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.

Sunday, October 27. 2 Thessalonians 3; Acts 19

Acts 19 is the only example of re-baptism in the New Testament and perhaps here is a good place for a refresher look at the baptism in general.

“Washing” was a vital part of the approach to God in the Old Testament. Everyone was required to do it and priests especially lest they be struck dead by God. When John the baptist came preaching in the first century, he commanded it as a requisite for forgiveness of sins and preparation for the coming kingdom. Even Jesus submitted to it. Later, Jesus commanded it as a requirement to be his disciple and to receive salvation. Peter commands it for forgiveness of sins and in order to receive the Holy Spirit. Paul said it was necessary to union with Christ and entry into God’s family. It was an adult action submitted to by people old enough to profess faith in Christ and able to determine the direction of their own lives.

But why did the Ephesians have to be “re-baptized”?

Note how specific this gets. John required baptism in order to be ready for the coming kingdom and to receive the Holy Spirit when the Spirit was finally given. Those who received it looked forward to the coming of these two things. But these believers did not have the Spirit. Why not? The best answer is that they had received the baptism after those things had already come. They were baptized in anticipation of something that had already happened. The baptism was administered in faith that these events would happen, not that they already had. Thus, the baptism was invalid.

Though this is the only case we are told of, the story alone underscores the importance of baptism and doing it correctly.

Saturday, October 26. 1 Thessalonians 4 – 2 Thessalonians 2

Are you “worthy” of being a Christian?

I ask that because as the second letter to the Thessalonians opens, this is Paul’s prayer for them – and he mentions it twice.

Being “worthy” of the kingdom of God and Christ’s calling has nothing to do with meriting (or earning) that status – as if you deserve it. It has everything to do with honoring the status you have received by the way you live your life. Elders and Deacons are to be “worthy” of respect (1 Timothy 3:8; 5:17). They have the office, now they should live in such a way to honor their calling.

Paul lists the requisites for worthiness: a growing trust in God (faith), an increasing love for fellow Christians, and a dogged determination to live as God would have you to live in the face of temptation, opposition and persecution. Paul believed it also took something else: prayer. Particularly the prayers of others. It’s why he prayed for the Thessalonians and what he prayed for them. You might remember that as you go about your prayers and pray for your brethren, that they would be counted worthy of the Kingdom. You might also ask them to pray the same for you.

Remember something else too: “worthiness” is do-able, but it is not a destination. It is a direction; a direction of growing Christlikeness. Such a direction is critical considering the consequences of Christ’s inevitable return.

Friday, October 25. 1 Thessalonians 1 – 3

As you read the opening chapters of 1 Thessalonians, I hope you will be struck by Paul’s great feelings for these Christians. He had not been with them a long time, but for Paul, leaving them was heart-breaking.

That’s probably a new thought for many of us. Paul was always on the move. There were always other cities to visit, other churches to establish. Yet, it would appear that Paul’s movement was mostly external – not internal. We can choose to believe these moves were because of persecution alone, or that God was behind them all, relentlessly pushing Paul forward in the spread of the gospel. But however we choose to think about it, Paul seems to have found the whole process quite disconcerting. He knew that those he left behind so quickly were new to the faith, that they had been forced to absorb a new and different way of thinking, counter-cultural to the one they had grown up with. How well would they fare?

Paul continually prays for these people. Among them he was like a mother caring for her children, like a father encouraging and comforting them and urging them on in the faith. He describes having to leave them as being “torn” from them and tells them that he tried to return to them repeatedly and that he persistently asks God to allow him to come back to Thessalonica (2:18 and 3:10) and that while he is away, and alive, he found it hard to get on with his life until he knew they were ok.

Paul’s concern for them is their spiritual well-being. Who are those in your life you feel the same about? Unless, and until, our concern for the salvation of others is this strong, the Church will always languish and be in danger. If Christ gave his life for the Church, and Paul felt this strongly about it, should our concern not be the same?

If that is, we are going to follow Jesus?

Thursday, October 24. Galatians 4 – 6

This one line in Galatians chapter five is the cause of much misunderstanding: “every man who lets himself be circumcised is obligated to keep the whole law” (verse 3). A historic interpretation is that if you do part of the law, you have to do it all. Since no one can do it all, you are, by participating in circumcision, engaging in a hopeless quest. An adjacent interpretation is that by “doing the law,” one engages in worthless practices because the sacrifices of the Old Testament cannot save.

These interpretations do not do justice to this text. Paul is dealing with people who believe that by accepting circumcision, festival observances, and dietary restrictions, that they are now “in” with God and nothing else need be done. Paul’s point is just the opposite. You cannot stop with these. You have to go on and do the whole law – which involves loving one another. The entirety of the law is summed up in this command: “Love your neighbor as your self.” Indeed, Paul’s point is not that Christians should not do the Law, but rather that they must keep it entirely! The law commands living by faith (Galatians 3:12). You must do that. The law commands loving and living in harmony with brethren (5:14). You must do that. You cannot pick and choose the commands and expect that God will owe you His blessing because you’ve done the things you find easy.

Wednesday, October 23. Galatians 1 – 3

Galatians was written shortly after the Jerusalem gathering of Acts 15 on Paul’s second missionary journey (Acts 16 – 18). You should get the impression that the whole “you can only be saved by being a Jew” controversy has left Paul seething at the impertinence of this false teaching. When he discovers that the Galatian christians have been infected with it, he fires off this angry letter and it arrives without so much as a salutation.

The Jewish false teachers are urging gentile converts to become Jews and to accept the identifiers of Judaism: circumcision, festival day observance, and dietary restrictions. If they will but become Jews and act Jewish, God will grant them His blessings. In fact, the implication is that God will owe them His blessings.
Several points are vitally important to understand.

First, the business of “observing the law” (mentioned four times in Galatians) doesn’t mean “obey the Old Testament.” The phrase occurs only in Galatians and Romans and is confined to the particular matters Paul mentions: circumcision, festival day observance, and dietary restrictions. Galatians is not a diatribe against keeping the Old Testament. In fact, Paul requires obedience to it. It is a polemic against requiring Jewishness to be saved.

Second, near the end of chapter two, Paul writes (in most English translations): “the life I live in the body, I live by faith in the son of God.” In fact, Paul actually writes in the Greek text that he lives by the faith of the son of God. It is an important distinction. Paul isn’t saying faith in Jesus isn’t required (he will say it is required many times in his letters). He isn’t saying Jesus had faith and that’s enough, we don’t have to. He is saying Jesus had faith and we should have the kind of faith Jesus had. The phrase occurs seven times in the New Testament and only in Paul’s writings (Romans 3:22,26; 3:26; Galatians 2:16, 20; 3:22; Philippians 3:9).

It makes a difference does it not? It’s one thing for me to “believe” in Jesus. It’s another to have Jesus’ faith. That gives us all something to aim for.

Tuesday, October 22. Acts 15-18

Acts 15 is a critical moment in Luke’s story. The controversy related in this account will plague the church for years to come. The issue is the focal point of Galatians and Romans and Ephesians.

Luke has already told us about the extreme prejudice of the Jerusalem church against anyone not a Jew. Chapter ten reveals a prejudice shared by Peter and the Jerusalem church: if you are not first a Jew, you cannot be a Christian. Christianity is only for Jews. By the end of Acts chapter eleven, you get the impression the matter has been laid to rest, but prejudice dies hard. The church in Antioch has been home to Christians of a variety of backgrounds for several years. Hard-liners from the Jerusalem church arrive in Antioch and lay down the law: If you are not a Jew, you cannot be saved.

Paul and Silas and a number of Christians go to Jerusalem to dispute this matter. The debate is intense. Peter testifies from his own experience that this cannot be so. Paul and Barnabas testify from theirs. But the clincher comes from James, who puts the matter to rest with a quote from Amos 9. In other words, the Lord’s word is the final word.

Acts 15 reveals that the early Church wasn’t any more “perfect” than any church today: pettiness and prejudice, as well as the struggle to control others is perpetual problem. The final word, however, is not that of those in “authority,” nor does it consist of the testimony or experience of the principals. It is, and must be, the word of God. We need not think, however, that this will make all the issues go away, as Paul’s letters attest. Most importantly, because these differences persist, the Apostles do not tell the proponents: “get over it.” Rather, they tell everyone that compromises must be made to show respect for the traditions of others. Our Church today would do well to remember these lessons.