No Scripture abuse allowed here
Romans 16: Keep a sharp eye out for those who take bits and pieces of the teaching you have learned.
The first theology book of Christianity is being concluded. The final pages are more about words of greeting than theology. Now, almost an afterthought, the Apostle warns his readers about the danger of taking “bits and pieces” of the truth and using them in such a way as to create an untruth. Some people, Paul warns them, are pretty good at doing this bad thing. They take true statements and then twist them to their own purposes. He tells his readers to stay away from people like that. As I read this warning I can’t help but think that one of the best ways for me to avoid this trap is to study God’s Word, making the effort to know what it really says. Another thing that comes to mind is that I don’t ever want to be one of these troublemakers who abuse the Bible, making it say what I want it to say. I can’t help but think that had Paul seen the future and how it would be his own words that would most often be abused in this way that this particular admonition would have been given a more prominent place in this letter. It might have been placed on page one, written in capital letters, rather than being shoehorned between words of greetings here on the final page.
Take Away: The Lord doesn’t take it lightly when people abuse Scripture.
The Holy Spirit working through me
Romans 15: The wondrously powerful and transformingly present words and deeds of Christ in me.
Adventures, Paul’s had some! He’s pioneered the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the region. He’s been at the forefront of a tidal wave of the work of the Holy Spirit and, because of that, he’s not only taken plenty of hits, he’s also seen first-hand just what God can do. Paul, though, is quite humble about all that. He doesn’t glorify himself. Rather, he gives glory to the Lord for it all. At times, even though he’s in the middle of it all he’s found himself more bystander than participant as something “wondrously powerful” happens. Paul understands that it isn’t his cleverness or winning personality that’s “triggered a believing response.” The message about Christ is actually delivered by Christ, through Paul. I wish I had a better handle on this. So often I find myself behaving as though it’s all about my performance. I let myself become so focused on how I’m doing that I forget that, actually, I’m not required to do much at all. The Lord wants me to place my full weight of trust on him and allow him to minister through me. My cooperation is required and the Lord will use my personality, education, etc. along the way, but it’s all powered by his Holy Spirit and not by me. There are times when Paul is amazed at the response to his ministry. As I cooperate with the Lord, I, too, will be surprised as lives are touched as the Lord ministers to people through me. Let’s not be guilty of underestimating the ability of the Lord to minister through us.
Take Away: As we cooperate with the Lord he does amazing things through us that surprise us as much as anyone else.
Making the main thing the main thing
Romans 14: None of us are permitted to insist on our own way in these matters.
There’s trouble down at the church. Some folks have decided that they have a corner on God’s truth. Other folks have done the same and their “truth” is different than that of the others. They’ve had duels with their Bibles and some of the discussion has brought more heat that light. There have been a few church parking lot conversations and not a few phone calls. Any day now things are coming to head and the result won’t be pretty. The outsiders don’t even understand the fight but they do see this as another example of the failure of Christianity. “They can’t even get along with one another, much less save the world.” The thing is that this isn’t Christian behavior. The Bible says that one Christian isn’t supposed to demand that other Christians do things their way. Paul’s main example is dietary concerns and he also tosses into the mix the concept of keeping a day as holy. The Apostle practices what he preaches here. If I think something is important I’m to pursue it in my life, doing it as unto the Lord. Meanwhile, I’m to leave you alone about it. We have bigger fish to fry (or maybe tofu in this case). The Lord invited us to follow him and to join him in extending the hope of salvation to others. How can we do that if we’re fussing about the finer points of the Law? Beyond that, this isn’t optional in the Christian life. Paul says we’re not “permitted to insist on our own way in these matters.” He adds, “Your task is to single-mindedly serve Christ.”
Take Away: If God’s people live in obedience to these words of Scripture the entire church world will be turned upside down.
Wake up and smell the coffee!
Romans 13: Be up and awake to what God is doing!
I’m chest deep in my life in the church. I’m a pastor so I have a love and responsibility for the flock I shepherd. Beyond that, I’m a denominational pastor so I have connections to maintain, meetings to attend, reports to do. I’m okay with it all. I pastor a fine congregation and I’m proud of my denominational ties. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Still, I have to be careful that programs and meetings and traditions don’t own me. Sometimes, I need to be reminded that God doesn’t exist to help me plan the fall program of the church and he isn’t waiting on the denomination to tell him what’s next. In fact, sometimes God sees trends and opportunities that aren’t even on my radar screen. I need to be careful that my religious life isn’t all about me performing as God sits in the audience wondering what I’ll do next. I belong, not to my local congregation or the denomination or even the Church universal, but to the Lord. I’m reminded of all that today in the words of the Apostle. What’s God doing right now and how does he want me to be part of it? That’s how the Church at large needs to operate. This is how the local church is to think. It’s how I’m to live my life.
Take Away: Don’t get so immersed in church culture that you fail to maintain contact with the Lord.
Romans 12: Get the best of evil by doing good.
Having done the heavy lifting of theology, the Apostle turns his attention to practical Christian living and his opening instructions on the topic, Romans 12, feel a lot like Jesus’ beatitudes. Here I find a series of helpful and challenging concepts. There’s enough material here for an entire book, making it difficult for a writer to pick just one thing and focus on it. Paul’s summary, though, is attention getting. Christians, I’m told, live in a world containing plenty of evil. Opportunities to do wrong abound with even good things, like having personal resources, carrying with them some built in temptations. With the potential of wrong attached to everything from spiritual gifts to that which is obviously wrong how does a Christian cope? The best way, according to this passage is “by doing good.” I take each circumstance of life and ask, “What good thing can I do here?” Some things are easily understood. For instance, if I have the gift of teaching, I stick to my teaching, using that gift for good. Some things are quite understandable but harder to apply: if I have an enemy, I do good by blessing him rather than quietly cursing him. If I don’t have a clue as to what to do, I do my best, believing God will take care of it. This, I’m told is the secret to overcoming evil. I beat it by doing good.
Take Away: This is easier said than done, but, by God’s grace, it can be done.
You aren’t down for the count
Romans 11: Are they down for the count…the answer is a clear-cut no.
The people of Israel, Paul says, have, in general, messed up royally. They had an inside track to God but rejected him. Because of their disobedience and unbelief they’ve been cut off and are no longer connected to the “root” of God’s love and faithfulness. The Lord, who specializes in taking bad situations and turning them into good ones, has used their rejection as a way to open the door for all peoples of the world to come in. When an “outsider” believes in Jesus that person is grafted into the “vine” of God’s grace. In this the outsider becomes an insider. Now, what of those people of Israel who became dead to God because of their unbelief? Is it too late for them? Is their permanent loss a sad necessity that the way to God be opened for the non-Jews? Paul answers, “No way!” He serves a God of Second Chances and even now the Lord’s working out a restoration for those who’ve been cut off. In his plan it’s never been “Jews verses Gentiles.” The Lord’s working right now to bring salvation to all, grafting in all who will come, making them part of his family. Isn’t this good news! The Gentiles have never known God, but now a way has been made for them to connect to him. The people of Israel have a long history with God but blew it. Still, God works to bring them back home. Maybe you were raised in church and knew the Lord as Savior at one time but now all that’s past tense in your life. I have Good News for you. As it was for the people of Israel who messed up royally there remains hope. Right now the Lord invites you to return and be reattached to the vine of his mercy, love, and grace. Even if everyone else has given up on you, God hasn’t.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
I’ve been included
Romans 9: They were so absorbed in their “God projects” that they didn’t notice God right in front of them.
Big issues are in play here. Paul says that while the descendants of Abraham are the people with the promise of God that promise remains under God’s control. Even among Abraham’s descendants some are excluded and have no part in the promise. For instance, twin brothers (Jacob and Esau), before they’re ever born are treated differently from one another by God. One will be part of what God is doing in the world and the other won’t. Some Israelites have the idea that salvation is uniquely theirs because of their lineage. Paul says that’s not how it is. The only real decision maker here is God, so when some of Abraham’s descendants have tried to take the ball and run with it, making salvation their personal property, they’ve run head first into the Almighty who reminds them that this is his doing and not theirs. Israel doesn’t own salvation – God does. This is Good News for those of us who would otherwise be considered outsiders and ineligible for this wonderful plan of salvation.
Take Away: There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.
God’s answer to sin-in-me
Romans 8: With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved.
What’s the answer to a failure filled Christianity? Am I destined to a defense oriented spiritual life? Is my constant excuse, “the spirit is willing but the body is weak”? The gloom of Romans 7 is blown away by the opening words of Romans 8. Before Christ, Romans 7 was the norm, but it’s the norm no more. In Christ “a new power is in operation” and everything’s changed. When I cry out to God for relief from sin he responds in Christ to defeat sin-in-me once and for all. The blood of Christ is applied to my life to bring about a “deep healing” and sin-as-a-condition is defeated. Now, a new day dawns in my spiritual life. I’m led “out into the open, into a spacious, free life.” I’ve been “delivered from that dead life” and the Spirit is now living in me. As a child of God who struggles with sin, I cry out to my Heavenly Father for help. He responds by doing a work in me as “God’s Spirit touches” my spirit resulting in a deeper relationship with God and a level of spiritual living I never before dreamed possible.
Take Away: In God, there’s wonderful freedom from self and sin.
The greatest need of the believer
Romans 7: But I need something more.
In this passage the Apostle describes the frustration of many of God’s people. He’s been set free from sin’s prison and now wants to live God’s way. He understands that God’s ways are right but under the influence of sin even the purity of the Law becomes a tool of temptation and failure. He’s been freed from prison but some of that prison remains in him. He declares “I need something more.” A believer doesn’t have to attend a particular brand of church to identify with this statement. Having been forgiven of sins I set out to live a new life of righteousness in fellowship with the Lord. However, I come to the conclusion that this isn’t as easy as it appears. In fact, the harder I try to live that life of righteousness the clearer it becomes that, in Paul’s words: “I obviously need help!” Is this passage a pitiful surrender to sin? When all is said and done, is the Christian life all about grimly holding on through repeated spiritual failure? The Apostle will more fully answer these questions as he continues writing in what we call chapter eight, but he tips his hand when he says, “The answer, thank God, is…Jesus Christ.”
Take Away: Without the deeper work of God the Christian life is one of constant struggle.