that opened the door for the gentiles to enter the kingdom of God.  But even then, God intended that the entry of the gentiles might cause Jewish non-believers to come to faith that all those who are truly Israel (people of faith) might be saved.

    Completing the foundational portion of this book with chapter 13, it would be well for us to examine our own lives.  Our ability to have a relationship with God is because of the action of God in Jesus.  The fact of our relationship is determined by our entrusting our lives to God.  Our success in having a relationship with God is assured by the power of the Spirit of God.

    It’s all well and good to say this, but how is that relationship seen?  In chapters 12 – 15, Paul deals with the evidence of our relationship, rooted solidly in our behavior – and a particular kind of behavior at that.