Rules and regs
Galatians 2: If a living relationship with God could come by rule-keeping, then Christ died unnecessarily.
Years earlier the council at Jerusalem came to a momentous decision. While it was okay for Jewish Christians to continue to observe the Jewish rules and regulations the burden of keeping those rules wouldn’t be placed on the Gentile believers. That was a very big deal, but it wasn’t the end of the subject. Some of the “rule keeping” Jewish Christians refused to accept that decision. Off they went to the Gentile churches to “re-educate” the new Christians. Their brand of Christianity was quite Jewish. Beyond that, even Jewish believers like Peter tended to walk on both sides of the road on this one. Around Jews they were very Jewish, but when they were with non-Jews, they relaxed and conducted themselves as though it is, indeed, faith in Jesus that alone makes a person right with God. Paul and Peter had a bit of a falling out about it when Peter, who had been getting along just fine with the Gentile Christians, quietly withdrew from them when a group of rule keeping Jewish Christians showed up. Clearly, in spite of the fact that there had been an official ruling on the matter, in practice, things were still up in the air. Paul, in this case, doesn’t appeal to the Jerusalem ruling, but, instead goes straight to the cross of Christ. He reminds his readers that if rules did the job, then the Jews, of all people, would be happily satisfied with their situation. He also tells them, that, if that was possible, then Jesus would have never gone to the cross. After all, his message to us isn’t “try harder and you’ll be fine.” Rather, his message is that he is the “way, the truth, and the life.”
Take Away: Even if we somehow managed to keep all the rules we’d still be unsaved outside of Christ.
Starting at the start
1Corinthians 2: God’s Spirit and our spirits in open communion.
When Paul begins his ministry in the town of Corinth he knows that he needs to take it easy. These folks have little upon which to build. If he starts off dealing with the deeper things of God (like he does in his letter to the church at Rome) they’ll get nothing out of it and will likely turn back to their former way of life. Paul wisely sticks to the basics: Jesus died for our sins and is resurrected. This message speaks to their hearts and they give their lives to the Jesus they hear about from Paul. Still, there’s much more to learn about the Christian life. Now, though, they’re better prepared to learn of the things of God. The reason for this is that now the Holy Spirit is working in their lives. The Spirit, you see, isn’t into keeping secrets. Rather, he’s all about teaching us, leading us one step at a time into a better understanding of the things of God. To some extent we all start our spiritual journey by taking baby steps. It’s important that we, God’s people, remember that in dealing with those who haven’t a clue. There’s no need to argue the finer points of our faith with people who don’t yet have a handle on who Jesus is and what he’s done for us. We start our religious talk here: “Let me tell you about Jesus.” Once a person receives Jesus into their life, the Holy Spirit begins to commune with their spirit, helping them begin to grasp the deeper things of God.
Take Away: We need to start with the basics in dealing with people, and then trust the Holy Spirit to move them along at the pace he knows is right for them.
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.
Romans 5: When it’s sin verses grace, grace wins hands down.
Obviously, it all starts with Adam, the first human being. This first man’s failure puts in motion a whole string of failures. Humanity is in a death spiral. One man’s sin results in the sins of many. One man’s sin results in the deaths of many. Without an intervention this story is going to end badly. Then, God’s own Son, Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, steps into history. Adam’s disobedience brings death. Jesus’ obedience brings life. For humanity it’s a gift beyond understanding. Our sin: our crushing, destroying, death dealing sin seems insurmountable. Now, through Jesus, the remedy is given. Sin, as powerful as it is, meets its match. Grace wins.
Take Away: No matter how great the sin, it meets it match in God’s matchless grace.
Grace extended to both insiders and outsiders
Romans 3: Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself.
The Jews, Paul says, have a special relationship with God. They’re the writers of Scripture, introducing God to the world. That’s a place of great honor, but it’s no guarantee of salvation. Not only that, but these custodians of God’s Word have, themselves, failed to live according to it. Meanwhile, the outsiders have gone their own way. Ignorant of God’s commands, uninterested in his ways, they too have failed. The result is “that we’re sinners, every one of us, in the same sinking boat with everybody else.” So now what? Those with the inside path to God haven’t followed it and those on the outside haven’t found it. Hope for salvation has to come from, not within, but from outside of humanity. Enter Jesus. Through him the remedy for failure and sin is offered. The Jews need him because they’ve rejected what they knew God wanted. The outsiders need him because they’ve never started down God’s path in the first place. The generous provision of God is his making a way to life for all people, Jews and non-Jews alike. The hope of salvation, then, is in this wonderful expression of God’s grace to a lost human race.
Take Away: For those who know the law but haven’t kept it and for those who never kept it because they never knew it, that is, for all of us, our only hope is God’s grace.
A theology book
Romans 1: I write this letter to all the Christians in Rome, God’s friends.
No one knows who it was who took the Gospel message to Rome. Some think Peter, but that’s due to a particular theological agenda that isn’t supported by the historical commentary of the book of Acts. I do have the idea that some who heard Peter’s great message on the Day of Pentecost were from Rome and were among the 3000 who became believers. Perhaps they returned home and established Christianity in Rome. If I understand the chronology right, as Paul writes this letter he’s about three years from the events recorded in the closing chapters of Acts that will bring him to Rome. In his other letters, he deals with specific concerns because he’s had personal contact with the churches. When he writes to the church at Rome he takes a different approach. The result is the finest book of theology ever written. I don’t know what the original readers thought of this letter but can only guess that they were as blown away by its depth and complexity as I am. Happily for me, I’m not committed to write a commentary on Romans, just some devotionals. Humanity, Paul says, has ignored God resulting in a sort of downward spiral into more and more outrageous and destructive sin. This book of theology describes how it is God has acted to remedy that situation.
Take Away: If you like to read theology you can do no better than to commit yourself to becoming an expert on the book of Romans.
The question for the ages
Acts 16: Sirs, what do I have to do to be saved?
Obviously, the two prisoners are harmless men. They’ve arrived in his European city and made friends with some of the nicest people in town. They like to talk religion and have some unusual ideas, but talking religion and having unusual ideas isn’t especially uncommon or damning. Still, their growing popularity gets the attention of some people who stand for the status quo and some more powerful people in town have decided enough is enough. To teach these outsiders a lesson they’ve been beaten and thrown in jail for the night. Once they’re released they’ll waste no time getting out of town, that’s for sure. Now, bloody and bruised they’re chained up like common criminals. Their behavior, though, isn’t like criminals or even people who’ve been beaten up. They’re singing! The jailer thinks these nice men are probably crazy. Still, there’s something about them that disturbs him to the core. Who is this Jesus they sing about anyway? Suddenly, an earthquake shakes the neighborhood. The jailer runs to the gate of the jail to find it open, swinging on it hinges. He’ll be held accountable for any escapes and surely his prisoners are gone by now. To save himself the public execution he prepares to kill himself and is about to fall on his sword when Paul cries out for him to stop, they’re still there. There’s a second earthquake, this time in the man’s heart. Whatever it is that these two singing prisoners have is what he wants. He asks a question for the ages: Sirs, what do I have to do to be saved?
Take Away: The wonderful thing is that there’s an answer to this question…the answer is “Jesus!”
John 7: If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.
One of the big events in Jewish life in this day is the feast of the Tabernacles. Everyone moves outdoors for the event, camping out, and there are special worship activities at the Temple each day. Jesus is here, teaching at the Temple and many believe he’s the Messiah. On this last day, as the priest pours water mixed with wine on the altar Jesus shouts out: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.” Jesus offers to all who will come what’s being symbolized at the altar. What an offer it is. To the weary one who has been worn down by their journey in life he offers himself as the Living Water. To the bruised one who has tried other things that promised satisfaction only to be disappointed and scarred by their effort Jesus calls out “Come to me.” To those hurting, confused, and broken Jesus offers healing, understanding, and wholeness. To you and me Jesus extends the invitation to come and be satisfied.
Take Away: The only one who can really satisfy our lives invites us to come and receive what only he can give us.
No shallow water here
John 1: The Word was God.
Intentionally paralleling the opening words of Genesis John begins his gospel with poetry. In the first words of the Bible I’m told that God “spoke” the world into existence. “God said…and there was.” Now, I’m told that in recent days God has spoken again. This time, not creating a new world but, rather, creating salvation. This time, God has spoken in a man and that man is the Word of God. Everything I need to know about salvation, everything necessary for salvation is accomplished in the living Word of God. The One John introduces here is more than just a man speaking God’s words. He is, in man, God, himself. This, my friend, is a huge concept that can’t be explained in one short devotional paragraph. It can, though, be summed up in a sentence: “the Word was God.”
Take Away: To know Jesus is to know God. To know Jesus is to know Salvation.
A ruined dinner party
Luke 7: I forgive your sins.
It’s intended to be a formal dinner in the home of a community leader. However, some of the formality is waved off. After all, Simon thinks Jesus ought to be impressed and humbled that a common person like Jesus is even invited to the home of a Pharisee. Then, to Simon’s surprise this disgusting woman has managed to slip into the room. Some servant will pay the price for that! She ruins Simon’s nice dinner party. Not only is he scandalized that such a person would dare enter his very house, but she’s dominating the moment. With all this foolishness going on how can he properly impress his guests? Jesus is obviously uncomfortable with her groveling at his feet, but he’s clearly moved by her sorrow. Maybe Jesus doesn’t know her story? Its then that Jesus speaks first as a teacher and then as a Savior. This woman is overwhelmed by her sins. Simon has missed the point because he doesn’t see himself as a sinner. Jesus then turns his attention to this poor, grieving woman and says the greatest words she’s ever heard: “I forgive your sins.” Simon hears blasphemy, she hears salvation. In this story, do I best identify with Simon or with this miserable sinner?
Take Away: We tend to see ourselves as the “good people” in Gospel stories, maybe, though, we’re supposed to recognize ourselves as those who aren’t so good.