Day 326: Romans 1-3; Introduction to Romans

Today we being the transition into the largest section of the New Testament, and one of the last sections as well.  These are known as the ‘epistles.’  they are composed almost completely of letters that were written by Paul, Peter, & John.  A few of them are are written by others or have somewhat disputed authors (in that there is not agreement on who exactly wrote the book), but all are really exposition on faith in Christ Jesus, drawing from the teaching of the Old Testament Scriptures and of Jesus and how both of these are now interact to form and shape the faith of the Church as it grows and develops.  We will see the authors address many issues from salvation by grace alone to the formation of church government and the qualifications for its leaders.

The book of Romans itself is the largest of the Epistles and arguably the most well known.  Paul, the author, lays out the whole argument of faith in God from the very beginning, taking us through what has become known as “Romans’ Road,” or the journey of Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude.  He is writing to an audience in Rome, a place that He hasn’t yet been able to visit, trying to build up the church there and empower them in their faith as they face persecution and rejection.  As we can see from our reading today, it is clear that there are both Jews and Gentiles present in the audience that this would have been read in.

As we begin our reading of the book of Romans, we see Paul expressing his desire to come and visit the Roman church.  Clearly this book was written before the events that we read yesterday when Paul was actually in Rome.  It is also important to note here that Paul feels himself called to be an Apostle.  I like how he writes “set apart for the Gospel of God,” which is really true if we remember back to Paul’s encounter with Jesus in Acts 9.  God really had chosen him to be the instrument He used to carry the Gospel to the Gentiles, something that we see laid out pretty clearly here.  More over, Paul’s words: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek,” are quite interesting if you contrast them with his old life.  What a turn around he has experienced!

From here, Paul goes on to lay out the journey of faith and, in so many words, explains the process of going from condemnation and judgment under the law to righteousness through faith by the grace of God alone.  Basically, Paul begins with the story of Israel, talking about how God revealed Himself to them and they didn’t listen.  Yet he doesn’t say with Israel and points out that God has been revealed to everyone throughout the entire world through the very creation that He created.  In theological terms, this is called “General Revelation.”  The glory of God, the very existence of God is revealed simply by looking at the greatness of creation all around us.  Indeed this is a response to so many of the psalmists who wrote things like “all of creation declares your glory.”  Paul makes the point as well that because of this general revelation of God to all people, no one has an excuse not to turn to God.  In other words, because of all that God has given us on this earth, we cannot use the excuse “I never heard of God” or “I never saw God.”

Paul goes on to say then that God is both righteous and justified in His judgment of humanity.  For some were given over to the desires of their flesh, the sin of this world in worshiping idols and practicing all manner of unrighteousness.  Whether these folks knew God or not, they were sinful to the core.  An argument could be made here that the the people Paul is referring to at the end of Romans 1 were not the elect, but were those who never turned to God.  Whether or not this is the case really is besides the point though as Paul goes on in Chapter 2 to show that even those who follow God and judge those people will be judged themselves because they too sin by doing these things.  He then clarifies by saying that God will judge all who sin whether they knew the Law of God or not.

Interestingly, Paul takes a bit of a turn here, pointing out the necessity and purpose of the Law.  He also goes into a talk about identity, building upon the argument he has made about the equality of God’s judgment for all.  Paul points out that identity is not a matter of physical happening, or anything else for that matter, that makes a Jew and Jew and a Gentile a Gentile.  It is (hear the shema echos here) a matter of the HEART!  “Inward circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.”  So, is there any advantage to being any particular race?  Paul says, “By No Means!”  The Jews were recipients of the Law of God, and God revealed Himself in a special way to them, but that didn’t make them any more faithful or save them in any special way… they are judged just the same.  In fact, in some ways they have even less excuse because with God’s Law brings a greater knowledge of sin.  But as for sin, there is no difference.  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

So what then?  Are we to remain in sin?  Are we hopeless?  Paul ends, and so will we, with one of the greatest statements of faith and salvation through grace that is written:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and [all] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.  For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.  Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.  Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.



Day 322: Acts 13-16; Paul, Barnabas, and the Jerusalem Council

Today our focus shifts a little bit from the original Apostles like Peter and John and to the work of some of the “second generation” disciples, those that would have not necessarily followed Jesus, or not been close to Him during his earthly life, but have become believers and have been filled with the Holy Spirit during these first years of the Church after Jesus’ ascension.  Specifically we turn here to Paul and Barnabas, to key figures in the spread of the early church outward from Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria to the “ends of the earth” as they knew it.  As we said at the beginning of the book of Acts, this is really a historical account of the Holy Spirit’s work as the Gospel spreads from Jerusalem, the center, outward like the ripples on a calm pond that has just been disturbed by a rock.

We see also today the same pattern that has really taken place over the course of this book already.  By this point, we are already over a year past the time that Jesus has been taken up into heaven.  Remember, from Pentecost on, we see that in these events where the Apostles and believers speak, they are “filled with the Holy Spirit” and then open their mouths to speak the Word of God.  In some ways, they are not unlike the prophets of old that spoke through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as well.  The message has changed quite a bit though for those 400+ year old prophetic messages.  In these times we are hearing how those messages and all of Scripture have led us to this point and how Jesus is the fulfillment of all that had been spoken and written before Him.

Anyways, this pattern continues here in chapters 13, 14, and 16.  Each move, each message, each time of spreading the Gospel is not something that is done on its own, but happens because of the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers and in those who do not yet believe either.  This really is the beginnings of the central theme and belief that the Holy Spirit is present in all that is done in the name of Jesus Christ.  From church meetings to worship services to outreach, the Holy Spirit is the one that is working within our hearts and the hearts of all those whom we encounter as believers.  I think too often we feel like it is up to us now to take care of things.  Even though the Spirit is with us (whether we acknowledge the Spirit or not), we are robbed of such confidence and comfort that it is not our work but the work of the Holy Spirit that is really key in the spread of the Gospel.  He will never leave us or forsake us!

One other thing that I wanted to point out today was Acts 15 and the first church council that was held in Jerusalem.  In many ways, this was the first rumbling of what would later become a church governmental structure.  Throughout history, there have actually been a great number of council type meetings that have taken place.  Their subjects have ranged from creating creeds and confessions like the Nicene Creed from the two councils of Nicaea in 325 and 381, to dealing with issues of heresy and wrongful teaching within the church which have taken place throughout history.  Some of these councils have also focused on things like changing how we worship, the most recent of which was Vatican II, in which the Roman Catholic Church decided to change the Mass into the common tongue so that all could participate, something protestants denominations had done a few hundred years before.

In this case, there were some that were teaching that all converts to what was becoming known as Christianity had to be circumcised like the Jews.  For the Jewish people, circumcision was a part of their identity, part of what made them the people of God.  It was a sign that they were members of the covenant.  Yet it is all to clear that things like circumcision and land had become more important to the Jews than their identity as the people of God.  Peter once again stands up in front of the people and speaks to the heart of God in this matter.  Like all councils, the goal is to discern what is God’s will for the direction of the Church.  I think it just awe inspiring that they see here that the purpose of the Grace of Christ is not one that binds them further into the Law, and it is not because of any particular action or association of this world that we are saved, but only through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Their letter, then, and the decision that they made here in this council has much to do with instruction and encouragement, urging the new Gentile believers toward a purely lived life in which they honor God in all that they do and say, but because they are required to in the law, but out of gratitude for the grace that they have received.  May the same be true for us yesterday, today, and always.



Day 321: Acts 9-12; Paul Converted, Gospel to the Gentiles

Today we read of two of the four “most important” events that take place in the New Testament after Jesus is taken into heaven.  The first important event, at least in my opinion, is that of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.  It is only after that event that we see the Apostles and believers begin to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all those around Jerusalem.  All the believers are filled with the Holy Spirit and preach the Word of God boldly, heal the sick, and are even driving our demons in the name of Jesus.  We saw the second important event yesterday with the speech, stoning, and subsequent scattering of the believers from the city of Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria.  As we said yesterday, it is because of the persecution that breaks out against the believers at the stoning of Stephen, that the Gospel moves outside of Jerusalem for the first time.

The person that we read is really in charge of this persecution, or at least the man who seems to be going after the believers is named Saul (who is better known as Paul later on).  With the permission of the religious leaders in Jerusalem, he heads to Damascus to find more believers and bring them back to put them in prison in Jerusalem.  This brings us to the third important event, Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus and the conversion that takes place because of it.  It really is an irony to see God choose His greatest opponent and turn him into one of history’s greatest theologians.  There are so many echoes of this event to the speech of Gamaliel in Acts 5.  Remember that he spoke of being sure that the religious leaders were careful and that if this movement wasn’t from God then is surely would fall away.  Clearly here we see that it IS from God and its not going anywhere.

Paul’s conversion, as an event, really isn’t something that changes the course of history all at once.  In fact, for a while, Paul kind of flies under the radar as it were.  However, it isn’t what he is at the time, but what he becomes that is important.  Saul, who will start going by Paul when we meet him again, becomes one of the most prolific writers and theologians in the early church.  All together, he writes basically all the books from Romans to 2 Timothy.  He also takes part in numerous church plants and an over abundance of discipleship and missionary journeys that shape the face of the church for years to come.  Though he may have never known Jesus while he was on earth, Paul becomes one of the most important figures in the New Testament, the source from which a large amount of our contemporary theology derives from.

After Saul/Paul returns to Jerusalem we turn back to the exploits of Peter as he continues to work and spread the Gospel throughout the land of the Jewish people, at least at first.  He ends up in a city called Joppa where the fourth important event takes place.  Peter, while staying at a house there has a vision in which God reveals to him that the Gentiles are not to be excluded from the Gospel of Grace, that they are no longer considered unclean as they had been in the past.  “Do not call unclean what God has made clean” He says to Peter in this vision.  Peter realizes that God is calling the Church to bring the Good News of Jesus to the Gentiles as well, that the people of God are no longer divided by race or even land, but by those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and those who do not.

While some may contend that this really isn’t that important of an event, I would like to point out that it is this event right here that we all, or at least probably 99% of all Christians can find to be a common link to us as we are all “Gentiles” by birth.  There are many points throughout Jesus’ life in which we read of Him being called specifically to the “lost sheep of Israel.”  However, as Israel was to be a light to the nations, representing them before God, so to was Jesus a representative of all humanity before God and through Him all people everywhere have been offered this gift of grace.  For most of us, though we can trace our spiritual ancestry back to the death of Jesus on the Cross, of course, find that it is here in which the “spiritual family tree” begins to split off… it is here that that the Gospel of Jesus Christ moves outward from Judea and Samaria unto the ends of the earth.



Day 142: Esther 1-4; Esther the Hebrew Queen

Today we take a step backwards in history, to the time when some of the people of God are still in exile.  The particular dates of the book of Esther happen after the edict of Cyrus goes out allowing the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem, the first wave of people to return to Jerusalem.  The Persian king that is referenced here, Ahasuerus, is actually the Persian King Xerxes I, who reigned over much of the known world.  As we read, from India to Ethiopia.  That is a major chunk of the world today, and as you can see by the map here, a fairly major chunk of the known world back then as well.

The Persian Empire in the Time of Esther Photo Credit: www.edsitement.neh.gov

The Persian Empire in the Time of Esther
Photo Credit: www.edsitement.neh.gov

Though God is never explicitly mentioned in the entire book of Esther, we can very clearly see His hand at work in all of this, once again providentially providing for His people, even in their time of Exile.  The fact that Esther even has a chance to come before the King, much less become queen is indeed an act of God.  Generally speaking, the Hebrew people were despised by other nations.  Remember all the way back to Egypt, when the people had to live in another region of the land because they were Hebrews?  This is why Mordecai instructs her to keep her identity and ethnicity a secret.  So we see that king chooses her and appoints her queen, an act that can also be attributed to God.  As she rises to the throne though, she is not left to fend for herself.  With the help of Mordecai she is able to thwart the assassination attempt on Xerxes.

Xerxes I was a Zoroastrian Persian Shahanshah ...

Xerxes I was a Zoroastrian Persian Shahanshah (Emperor) of the Achaemenid Empire. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The true conflict of the narrative of Esther arises when we meet Haman, a new addition to the court of King Xerxes.  We read that Mordecai refuses to bow down or pay homage to Haman, which makes him angry.  This is a clear example of the Hebrew Mordecai remembering his identity as a chosen member of Israel.  Though he is far from his land, he clearly has not forgotten the God that he serves.  Mordecai’s actions make Haman furious though, leading to the plot to kill all of the Jews throughout the kingdom of Persia.  This is, as you can imagine, a potential disaster for the Hebrew people.  Yet God is so easily thwarted from His plans and promises to His chosen people and Mordecai points this out.  Esther has been chosen for such a time as this, appointed to a position where she can change the course of this evil plot…

Have you ever found yourself in a position like this?  I mean sure, you probably have been selected to be a king or queen, you might not be able to pass laws or issue decrees, but Have you ever found yourself in a position of influence where you can change things?  Correct injustices?  Speak on behalf of those with no voice?  In many ways, Queen Esther could be the face of the growing social justice movement that has become a major player in both Christian circles and in the political arena as well.  We, in the Western Church, find ourselves in some of the wealthiest, most prosperous conditions in the whole of the known universe.  We throw away things that people fight for on a daily basis in 3rd world countries.  I wonder what would happen in the church in America opened its eyes collectively to these issues?  We have resources upon resources.  We are called to reach out to the poor, the elderly, the sick, the lonely, and the lost.  We are called to be the voice of those who have none.  Perhaps we have been appointed to do this work in such a time as this.