Romans 4 – Law and Grace

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There is a rather prevalent notion in Christianity that the Old Testament was all about Law and that identity and salvation came through the Law.  This is contrasted by the New Testament and the coming of Christ who fulfilled the Law, giving us freedom from it.  What this implies, at least in part, is that there is an incongruence between the Old and New Testaments and that God’s first plan (or I guess His second plan) didn’t work and so He sent Jesus to clean up the mess.

While one of the main themes of the Old Testament is God’s Law, this incongruence between Old and New is a dangerous way to read Scripture implying that somehow God failed or at the least messed up with giving of the Law.  Again, this is simply not the case.

Paul addresses this here as he talks about the faith of Abraham, the father of the people of Israel.  Scripture tells us that Abraham was “justified by faith” long before the Law, or even circumcision for that matter, was given.  His point?  God’s grace and the faith response of His people have been the central theme of God’s redemptive work and His plan of salvation since the very beginning.

It isn’t about law and then grace; it has always been about grace.  From the very moment in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve were hiding because of their sin and God called out to them “Where Are You,” His desire is that we would respond to that call.

Yes, God gives us the Law as a way of showing us how to best live in relationship with Him and with others.  None of that work, however, can save us.  Only through the grace of God can we be saved.

Romans 3 – Faithfulness

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Paul makes a serious contrast between humankind and God here, both in faithfulness and in righteousness.  God’s people were given the Law, a description of how they were called to live in the covenant relationship they had with God.  They, however, were unfaithful time and time again.  Yet, in spite of this, God was always faithful to them, never abandoning them to their own depravity.  Thankfully, He doesn’t leave us in ours either.

Out of Israel’s unfaithfulness, though, we see a much clearer and greater picture of God’s work, His true love and commitment to His people, and His righteousness.  Paul makes sure that we know and understand that there is nothing we can do to nullify God’s righteousness or His plan of salvation.  In fact, our sinful nature makes God’s work all the more amazing.

From a human perspective, if there was a person in our lives who continually hurt us, talked bad about us, and betrayed our relationship over and over again, we would end that relationship.  It wouldn’t be healthy for us to stay in it.  Yet this is what we do to God repeatedly, every day, and He continues to be faithful.

In the first three chapters of Romans, Paul makes the case for human wickedness.  He points out that the condemnation that we deserve is completely just.  However, as he does this, Paul is also building the case for the magnitude of God’s actions in Jesus Christ culminating in 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ.”

This is the good news of the Gospel friends!  Because of God’s faithfulness and Jesus’ righteousness, the way has been reopened for true relationship with God!

Check out what the Heidelberg Catechism says about this:

Heidelberg Catechism Q & A: 2, 5, 21, 37, 60, 62, 115, 

Check out what the Belgic Confession says about this:

Belgic Confession Articles: 20 – 24

Romans 2 – The Law

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The prominence and important of the Law in the Old Testament cannot be understated.  It’s relevance to the New Testament and the New Covenant often is.  Paul is laying out the basics of God’s plan for salvation and we see here that the Law was a vital part of that plan.  For God’s people, however, Paul points to the true purpose of the Law and God’s true desire of His people: a “circumcised heart.”

God’s desire for His people was a renewed, reconciled relationship with humankind. Since the calling of Abram in Genesis 12, the whole arc of this relationship was that all of the nations of the world would be blessed through God’s covenant relationship with Abram.  The Law, then, became a part of how God was calling His people to live in this relationship.  It was, as Moses points out in Deuteronomy 6, always about the heart.  God’s Law showed His people the things that would damage their relationship with the goal being that they would want to avoid these things, desiring a deeper relationship with Him.

Yet Israel completely misses this point.  First, they ignore the Law and, when they are punished in exile, they eventually divulge into legalism rather than heart change.  So many laws were developed to protect people from breaking God’s Law that it was literally impossible to follow, even for the religious leaders and teachers that Paul addresses here.

Israel’s problem, in the end, was that they thought that having the Law and being in the land is what gave them their identity.  What they failed to see is that it isn’t what one does that makes them God’s people but who they are as God’s called children.  We too need to remember that our Identity is grounded in Christ, not our actions.

Check out what the Heidelberg Catechism says about this:

Heidelberg Catechism Q & A: 12, 13

Check out what the Belgic Confession says about this:

Belgic Confession Articles: 17

Romans 1 – No Excuse

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Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is a systematic presentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and God’s over-arching plan of salvation.  There is no record, to my knowledge, of how the church in Rome was founded, and therefore it is possible that Paul is writing not simply to encourage but also to educate these brothers and sisters on the basics of Christian faith.  Throughout the letter, Paul does a great deal of work to show that both Jews and Gentiles (of which the Roman church was primarily made up) are alike, under the wrath of God and equal recipients of God’s gift of grace as well, when they put their faith in Jesus Christ.

To fully walk through God’s plan of salvation, Paul begins at the beginning, with creation and the fall of humanity into sin.  Neither the Gospel nor God’s plan of salvation makes sense (or are needed) without the reality of sin.

But there is another truth that Paul also points out here which is the fact that the general ability to know God, and therefore the ability to seek Him out, is made plain through creation.  Because of this, humankind, though sinful, is left without excuse for their sins before God.

The reality here that Paul is expressing is that humans were created by God, in the image of God, to be in relationship with God.  Yet, true relationship, true love requires a choice and so humanity was created with free will.  It is the deepest truth of love: the ability to choose means the risk of rejection.  Yet there is greater joy in the choice to love, something that God desires for us so deeply that He sent His Son to die and make a way for our relationship to be reconciled.

Check out what the Heidelberg Catechism says about this:

Heidelberg Catechism Q & A: 10, 14, 21, 35, 59, 96, 101, 106, 112

Check out what the Belgic Confession says about this:

Belgic Confession Articles: 2, 12, 13, 14, 15

Introduction to Romans

We have now come to the beginning of what is known as the New Testament Epistles.  These are the letters, mostly written by Paul, to churches throughout the Roman Empire and is a snapshot of the correspondence between the authors and the churches, as well as a picture of what the early church was dealing with.  Interestingly, we continue to deal with many of these things.  The Epistles are divided into two groups, with several sub-groupings: Pauline and General Epistles.  Paul’s letters tend to be a bit more specific in their intended audience while the general epistles, so aptly named, have a more general audience.

The book of Romans, though first in canonical order, is not the first letter that Paul wrote.  It is, however, one of the most theologically significant of his writings, covering the length and breadth of the plan of salvation from creation through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and then on to what it means to live into our faith and our identity in Christ.  Romans is the most systematic of Paul’s writings, making it one of the most useful books in helping believers and non-believers alike understand God’s plan for Salvation.

So useful has this book been in the Christian faith that the Heidelberg Catechism was modeled after it’s organizational pattern, “Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude” as well as a number of incredibly popular salvation study tools like “Romans Road.”  Paul, here, is presenting the Gospel in both its simplicity and its complexity.

Paul wrote Romans likely in AD 57, several years before he actually made the journey to Rome.  He probably wrote the letter while he was in Corinth, recorded in Acts 20.  However, even here we see both his longing to go to Rome and also his care for the Church as it was beginning there.

Acts 28 – Journey's End

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There were so many reasons for Paul not to make it to Rome, and so many opportunities for him to escape from his captors as well.  While we don’t get much information about the other captives that were on this journey but I imagine that they have found this as quite the stroke of good luck.  Being a prisoner often meant certain death in the Roman Empire and surviving a shipwreck would have provided at least an opportunity to escape.

But for Paul, even being marooned on an island was an opportunity to minister and (though we don’t see it directly stated) an opportunity to spread the Gospel.  Paul knew where he was called and stopped at nothing to get there, and he did.  Paul made it to Rome and testified to the Gospel there, just as God had directed him.  He preached in captivity and in freedom there for two years and the Kingdom of God expanded greatly there and throughout the Roman empire.

This is a fitting ending to the book of Acts, bringing its main theme, the expansion of the Gospel from Jerusalem all the way to the ends of the earth, full circle.  However, this theme does not reside in the book of Acts alone, but throughout the whole of Scripture the people of God have always been called to be a light to the world.

Sadly, we often find reasons and ways to move away from this call.  Paul demonstrates in his actions and his life the bold and courageous preaching of the Gospel throughout the world.  His mission, however, and ours will never actually end until Christ returns.  Our mission never ends, no matter what opposition we face as the people of God, we are called to be both disciples and witnesses.

Acts 27 – The Journey to Rome

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Paul’s journey to Rome is not an easy one.  He traveled as a prisoner, which meant that little care was given to him.  Yet the centurion that was in charge of Paul seems to have some compassion for him, at least at first.

As the journey continues on, things get rougher for Paul and for all who are on board the ship.  Against Paul’s warning, they decide to leave the relative safety of one harbor for another that would be better for the ship.  This turns out to be disastrous.

Yet in the midst of all of this, the prisoner Paul becomes the voice of calm reassurance and salvation for all those on board this ill-fated voyage.   Ironically, this isn’t the first time a prisoner saved his captors.

Paul tells them the angel’s message, an encouragement if there ever was one in that moment, and then beckons them to eat, breaking bread in the same manner Jesus did at the last summer.  Though the situation seems bleak, God is abundantly present, protecting and providing for Paul and those traveling with them.

We are all called to different journeys in life as we follow God and live out our faith.  Some of these journeys are physical, some are spiritual, but all require us to listen and to obey.  Too often, when we run into difficulty, we think that we might be on the wrong track or that God has somehow abandoned us.  Yet it is clear here that Paul was right where God wanted him to be.

In our faith journey, we can take our cues from Paul here.  I’m sure he didn’t enjoy being tossed about in the boat, much less traveling as a prisoner.  However, he remained faithful through it all, trusting in God’s wisdom and providence.

Acts 26 – Defense to Agrippa

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This is not the first time that we have heard Paul use his story as a defense against the accusations brought against him.  However, this particular moment records something very interesting that perhaps we tend to overlook.  As Paul began to follow Christ he didn’t turn his back on the teaching of the Old Testament.  In fact, at this point, 25 years into his ministry, he was not guilty of breaking the law and traditions of the Jewish people, at least not the ones that they religious leaders are accusing him of.

Paul’s understanding of Jesus comes from a deep knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures, the only “Bible” that they had at that time.  He understands that, as he is a witness to Jesus Christ and the Gospel of the resurrection, the best witness to that among the Jews is to hold well the Old Testament Scriptures that point to Jesus as the Messiah.

Sometimes I think we too readily throw the Old Testament aside.  We think that because Jesus came, and because He represents a New Covenant, the old stuff doesn’t matter any longer.

While it is true that Jesus fulfilled the Law and through Him we have freedom from it, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to cast aside the Old Testament teachings.  All of Scripture points to Jesus Christ as the Messiah.  The sacrificial system that was in place helps us to make sense of the need for Jesus’ sacrifice.  The Passover has a direct correlation and brings deep meaning to the sacrifice of Jesus.  The Law shows us our need for a savior.

Do you want to know Jesus better?  Read the Old Testament and see how it foreshadows the coming Messiah and the salvation, reconciliation, redemption, light, and renewed relationship to the world.

Acts 25 – Trial #2: Festus

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When governor Felix is succeeded by governor Festus, the Jews waste no time in coming to him and bringing the charges they have against Paul.  No doubt they have been working hard make these charges sound much worse than they actually are.  Sadly, though, it seems that in two years, they still are unable to convince the governor that Paul has done anything seriously wrong; certainly nothing that warrants death by any means.

However, here we see politics come into play.  Governor Felix had “won” the hearts of the Jewish people through years of extended peace in which they had a good deal of freedom to live and practice their religion within the Roman Empire.  Festus had no such advantage and so, seeking to gain one, he is willing to go against Roman law to gain some Jewish brownie points.

Paul, though, will have none of it.  He has been held without conviction for the past two years and it’s pretty clear that he isn’t planning on going back to Jerusalem and so he does the one thing that he knows will get him on the way to Rome: he appeals to Caesar.

For Paul, heavenly standing with God is always more important than earthly citizenship.  He knew his identity was in Christ and that is what always came first for him.  Yet there are times when our worldly titles and positions can be an advantage to us as well.  Here, Paul once again takes advantage of his Roman citizenship, something the Jewish leaders cannot do.  This was a privilege reserved only for Roman citizens.

It is important to remember the order of identity here.  Paul has been appealing as a follower of Christ; this always comes first.  Sometimes I wonder if American Christians today get that backward.

Acts 24 – The Two Year Trial

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Paul’s first official Roman trial begins with a man named Felix, a governor over the region in which Jerusalem was a part.  When the Jewish religious leaders arrive, they present “charges” against Paul that coincide with his missionary journies throughout the Roman Empire.  Interestingly, though, if we were to read back over Paul’s journeys, we would see very quickly that it was actually the fault of the Jews in each of the cities where Paul was that riots broke out.

One thing that is missing from this chapter is the history of the Jews and the Roman Empire, and why the question of riots was so important.  The Jews were not a willing people when it came to Roman subjugation.  Throughout the rule of both the Greeks and the Romans, the Jews rioted and revolted constantly resulting in a Roman garrison being set up in Jerusalem.  Many soldiers were stationed there in an effort to keep this peace.  Being accused as a “troublemaker” and someone who “stirs up riots” was a big deal; the Romans had no patience for it.

But Paul’s defense leaves little doubt that these charges are, at best, incomplete, and lack the proper witnesses for the accusations that are being brought.

I have to wonder what Paul was thinking as the days, weeks, and months in Caesarea wore on.  He stayed with Governor Felix for two whole years, all the while being questioned in hopes that Paul would slip up.  He never did.

So for two years Paul waited to move on to the next step of the journey that would lead him to Rome.  It must have seemed like an eternity to him.  Yet during this time, God was setting the stage, preparing both Paul and those he would encounter along the way.

Acts 23 – Take Courage

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Even though Paul knew that he was following what God willed for him, I can imagine that he was probably getting a little tired of being fought over and accused by the Jewish religious leaders.  It is interesting, though, that in these moments when Paul was at his weakest and most vulnerable, that God provides exactly what Paul needs.

Have you ever experienced this in your life?  You find yourself in the midst of a battle, something pressing in on you, and it is in that moment that something happens or someone shows up and offers you the very encouragement that you need to help you move forward.  God always provides what we need and protects us; when we are at our weakest, God is at His strongest.

We never quite know how God is going to work in our circumstances either.  Paul’s situation seems rather bleak even though God has assured Him that he would be going to Rome to testify.

Behind the scenes, there is a plot that is unfolding.  This group of people that is planning a trap so that they can kill Paul probably thought that they were doing the Lord’s work by ridding their religion of Paul and his “lies.”  Little do they know how much of the Lord’s work they are actually doing here.

I always love the little ironies that crop up in Scripture.  If it wasn’t for this plot, Paul would have never been moved out of Jerusalem and his trip to Roman likely wouldn’t have taken place.  Yet, once again, like the story of Joseph being sold into Egyptian slavery and then becoming an instrument of salvation, what humans meant for evil, God meant for good, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ might continue to spread throughout the Roman empire.

Acts 22 – Paul's Story

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I have heard it said that all we have to do is “tell our story.”  Leaders and pastors tell Christians this to communicate that there is no fancy degree or qualification that is needed to share your experience with God and what He is doing in your life.  This is incredibly true.

Far too often, Christians remain silent or are afraid to share with others because they feel that they “aren’t educated enough” or “won’t know what to say.”  The fact is that no one knows your story better than you and no one knows what God is doing in your life better than you (except God of course).

Here, Paul doesn’t actually share the Gospel as he had in other places.  Instead, he shares his experience of transformation and how his life was changed.  For this moment apparently, Paul felt that this was what God was directing him to say.

One thing that we don’t often here in the “tell your story encouragement” is what the results might be.  This, actually, is the reason why we don’t readily share things with others anyway; we don’t know what will happen.

In some accounts in Acts, people readily received the Gospel message in whatever form it was shared.  Yet here, the response is profoundly negative.  The crowds call for Paul’s death in a scene that looks markedly similar to Jesus’ trial.

Yet there is something we need to take into consideration here: God’s plan.  Paul’s testimony leads to a conversation about his citizenship.  This conversation ultimately leads to his journey to Rome.  That journey leads to countless people hearing the Gospel.

We may never know where one conversation leads, but we are still called to share and to trust God’s work in that moment and every one that follows.

Ephesians 1:3-14 "Let's Talk About Identity"

Jesus Christ is the foundation on which our faith is built.  He gives us our identity as sons and daughters of God, called out of darkness into God’s light forever.