Monthly Archives: May 2012

Romans 13: Love Is All We Need

Love is what God is looking for most from His people?  Love is all we need?  Love is the answer?  How can that be?

What about the Law?  Love is a willy-nilly notion.  It is here today and gone tomorrow.  Love can make people do stupid things.  We need something concrete, eternal, unchanging.  We need something you can look up, something factual.  Law is what we need.  At least this is something like what the most die-hard Jews in the Roman church might have been thinking.

And I would have to agree, if what we were talking about is the purely emotional, saccharine-sweet, I-get-butterflies-when-you-are-around kind of love.  Yes, I am not sure that kind of love is sufficient for a lifetime of guidance into right living.

But Paul is talking about something else.

Don’t owe anything to anyone, except the debt of mutual love.  If you love your neighbor, you see, you have fulfilled the law.  Commandments like “don’t commit adultery, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t covet” — and any other commandment — are summed up in this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no wrong to its neighbor; so love is the fulfillment of the law. (13:8-10)

How can the principle of love be enough to guide us into right living?  Paul answers that question twice: because love fulfills the Law.  All of the Jewish Laws were just ways to show love to our neighbors.  In appealing to love as the proper ethic for life, Paul was essentially returning to the basic principle that undergirds God’s way of life.  Paul goes further: Love is the fulfillment of the law because this kind of sacrificial love of will and choice sets out to always do what is best for a person, and in so doing does no wrong to its neighbor.  If the Roman Christians would treat each other that way they would be doing the Law that matters most to God.  If we today always did what was in the best interest of the people around us, we would truly be doing what God wants.

How does this teaching on love make something make more sense?

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Romans 12: True Worship

Today we move from one my most daunting passages to understand to one of my favorites.  Paul is known for structuring his letters with long theological sections about beliefs followed by much more practical sections about ethics.  Romans 12:1 is that pivot point in this book.

We use the word “worship” in many ways.  I have to wonder if most of the time we don’t reduce that word down to far less than what God intended worship to be.  Worship is that thing that happens at the church building.  It is singing and praying and preaching (and dancing and rocking a guitar or drum kit, if you church does that sort of thing).  Worship is what some person “leads.”  Worship has a set soundtrack.  There is a “worship hour.”  Worship has an “order” of set events.  Sure, you can worship anywhere — on a mountain top, down by the lake, in a hospital room, in a flash mob at the local mall — but still we are talking about the same action: singing songs and praying prayers.

Is worship this? . . .

The Roman church Paul was writing had also reduced the idea of worship down to far less than what God intended.  For them it was about religious activities and rituals and sacred days.  It was about symbolic acts like circumcision.  It was about what food was eaten or not.  Worship was a cultural expression and both the Jewish and Gentile Christians wanted to stamp their own ideals onto that expression.  In short, worship was what took place when “the saints meet.”

The word “worship” comes from an Old English word “worth-ship.”  The connotation of this word is to show honor to the inherent worth of the person being worshipped.  It is tied to the ancient practice of “kissing the feet of” the person being honored.  Worship is saying to another you are the one, not me.  You are the focus of life, not me.  You matter.  I adore you and want to do your will.  Can you sing that in a song?  Of course.  Can you pray those sentiments?  Definitely.  But it is so much more than that.

Paul reminds the Roman Christians of this point:

So, my dear family, this is my appeal to you by the mercies of God: offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.  Worship like this brings your mind into line with God’s. (12:1)

Worship is not a religious activity that takes place in a sacred place at a sacred time.  Worship is to happen everywhere all of the time.  God is not looking for some sacrifice of an animal or a sacrifice of discomfort in circumcision or a sacrifice of diet by avoiding pork or a sacrifice of time by observing the Sabbath.  Or let’s update that today: God is not looking for a sacrifice of time on a Sunday morning or a sacrifice of money put in an offering plate or a sacrifice of career by being an inner-city social worker or a sacrifice of zip code by living frugally and denying our comfort and status.  God wants us — all of us — as the sacrifice.  God wants us to tie our worship to how we live each day, as “living sacrifices.”  God wants acts of worship that are tied deeply to our “mind” and that shape how that mind thinks.  Everything we are and everything we do is intended to be worship.

For the ancient Roman Christians that meant that the most worshipful actions they could take would be to love (12:9-21).  They needed to worry less about what they did to their bodies and more about what they did with their bodies.  They needed to worry less about what food they ate and more about with whom they ate or refused to eat.  They needed to try less to get others to become like them and more so to become like others so they together might become like Christ.  And they most needed to do this with the people they disagreed with most.  Love is the act of worship God wants most.

. . . or is this worship?

How do we get this wrong (or right) too?

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Romans 11: The Powerful, Fair Promise-Keeper

Romans 9-11 is certainly on my list of the top five most difficult passages.  Maybe top three.  So I don’t feel like I have much to offer today.  But I guess that is another benefit to a comprehensive reading plan: you can’t avoid hard passages!

Here are the two main points I gather from the chapter:

1. God can do what He wants:

Paul describes God as having at that time a “remnant” of faithful Jews that He has chosen by grace (11:5-6).  At the same time God hardens the hearts of other Jews so as to open a door for Gentiles (11:7-9, 25).  Then God uses this influx of Gentiles to drawn back Jews through jealousy (11:12).  But the Gentile Christians in Rome should bear in mind that the same God who cut off Jews because of unbelief can do the same to Gentiles who get a big head and stumble (11:20).  This is a very active, sovereign view of God.

Vincent van Gogh, “Olive Trees”

2. But God is more than fair:

This second point ameliorates any anxiety about such a high degree of divine control that the first point may bring.  The central question of the chapter is stated in the first sentence: “Has God abandoned his people [the Jews]?”  The resounding answer throughout the chapter is “no” (11:2).  Even those Jews who had “tripped up” presumably by unbelief will not have “fall[en] completely” (11:11).  God wants to use Jewish jealousy to save Gentiles (11:14), and if those Jews return to belief they can be grafted back into God’s olive tree (11:23).  In what might be the biggest statement of God’s extravagant kindness, 11:28-29 seems to suggest that God will even honor his promises to the Jewish patriarchs to Jews who were still choosing not to believe.  God will keep his promises, even if they don’t.  We can rest assured that God will assert his power in a manner that is exborinantly fair.  

What struck you in this chapter?

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Romans 10: Trust Me!

A trap very easily fallen into when reading Romans is to bypass the original context and focus solely on what Romans can teach us.  Romans 9-11 is a difficult section of Scripture, but that is especially true when we forget about the original context.

Any good Jew in Paul’s time would have been tempted to appeal to their chosen-people status as grounds for salvific confidence.  The logic would have gone something like this: Israel was chosen by God, I am a Jew, so I am good with God. That line of logic has a modern equivalent: the Church is composed of God’s elect in this world, I go to church, so I am good with God.

In Romans 10 Paul is taking on this faulty thinking.  God isn’t looking for heritage or membership, He is looking for people who truly trust Him and His faithfulness to His promises.  God isn’t looking for people who “establish a covenant status of their own” (10:3), He is looking for people who have faith in their hearts, confess that faith with their mouths, and ask with dependency for God to save them (10:10-13).  That invitation was given to the Jews and some received it, though others did not (10:21).  That invitation is also open to all because it relies upon God’s goodness not those being saved.

If the Jewish Christians in the Roman church thought that being a Jew seals the deal, they missed the boat.  If we think being a church member ensures salvation, we too are just as lost.

What were you drawn to in this chapter?

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Romans 9: Who Is The Potter and Who Is The Clay?

Control freak!

There are a lot of us out there.  We like things a certain way.  It’s not so much that we are selfish and must have it our way, it’s more so that we are more comfortable when things go our way.  Life is more predictable.  Control freaks don’t like surprises.

On the other hand, control freaks really like performance-based systems.  Do something and get a predictable result.  One can know how they will be judged, so there are no surprises.  Performance-based systems like religious laws and customs because they bring, well, control.

The problem, though, is that we are not in control of the big matters of life, things like salvation, election, destiny, and calling.  Nor were the Roman Christians.  This was not their church, it was Christ’s.  They were not the ones who call people out of darkness, God is.  They were not the gatekeepers of the Kingdom, Jesus is.


To say it a different way, Paul reminds them that they are only clay in the hands of the Potter.  He will do what He will.

Who can stand against his purpose?  Are you, a mere human being, going to answer God back?  Surely the clay won’t say to the potter, “Why did you make me like this?”  Doesn’t the potter have authority over the clay? (9:19b-21a)

So the Potter has chosen to include Gentiles with their different way of life in this previously homogeneously Jewish Church.  That is God’s right.  It is up to us to accept and adapt.

We today should probably ask ourselves who the Gentiles of our world are. Who is God bringing into our churches or at least into relationship with Him even though they don’t fit our mold?  Are we trying to tell the Potter He can’t do things like that?

What do you think?

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Romans 8: Help In Our Weakness

21

In case we miss the answer we have been looking for since yesterday, Paul gives us the answer twenty-one times in Romans 8: SPIRIT.

Paul left us with a defense of Law; it is not the root of our problem.  But Law is also not the answer to our problem, because it lacks the power to move us past our own powerlessness.  What we need is a power outside of ourselves.  And this is exactly what God brings: the Holy Spirit of God living within us (8:9).

The spirit comes alongside and helps us in our weakness. (8:26)

Maybe you grew up as I did in a religious tradition too scared to talk about the Holy Spirit lest we be labeled as charismatic, as if that were some great sin.  However, when we neglect the Spirit we are left only with ourselves and we are back in the middle of the mess of Romans 7.

Christians are called to listen with attentive minds and hearts to the Spirit of God within us (8:5-6).  This Spirit will guide and empower the children of God to live in accordance of God’s wishes, as the Spirit is the first piece of the new life already given to us (8:14, 23, 26-27).  All that God intended in the Law becomes possible when we “live according to the Spirit” (8:4).

What verse caught your eye today?

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Romans 7: Law Is Not The Problem, Nor The Answer

After yesterday’s post it is tempting to think that the Jewish Law was the root of the Christians’ problem in ancient Rome, after all the commands of the Law are what allowed sin to tempt and enslave (7:9-10).  Of course, this message would not fly in a half Jewish church, not to mention the fact that it maligns something that came directly from God.

Paul makes it clear that he is claiming nothing of the sort:

So, then, the law is holy; and the commandment is holy, upright, and good. . . . We know, you see, that the law is spiritual. (7:12, 14a)

The Law itself is a good thing.  Guidance from God on how to live life righteously and wisely is never bad.  But the side effect of Law is temptation, incitement to sin, and ultimately enslavement.

Why is that?  Why is Law by itself not the answer to our sin problem?

Law possesses no power within itself to save us from ourselves. It offers direction but no propulsion.  It tells us what to do — and it is right and that guidance is a blessing — but it does not give us a way beyond ourselves to do the very thing we know and often want to do.

I don’t understand what I do.  I don’t do what I want, you see, but I do what I hate. . . . For I can will the good, but I can’t perform it.  For I don’t do the good thing I want to do, but I end up doing the evil thing I don’t want to do. . . . What a miserable person I am! (7:15, 18b-19, 24a)

Law is not the answer. We (and the Roman Christians) need a supernatural power beyond ourselves to enable the life of righteousness and wisdom the Law describes.

The answer comes tomorrow.

What did you notice anew in this chapter?

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How To Read The Bible Series

Over on my other blog (A Knight’s Miscellany) I am beginning a summertime reading project regarding how best to read and apply the Bible in the twenty-first century.  You might find these periodic posts interesting and applicable to what we do here.  Sign up now on that blog for email updates or follow that blog through wordpress.com.  It’s that easy!

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Romans 6: Free at Last!

On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and freed all slaves living in America.  He was the president, he said they were free, and that is that.

Well, it wasn’t really that easy.  The Confederates were no longer acknowledging Lincoln as their president so his words weren’t worth much to them anymore.  At least until the Union won the Civil War and asserted their power and laws.

So at the point of the Emancipation Proclamation were the slaves free or not?

You are only free to the degree people (including yourself) let you be free.

There were pockets of slave owners in Texas that got together and conspired to keep the word of the Emancipation Proclamation from their slaves.  It wasn’t that hard to do.  Many slaves could not read.  The slave owners would also run abolitionists out of town or even in rare cases kill them lest they stir up the slaves into dissension.  When rumors of freedom did get through to the slaves, all the slave owners had to do was tell them to look at their situation.  How could these rumors be true?  They don’t appear to be free, do they?  In the end, in these pockets of Texas, even though slavery had been abolished, freedom was denied to the slaves for another two years.

The Roman Christians were at a crossroads.  Theologically they had to decide how free they would allow themselves to be.  Their slave masters were not flesh and blood though.  They had to decide how free from law and sin they would be.

Paul has been painting a picture of Law that is not pretty.  There is within fallen humanity a propensity to sin (5:12-13), but until a command comes along declaring what we should and should not do the sinful desires inside of us do not know how to tempt us (3:20).  Think of children: as soon as you say don’t do something, what do they want to do?  The very thing prohibited.  Likewise our sinful desires.  The law was not intended to be a way to salvation, rather it showed us how depraved we truly are (5:20).  To hang on to law as a way to get right with God is nonsensical.  Law leads to sin which produces guilt and ultimately death (6:23), whether spiritual death or the metaphorical death of hope and love and goodness.

In this chapter, Paul sketches out an alternative.  He tells the Roman Christians: “you have been freed from sin” (6:7, 18, 22). Sin is no longer their master, because they have been freed from an obligation to follow the Jewish Law.  Law played its role and now it is time for another option: the cross and the grace that is freely offered there.  As we identify ourselves with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus through baptism (6:3-5) we choose a new cycle.  The cross brings freedom which produces gratitude and ultimately life.

The wages paid by sin, you see, are death; but God’s free gift is the life of the age to come, in the Messiah, Jesus our Lord. (6:23)

Paul, though, leaves these two opposing options as exactly that: choices.  The Roman Christians can choose to go the way of law or the way of the cross.  He argues one will lead to death and one to life.  They have been freed from sin by the power of the cross.  Through Christ’s resurrection God showed this truly is His world and life and death, freedom and slavery truly are His to determine.  But they still have to choose to not let sin have that power over them by going the way of grace through the cross, not the way of law and sin (6:12-14).  They would only be as free in the Roman church as they allowed themselves to be.

Nobody is encouraging us to follow the Jewish Law these days, but we can still give our freedom away to a works-oriented religion.  Again, this only leads to inevitable failure, overwhelming guilt, and the death of hope.  But the cross still stands before us today offering grace and freedom, propelling us into a grateful and abundant life of service to God and others.

The choice is ours.  How free will we allow ourselves to be?

What struck you in this chapter?

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Romans 5: Grace All The More!

Down at the core of the gospel that this book of Romans is so much about (1:16-17) are two truths:

  • We are all a bunch of rascals.
  • But God can save us anyway.

The first point we don’t like to accept, especially in a culture where we grew up on self-esteem slogans and a foundational belief that all people are good.  The second point we absolutely love.  We deem it an inalienable right.  Though, I wonder if we can really appreciate the second point if we don’t fully accept the first.  Maybe that is why some of my favorite verses in the Bible are right here in this chapter:

While we were still weak, at that very moment he died on behalf of the ungodly. (5:6)

This is how God demonstrates his own love for us: the Messiah died for us while we were still sinners. (5:8)

When we were enemies, you see, we were reconciled to God through the death of his son. (5:10)

Where sin increased, grace increased all the more. (5:20)

It’s all about grace, and when we forget that we get out of alignment.  Then we sell our uniqueness and settle for something that is just like everything else.

Thank God for His abundant grace!

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Romans 4: Saved by Faith

In what would have been a powerful illustration to the Jewish Christians in the Romans church, Paul makes the point that just as was true in the life of Abraham, we are saved by faith not works.

Everyone has a definition of “faith.”  This chapter has a pretty good one too:

He [Abraham] didn’t waver in unbelief when faced with God’s promise [of a son even though he was approaching 100 years old].  Instead, he grew strong in faith and gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God had the power to accomplish what he had promised [even though it defied logic]. (4:20-21)

Faith is believing that God can do something even though it is entirely against all odds.

When was the last time you acted on a belief in God that defied logic and was against all odds?  

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Romans 3: Bad News, Good News

Sometimes to really appreciate the good news we have to first understand the bad news.  It seems this is what Paul has been doing in Romans and it all comes to a head in Romans 3.

Lest the Jewish and Gentile Christians in the Roman church who have been jockeying with each other for power miss the point, Paul makes everything crystal clear:

Jews as well as Greeks are all under the power of sin. (3:9)

No one is in the right — nobody at all!  No one understands, or goes looking for God; all of them alike have wandered astray, together they have all become futile; none of them behaves kindly, no, not one. (3:10-12)

For there is no distinction: all sinned, and fell short of God’s glory. (3:22-23)

Both sides need to stop their posturing for a minute and face a fact.  Jew or Gentile, it doesn’t matter.  Both are sinful in their own ways.  Both are equally sinful.  Sin, of some sort, has slithered into their hearts and is slowly taking over.  At this point there is only one thing that matters and they are all the same in this way: they are doomed because of sin.

And right at the point of that depressing fact is when Paul gives the first of several statements of the gospel or “good news” in Romans:

By God’s grace they are freely declared to be in the right, to be members of the covenant, through the redemption which is found in the Messiah, Jesus.  God put Jesus forth as the place of mercy, through faithfulness, by means of his blood. . . . He declares to be in the right everyone who trusts in the faithfulness of Jesus. (3:24-26)

It isn’t how good we are that matters, it is how good Jesus was.  It isn’t what kind of blood we have running through our veins that matters, it is whether we have been covered by Jesus’ blood.  It isn’t the rituals we have done that save us, it is the ritual of sacrifice that Jesus did that saves us.  Jew, Gentile, Greek, Barbarian, American, Afghani, Iranian, devoted church attender, or tortured soul — it doesn’t matter.  We are all the same at the foot of the cross.  Sinners saved by grace.

What one phrase from this majestic chapter means the most to you, and why?

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Romans 2: Those Self-Righteous Jews

. . . and then the other shoe dropped.

Yesterday, Paul seemed to be squarely on the side of the Jewish Christians, one more Jew who saw the Gentiles as an inferior people group and unfit for leadership in the Roman church.

Today, in a piece of literary genius, Paul turns the table completely.

So you have no excuse — anyone, whoever you are, who sit in judgment!  When you judge someone else, you condemn yourself, because you, who are behaving as a judge, are doing the same things. (2:1)

Sure, the Jewish Christians would not be practicing idolatry or sexual immorality or robbery of the conventional sorts.  They were not literally like the Gentiles.  But that is the problem with self-righteousness.  It settles for literalism, and congratulates oneself for not doing some specific act of perversion.  Yet the Law had become the Jewish Christians’ idol.  And their adultery was spiritual not sexual.  They were worshipping their own ability to be good, and stealing God’s glory.

Worse yet, these Jewish Christians had narrowly defined “good.”  For them, good meant being of Jewish heritage, being among those chosen by God to have the Law, knowing that Law, being able to teach that Law, following the rituals of that Law like circumcision, food laws, and holidays.  Good meant being a good Jew.  So defined, yes, they were very good, and their Gentile brothers and sisters did not measure up.

Paul sets the Jewish Christians in Rome straight.  Good is not defined by hearing the law or having the law, but by doing it (2:13).  Paul goes one further: “Jew” — as in the people cherished by God — isn’t nearly as much about ethnicity as obedience.  Circumcision isn’t about getting rid of unclean flesh as much as it is about getting rid of an unclean heart (2:28-29).  Therefore, an uncircumcised but morally upright Gentile with a tender heart might actually be a better Jew, than someone who can trace their heritage back to Abraham.

If you are a Jewish Christian in this Roman church you have just been put in your place.  These chapters might be a rough start to a letter, but we can be assured that Paul had everyone’s attention at this point.

Do we ever do this same thing?  How so?

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Romans 1: Those Perverted Gentiles

Imagine you are one of the Jewish Christians in this ethnically divided, prejudicial church and you hear Phoebe read the last part of this chapter aloud.  You know Paul can only be talking about Gentiles.

They knew God, but didn’t honor him as God or thank him. (1:21)

They swapped the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of the image of mortal humans — and of birds, animals, and reptiles. (1:23)

They dishonored their bodies among themselves. (1:24)

Men performed shameless acts with men, and received in themselves the appropriate repayment for their mistaken ways. (1:27)

They were filled with all kinds of injustice, wickedness, greed and evil. (1:29)

They know that God has rightly decreed that people who do things like that deserve death. (1:32)

Andrea Mantegna, “Bacchanalia with a Wine Vat” (c. 1500)

If you are one of the Jewish Christians who had started this church in Rome after returning home from Jerusalem after that first Pentecost of the Church (Acts 2), who then had been expelled from Rome by Claudius only to return to a very different, Gentile church, what are you thinking?

See, we were right!

Look what they come from.

Sure, they are Christians now, but can anyone really reform that much?

Their heritage is riddled with perversion, idolatry, and revelry.

We are so much better than they are!

Get rid of circumcision?  What comes next?  Some pagan festival like the Bacchanalia?

We should be the leaders in this church.  You can’t trust people like this.

If you are a Jewish Christian in this Roman church, you are liking this new letter from Paul, a fellow Jew.  Preach on, brother!

What grabbed your attention in this chapter?

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BONUS: An Introduction to Romans

Romans is a personal favorite of many people.  Paul, who almost all agree was the author, touches on almost every major theological belief in this great book, so the next three weeks are sure to be stimulating.

Rome was the center of the New Testament world.  A city of several million, it was the political and cultural center of the Roman Empire, home to the Caesars.  Rome was the ancient equivalent to New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong or Tokyo.  Religion was big in Rome, mainly the worship of the Roman gods and the developing Emperor cult, but there was a large, vibrant, and legal Jewish population in Rome as well.  Remember that when Christianity first stated it was considered a Jewish sect so it too was a protected religious movement and not largely persecuted.  Christians would suffer severely in Rome but not for another 20 years after the writing of Romans.

Romans was most certainly written in Corinth around AD 55 and delivered to Rome and first read to the church there by the deaconess Phoebe (Romans 16:1).

The purpose for Romans has been described in many ways.  Martin Luther read his own issues with the Roman Catholic Church into the book and saw Romans as a treatise against works-oriented religion.  It is certainly that, but that characterization has more to do with 16th Century Europe than 1st Century Rome.  Others imagine Paul sitting down and writing Romans as a theological compendium, a statement of his beliefs.  There is too much that is specific to the Roman church for that to be true, plus that would make Romans truly unique amongst New Testament letters.

Like every other letter in the New Testament, Romans is situational.  There was something going on that made Paul write this letter, to a church he had not started nor even visited.  Paul had a habit of setting up home bases for his various mission endeavors.  First it was Antioch, then Ephesus, now Corinth.  Paul’s greatest desire was to get to Spain where the Gospel had not really yet been preached widely (15:23-33).  By all appearance, Paul was preparing this Roman church to be his next launching point for that campaign.  However, this church was a divided church turned inward on itself in no condition to be involved in outward mission.  We know from the ancient Roman historian Suetonius that around AD 49 the emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews from Rome because they had been rioting amongst each other concerning a person named “Chrestus” (c.f., Acts 18:2).  This likely was an argument between Jews and Christians over Christ.  So for a span of five years until Claudius’ death in AD 54 when the Jews would have returned to Rome, this largely Jewish church with a defined Jewish flavor became thoroughly Gentile.  Leadership changed.  The culture and practices of the church changed.  Now in AD 55 we have a power struggle and identity crisis in the Roman church, largely involving ethnicity and customs.  Issues like circumcision, food, holidays, a background in paganism, an Abrahamic heritage, and the like would have been hotly debated, and these will pop up a good bit in our readings.  Paul is writing a significantly divided and prejudicial Roman church attempting to help them sort out their problems for the sake of the advancing Kingdom of God.

Background aside, Romans is so popular because the Gospel that all of us needs to hear speaks freedom, hope, love, and faith into every situation, whether in ancient Rome, modern Memphis, the Philippines, Malaysia or Canada.

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Take Note

I will be slightly out of pocket for the next week or so.  The regular posts will come, but I won’t be able to respond to comments.  There haven’t been many comments lately unfortunately, so that will not be a great issue I suspect.  Bless you all!

We start the great book of Romans tomorrow.

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Matthew 28: Terror and Great Delight

The women scurried off quickly away from the tomb, in a mixture of terror and great delight. (28:8)

This is an angel standing before us — a majestic messenger of God that strikes fear in all who see it.

The message is that Jesus has been raised from the dead — the message we long to hear, though it defies logic.

We are running off to tell the disciples Jesus has been resurrected — they will be so excited, if they don’t think we are out of our minds.

That appears to be Jesus up ahead — Hallelujah, but can I trust my eyes?

Rumors are swirling that the resurrection is a hoax we cooked up by stealing the body — that is not the truth, but it is easier to believe and the Jews are buying it.

We have hurried off to Galilee to meet Jesus — how can we help but worship, but wait a minute “Is this real?”

He is sending us out in the world, the hostile world, the one that killed him — he is with us with all authority in heaven and earth, but will they kill us like they killed him?

Faith is not easy.  It defies pure logic.  It makes you second guess what you are seeing.  It doesn’t add up.  There are always alternative theories afoot for what you are choosing to believe.  That can be terrifying.  But if it is true, if it is true . . . there will be great delight!

What does resurrection mean to you?

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Matthew 27: Let His Blood Be On Us!

I am struck by the utter irony of this passage:

“So what shall I do with Jesus the so-called Messiah?” asked Pilate.

“Let him be crucified!” they all said.

“Why?” asked Pilate. “What’s he done wrong?”

But they shouted all the louder, “Let him be crucified!”

Pilate saw that it was no good.  In fact, there was a riot brewing.  So he took some water and washed his hands in front of the crowd.  “I’m not guilty of this man’s blood,” he said.  “It’s your problem.”

Let his blood be on us!” answered all the people, “and on our children!”  (27:22-25)

Of course, the crowd means they will gladly take the guilt of killing Jesus.  His death is justified.  He is a law-breaker and blasphemer.  He incites riots and disturbs the peace.  Look at the company he keeps: he likely has some hidden sin.   If he really is God’s son then he can save himself.  But he won’t.  This guy is a ruffian.  We’ll answer for spilling his blood.

The irony is that by the end of the day that is exactly what happened.  Jesus’ shed blood was potentially “upon them and their children,” but not at all in the way they had imagined.  That blood signified redemption and atonement.  It meant they all had the potential to be saved by the very man they had crucified.  And if they accepted that invitation that blood would wash away their sins.  Were some of these same people among the 3000 saved on Pentecost forty days later?

What an amazing reminder of the grace of God!  He gives them what they want, and so much more!

What did you notice today?

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Matthew 26: Two Very Different Roads Converge

We are approaching Jesus’ death and I am struck by how there are two very different roads to the same place, Mt. Calvary.

The chapter begins by telling us that Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders are both contemplating the same event, but have very different intentions:

Jesus said to his disciples, “In two days’ time, as you know, it’ll be Passover!  That’s when the son of man will be handed over to be crucified.” (26:1-2)

The chief priests got together with the elders of the people. . . . They plotted how to capture Jesus by some trick, and kill him. (26:4)

Next, we have the two groups making preparation for death.  An unnamed woman comes to Jesus and anoints his head with very expensive perfume, unbeknownst to her as preparation for his burial.  She does this as a sign of honor.  Meanwhile, the chief priests strike a deal with Judas to lead them to Jesus in a private place so they can arrest him without a scene.  Preparations are made for betrayal.

When Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane, a stark divergence is seen again.  Everyone around Jesus — including impetuous Peter — operates by force.  Swords are brandished, an ear is cut off, and Jesus is manhandled away to the house of the high priest.  In contrast, throughout it all Jesus operates by peace.  He so opposes force that he heals the high priest’s slave’s ear and chastises his own defender Peter.  These are two radically different ways of operating in the world.

Both groups see Jesus’ body as an object to satisfy a need.  For Jesus, his body is an instrument of “forgiveness of sins” and healing (26:28).  Later, as the palace guard spat on Jesus and beat him, they show that Jesus’ body is simply an object on which to show hatred and humiliation.

Yet, both of these roads end up at the same place.  However, for one it is a cross of shame, mockery, and elimination.  For Jesus it is the cross of victory, love, and forgiveness.

What did you see anew in this very familiar chapter?

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Matthew 25: Stay Alert!

This chapter is nothing but three popular parables: the Parable of the Ten Virgins, the Parable of the Talents, and the Parable of the Sheep & Goats.  They are interestingly placed.  You might expect that Jesus would be done telling stories this close to his death.  I think the reason for their placement is that they follow the exhortation to “keep alert” in 24:42 because Jesus’ future return will come unexpectedly.  Today’s parables pick up that point and advance it.

Like the five wise girls in the first parable, we are to be ready and “keep awake” (25:13).  We are to use the resources we have, like the girls’ oil, in a wise manner because the end could be upon us without notice.

Likewise, we must use the “talents” or resources (as talents were an increment of money not an ability, though the principle would be the same) wisely and responsibly.  The Master is looking for and even expecting fruitfulness, and those who “have been trustworthy with small things” will be put in charge of “bigger ones” (25:21).

How we use our resources is important.  Like the “sheep” who are congratulated by the king for serving him by serving the poor, our resources are given to us in order that we might help others in need, not simply for our own enjoyment.

Time is short.  No one is guaranteed tomorrow.  Be responsible.  Be active.  Help others.

(The following artwork comes from Cerezo Barredo, an Hispanic artist.  I like the way he recontextualizes these parables in a modern way.)

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Matthew 24: In Case of Rapture. . .

Eschatology — the study of the end of this life and the advent of the world that is to come — is, by nature, a bit speculative.  The Bible does give us guidance but it is often slightly cryptic, imaginative, and figurative.  How, too, do you talk about something that is not exactly like this world?

I am going to use today’s post to do what many blogs do regularly: float ideas out there for review that are still in the formative stage.  I would love to hear what you think of these thoughts.

Like many, I grew up thinking of the next life as a place called Heaven that is out there past the wild blue yonder, certainly a place out there far away from our present, evil world.  A lot of education, steady reading of the Bible with new glasses on, and a bit of N. T. Wright and others have changed that view of the world to come radically.  I am uncomfortable with escapist theologies that paint this world that is precious to God and still owned by God as evil and disposable (Psalm 24:1).  I am finding more and more each day that indicates the new world (or Heaven, if you want to it that) will be right here on a renewed earth.  Emotionally this question really made a lot of things click for me: what parent would say of a rebellious and sinful child, I’ll get rid of him and get a new one?  God is in the business of redeeming; it only stands to reason that applies to all He created.

Let’s read this passage with that way of thinking in mind:

You see, the royal appearing of the son of man will be like the days of Noah.  What does that mean?  Well, in those days, before the flood, they were eating and drinking, they were getting married and giving children in marriage, right up to the day when Noah went into the ark.  They didn’t know about it until the flood came and swept them all away.  That’s what it’ll be like at the royal appearing of the son of man.  On that day there will be two people working in the field.  One will be taken; the other will be left.  There will be two women grinding corn in the mill.  One will be taken; the other will be left. (24:37-41)

Many of us are familiar with the belief that there will be a time slightly before the Second Coming of Christ when many Christians will be taken up out of this world and taken off to Heaven.  This is usually called the Rapture.  That is a belief I have never held, probably because I come from an amillennial tradition.  But as you can imagine, this belief doesn’t fit with the way I am proposing we should understand the future.  We are not going up and off to anywhere.  The New Jerusalem is coming here to a cleansed and renewed earth (Revelation 21-22).

This passage quoted above is often cited in supported of the Rapture.  Two people are in a field and one is taken away.  There it is.  But why do we think that the one taken away is taken away to Heaven?

I would like to suggest that the one taken away is taken off for punishment.  He is part of the cleansing, that which has to be taken out of this world in order for renewal to take place.  I would cite the very example Matthew uses in this passage as support.  In the days of Noah, you did not want to be swept away.  You wanted to be one of the eight left behind on the Ark.  If you were taken, it was punishment.  Likewise, if you are one of the two men in a field or two women grinding corn, you don’t want to be taken away.  You want to be the one left.

What do you think?

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Matthew 23: Are We The Pharisees?

For those who only imagine Jesus as meek and mild and accepting of all, hold on because this chapter blows that stereotype to pieces.

Matthew has brought us to the last week of Jesus’ life.  The tension between the Jewish religious leaders and Jesus is escalating, and this chapter does nothing to help that.

As I have said before, I am thoroughly and unapologetically religious.  Institutional and traditional Christianity is in my DNA.  I don’t think religion is God’s Kingdom; it is not where one finds the life and divinity we are all after.  Yet, I still value religion as a vehicle that often times transfers me into the Kingdom of life and divinity.  I like the way Eugene Peterson balanced religion (or “church”) and Kingdom in this quote from Christianity Today a few years back:

What other church is there besides institutional?  There’s nobody who doesn’t have problems with the church because there is sin the church.  But there is no other place to be a Christian except the church. . . . I really don’t understand this naive criticism of the institution.  I really don’t get it.  Frederick Von Hugel said the institution of the church is like the bark on the tree.  There’s no life in the bark.  It’s dead wood.  But it protects the life of the tree within.  And the tree grows and grows and grows.  If you take the bark off, it’s prone to disease, dehydration, death.  So, yes, the church is dead but it protects something alive.  And when you try to have a church without bark, it doesn’t last long.  It disappears, gets sick, and it’s prone to all kinds of disease, heresy and narcissism. 

“The Pharisees” by Karl Schmidt Rottluff

When I read a chapter like Matthew 23 I use it to inspect my own religious heart and determine whether Jesus could say some of the same things about me that he once said to the Pharisees.  The following are the phrases in today’s reading that I think all of us who are religious need to dwell on today to assess how true they could be in our lives as well:

You must do whatever they tell you, and keep it. (23:3a)

They talk but they don’t do. (23:3b)

They tie up heavy bundles which are difficult to carry, and they dump them on people’s shoulders. (23:4)

Everything they do is for show, to be seen by people. (23:5)

You tithe . . . and you omit the serious matters . . . like justice, mercy, and loyalty. (23:23)

You scrub the outside of the cup and the dish, but the inside is full of extortion and moral flabbiness. (23:25)

On the inside you appear to be virtuous and law-abiding, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (23:28)

Inserted into his invectives, Jesus offers two recalibrations for those of us who may feel like we are more aligned with the Pharisees than with Jesus:

The greatest among you should be your servant.  People who make themselves great will be humbled; and people who humble themselves will become great. (23:11)

First make the inside of the cup clean, and then the outside will be clean as well. (23:26)

The hypocrisy, legalism, and self-important arrogance of religiosity can be kept in check by a well-maintained interior life that  values humility not pride, service not power.

Lord, protect us from the “leaven of the Pharisees!”

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Matthew 22: Dressed for the Party

There were parties aplenty in the early years of high school.  Some not so great, many of them little more than huddles of insecure teenagers waiting for somebody to embarrass themselves or do something heroic.  Given the scrutiny that anyone at one of these gatherings would be under, we all knew it was important how you were dressed.  This was the mid-eighties so we segmented off by fashion — the preps with their pastels and popped collars, the jocks with their letterman jackets and team sweatshirts, the denim and leather crowd rocking a concert t-shirt.  The styles varied, but one thing you didn’t want to do was show up to a party dressed in such a way that you would stick out.  

Pieter Bruegel, “The Wedding Feast”

Matthew 22 starts with another parable, that of the wedding feast.  This is coming to be a royal feast with all of the trimmings.  The king has commissioning the killing of bulls and fattened calves.  He has invited all of his friends to celebrate the nuptials of his son.  The so-called friends snub the invitation and the king’s ire is raised.  So he sends out his slaves into the streets to invite anyone who might like to attend.  Many come and a great feast is had.  

Jesus’ point is clear in this parable.  The upstanding Jews and their religious leaders have been invited to celebrate God’s son Jesus but they have rejected the invitation.  Now, it is no surprise that the rabble of society are sitting down to eat with Jesus — not to mention the Gentiles who will come next.  They gladly received the invitation.  

It is the ending of the parable I took notice of this time:

But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who wasn’t wearing a wedding suit. (22:11)

The king is indignant and has the man thrown out with an empty belly and rejection.  

A bit of background here might help.  The guests who do respond to the invitation appear to be a poorer lot and they were not expecting the party.  They would not have had the appropriate attire readily available.  It also was a custom that a rich host like this one would provide the wedding clothes for the feast.  Thus, if a guest is sitting in the feast without the prerequisite clothes, it is only because he has rejected the king’s clothes and desires to disregard protocol and decorum.  It is this rebellious spirit the king cannot abide.  

What is the appropriate dress for us today as we celebrate the upcoming wedding feast of the Church to the Lamb?

Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. (Romans 13:13-14)

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3:12-13)

In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5)

What stood out to you in this chapter?

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Matthew 21: Taking God’s Property

Today we come to Jesus’ Parable of the Tenants, a thinly veiled attack on the Pharisees (21:45).

A landowner plants a vineyard and rents it out to tenant farmers to care for the vineyard while he is away on a journey.  Harvest time comes and the landowner sends slaves to collect the fruit that is rightfully his.  The tenant farmers kill the slaves.  He tries again with a second group of slaves and the same thing happens.  The third time he sends his own son, thinking they will surely respect him.  Seizing the opportunity to get rid of the heir, the farmers kill the son too:

This fellow’s the heir!” they said among themselves. “Come on, let’s kill him, and then we can take over the property! (21:38).

Jesus asks the crowd what these tenant owners should expect because of their deeds?  Death, at the hands of the vineyard owner.

Let’s remember who the Pharisees were: the religious establishment.  They were the ones to whom God had given the leadership of His people.  But they allow that power to go to their heads and they tried to take what was God’s “property” and make it their own.

We would be a bit naive to think that the same selfish impulse can’t exist in religious people today.  Does God ever give us a farmer’s role and we turn it into a power trip?  Do our churches and Sunday School classes become our own domains?  Does our paycheck become ours?  Do we think our kids are our property?  Do we even think that our life is our own?  Maybe we have not been as malicious as the tenant farmers, but we should heed the warning of their example.

Does this resonate with you?

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Matthew 20: A Kingdom of Rejects

"The Red Vineyard" by Vincent Van Gogh

Today I had one of those “I’ve never seen that line before” experiences.

Jesus tells the crowds the parable of the vineyard workers.  The vineyard owner goes out at the various times throughout the day hiring workers, but then pays all of them the same fair amount — one dinar, a day’s wage.  No one is shorted, mind you.  The owner is extravagantly generous with the workers who came late in the day, especially those who only worked one hour.  Fifty dollars to pick lettuce for a whole day in California’s Central Valley is half-decent if you are a migrant worker; fifty dollars for working an hour in the same fields is a celebration!  This is a wonderful parable of God’s grace, and a sober reminder that there have always been and still are hard-hearted people of God who don’t want anyone to get something they don’t deserve.

"The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard" by Rembrandt (I love the contrast between the come-lately pair in the right foreground laughing about their good fortune and the consternation on the look of the all-day workers grabbing hold of the landowner who seem to feel like they have been cheated)

It is verse 7 that I have never seen before.  The vineyard owner asked the last group of hired workers why they were still standing in the marketplace with nothing to do.  Their response:

“Because no one has hired us,” they replied. (20:7a)

These are the rejects.  The picked-over leftovers.  The pathetic lot who couldn’t get a job earlier.  And the vineyard owner utters the most wonderful words to them too:

“Well,” he said, “you too can go into the vineyard.” (20:7b)

The landowner’s vineyard — God’s kingdom — is a place even for the rejects.  Praise God!

What did you notice in this chapter?  

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