Month: July 2019
Learning to live with mystery is an integral part of the Christian life. The topics Paul has been writing about, election, human responsibility, God’s plan in redemption for the Jewish people and the Gentiles are hard to grasp fully.
God’s words to us recorded in Isaiah 55:8-9 are a helpful reminder of our limited capacity to grasp the ways of God;
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts; neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Moses counselled God’s people who were trying to wrap their heads around God’s actions in judging the nation of Israel for their sin in breaking His covenant with them saying;
“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 29:29)
Similarly, the apostle Paul, having written about the mystery of salvation history and having written to the Roman believers about how the majority of Israel has been hardened so that the full number of elect Gentiles will be saved. Having written about how God will do a new work in the future in Israel in which He will save all “Israel” somehow, in faithfulness to His covenant promises. Then after writing about these things, the apostle breaks out in wonder and worship at the mysteries of God’s ways;
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! (Romans 11:33)
We are so limited in our understanding. If I am honest, I don’t even really know how the toaster I am about to use works! May we remember that, when we dive into the deep end of the mysteries of God’s ways in election and redemption history and what does it mean that ‘in this way, all Israel will be saved’? (vs26)?
Living with worshipful trust in the presence of mystery is essential for the believer. There will be lots of things, even in our little lives and the lives of those we love that will not be solvable to our limited understanding. May you, may I trust God and worship God in those moments, knowing and holding on to that which is clear in Scripture;
And this is what is clear; “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36)
- All things are from God; God is sovereign over all things
- All things are through God; God is both the creator, the author & the sustainer of all things (Colossians 1:15-17)
- All things exist for God’s eternal purpose of His glory being displayed and magnified in all things and by all people and all of creation forever and ever!
And, you and I are part of that good plan of God to glorify Himself. Election, grace and all of the mysteries of redemption history are part of that good plan to glorify Himself. What we can understand and what we can’t understand are all part of God’s plan. So even though we don’t understand it all, we can know with utter certainty that God will always be working in us and through all of creation for His glory and we can know that we who believe in Him are wrapped up in that grand plan and through it are blessed forever and ever!
So trust God and worship Him in the midst of mystery thanking Him for the clarity He has given us which is enough to worship Him forever with.
Continuing with his line of thought that reaches back to chapters 9-10 Paul begins chapter 11 asking whether God’s inclusion of the Gentiles means in some way that God has rejected His people Israel (vs1)?
A question to which he immediately replies: “By no means!” (vs1)
After all, we know that God hasn’t rejected Israel because there has always been a remnant of believers in Israel throughout history. A remnant who had been chosen by God’s merciful electing grace (vs5).
And because they were chosen by grace, that rules out their choosing being based on anything else of merit in them. Salvation always has and will always be based on God’s grace and faith rather than human effort, law-keeping or good works (vs6).
Then Paul asks another rhetorical question; Did Israel stumble so that they might fall? (vs11) “By no means!” he replies again (vs11). God has a purpose in all of this.
Israel’s stumbling (over Jesus) has meant that salvation has come to the Gentiles, and those who believed in Jesus have been reconciled with God, they are in a right relationship with God and enjoying His shalom. All of this has a purpose – to make Israel jealous so that they too would desire to be reconciled with God (vs11).
Just imagine how great the blessing will be if Israel is reconciled to God, because if the rejection of Israel meant blessing to the Gentile world, how great much greater will the blessing be to the world if or when the Israelites are included back in (vs12-16). The story of Israel is not finished yet – watch this space!
Gratitude, Humility & Hope (vs17-24)
The olive tree, cultivated in groves or orchards throughout Palestine, was an accepted emblem of Israel. Paul here paints a word picture to teach appropriate gratitude, humility and hope to the multicultural congregation (Jewish and Gentile Christ followers) in Rome.
There is an ancient cultivated olive tree that is being tendered & cultivated by God. This cultivated olive is the people of God through the ages, a tree whose root is the patriarchs whom God chose, and whose stem represents the continuity of the people of God through the centuries.
Some of the original trees branches have been broken off (unbelieving Israel) and in their place Gentile believers, though they are wild olive shoots, have now been grafted in among the other branches. Gentiles who have come to faith now share in the same nourishing sap from the olive root & stem of the history of God’s people through the ages.
The Gentile believers in Rome are being urged to not be arrogant towards those Jewish people who don’t believe (who were broken off so that they could be grafted in vs19). After all, if God did not spare the original tree’s branches, surely He will not spare them either if they too are full of unbelief (vs21). Gratitude & humility are the only appropriate responses.
Then there is a promise of hope to the Israelite unbelievers that they can still be restored and grafted back into the Olive tree because God has the power to do so – if they would only stop their pattern of unbelief (vs23–24).
God’s grace leads any believer and any church community towards three responses – gratitude, humility & hope! These three words must impact our relationships and our community and should guide how we relate to one another in the church.
I love the remarkable inclusivity & certainty of Romans 10. Paul is determined to make two things abundantly clear;
1. That ‘everyone who believes’ (Romans 10:4), ‘everyone who believes in Him (Jesus)’ (Romans 10:11), that ‘there is no distinction’ (Romans 10:12) between various groups of people ‘for the same Lord is Lord of all’ (Romans 10:12), that God will ‘bestow His riches on all who call on Him’ (Romans 10:13), for ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord’ (Romans 10:13) will be saved!
It could not be clearer; the Gospel is the good news to whoever believes in Jesus. The Gospel is the most significant unifying force in the world! Nothing else unifies human beings in this way. We all have a common problem (sin), and God has made His solution to our problem available to everyone who will believe. Which leads to the second matter Romans 10 makes abundantly clear…
2. That everyone who believes in Jesus ‘will be saved’ (Romans 10:9), the one who confesses this belief ‘is saved’ (Romans 10:10), such a person who believes in Jesus ‘will not be put to shame’, but God will respond to their faith by ‘bestowing His riches on all who call on Him’ (Romans 10:13) for those who call on Jesus’ name ‘will be saved’ (Romans 10:13).
What assurance! What confidence and clarity the apostle Paul is writing with. There is no uncertainty, no qualifying statements such as “if…” just absolute pronouncements of what God will do in response to anyone who puts their faith in Jesus Christ.
No wonder Paul was not ashamed of this Gospel; no wonder he believed that it really was the power of God to save people (Romans 1:16). Do you share his conviction? The conviction that the Gospel is for all people and that you can share the Gospel with confidence knowing that anyone who simply believes in Jesus will be saved by Jesus from their sin and will be welcomed by God into eternal life with Him?
How assured are you of your salvation? God wants you to be assured and at peace if you have put your faith in Jesus if you have believed the Gospel that’s on display in the book of Romans. Do you battle wondering whether you genuinely are accepted by God or not? Read Romans 10 again and again, be fortified by the inclusivity and certainty.
Because it is clear that the Gospel is for everyone who will believe in Jesus, and because we have certainty regarding the power of the Gospel to save completely all those who believe in Jesus we can and should share the Gospel with an incredible confidence knowing that it is the power of God to save people (Romans 1:16).
People will not believe unless someone shares the Gospel with them (Romans 10:14-17), and it is the responsibility of every generation to reach their generation with the good news about Jesus.
So, who are you investing in relationally, reaching out to, living in proximity with so that you can share the Gospel with them? How will they be able to believe the Gospel without you sharing it with them at some stage? Remember that ‘faith comes by hearing’ the word of Christ (Romans 10:17) and God has placed you in the lives of people, in proximity to people who God wants you to share the Gospel with so that they can hear and believe.
Don’t hide behind the often quoted nonsense that says; “preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necesary”; when Scripture makes our words necessary! “It’s simply impossible to preach the Gospel without words. The Gospel is inherently verbal, and preaching the Gospel is inherently verbal behaviour.” – Duane Liftin
The Gospel is the announcement about the good news of WHO Jesus is and WHAT Jesus came to do and offer to all those who will believe in Him. That announcement, those words of life must be shared by people living out transformed lives which put that Gospel power on display through their lives, but the power to save people is the good news about Jesus not the good news about your behaviour.
May the Gospel’s clarity & certainty fortify us giving us the confidence to take up our responsibility to share it will all those God has sent us to in our everyday lives.
Sincerity is not enough for salvation. It is possible to be sincere and yet sincerely wrong. Paul desires & prays that religious Jewish people who are in fact lost, might be saved.
He knows that many of them are sincerely zealous and yet simultaneously spiritually ignorant of the true Gospel. Because of this ignorance of the right relationship that is possible by grace through faith in Jesus – such people try to attain their own righteousness through human effort and law-keeping, which will never lead them to salvation.
But Jesus is the end of the law (Romans 10:4), both in the sense that He has fulfilled the law and also that through Him, God has announced a righteousness that is apart from the law (Romans 3:21). Paul is passionate about the salvation of his fellow Jews, sincerely religious people, who sadly are putting their faith in the wrong thing – in their own righteousness, their own law-keeping ability, their own morality which Paul knows is futile and will not lead to salvation. Only faith in Jesus will.
Paul was living with an earnest and intense passion and longing that people would come to faith in Jesus Christ. This passion directed his life; it informed his decisions and ultimately led him to massive self-sacrifice. Is the Gospel and the salvation of those you know, those you are near to a directing passion in your life? Does the Gospel feature highly in your decision-making process and your priorities? Spend some time reflecting and speaking to God about this.
The Gospel is simply this;
“…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Romans 10:9-10)
- Anyone (Romans 10:4) who confesses these things will be saved.
- Anyone who confesses or acknowledges WHO JESUS really is – God
- Because they’ve believed that to be true in their heart
- Anyone who believes WHAT Jesus did in dying & rising again for them will be saved.
- They will be justified, declared righteous before God!
- On the basis of WHO they believed in (Jesus) & WHAT they believed Jesus did for them on the cross.
Sincere religious people do not go to heaven, sincere morally good people do not go to heaven – believers in Jesus do.
A wave of nationalism and increased polarisation between diverse groups of people is washing over the world stage with issues like Brexit and the increasingly hostile international trade negotiations between the USA and China just current examples.
Within our nation (South Africa), we are experiencing the same wave of polarisation. In our recent national elections, there was a rise in support for the extremes on both ends of the political spectrum and the rhetoric in the public space is increasingly acrimonious.
The church that received this letter from the apostle Paul was needing to work out its unity in diversity, needing to avoid polarisation within the church. The Christians who were ethnically Jewish seemingly had some heart re-wiring that was required. They were in danger of spiritual arrogance, trusting in their traditions and ethnicity. They were at risk of potentially looking down on their Gentile brothers and sisters as being ‘less-than’ in some way or another.
Paul has been at pains in his letter, to show that salvation for all people is not something we can earn personally through law-keeping, is not something we obtain through our ethnicity but that God has revealed a righteousness that is received by faith in Jesus alone. (Romans 3:21-24) and so God is the God of the Jews & the Gentiles equally (Romans 3:29), God is the One who mercifully ‘justifies the ungodly’ (Romans 4:5).
All believers are in the same position. None of us is deserving of God’s grace and mercy, none of us was able to earn it through good behaviour, no one has any ethnic advantage – we all need God’s grace and mercy to be saved!
(Romans 9:30-31): Shockingly to Jewish believers, Gentile believers who didn’t even seek God or deserve anything – have been made righteous by God’s gracious choosing.
And Jewish people who wrongfully put their trust in the Law and their law-keeping efforts have not been made righteous because God has revealed a righteousness that is ‘apart from the law’ (Romans 3:21).
All people are in the same position, all people need God’s grace, and all people need to put their trust in Jesus, not in their law-keeping efforts or their ethnicity or traditions but to put all their faith in Jesus only.
(Romans 9:32-33): Which makes Jesus the stumbling block that Isaiah prophesied about. The proud religious person who believes they deserve or have earned God’s choosing of them will battle to put their trust in Jesus – He is a stumbling block to them, a rock in the road obstructing their way.
Paul is uniting the believers in the church in Rome, destroying spiritual arrogance, digging up pride in ethnicity and relaying the same foundation for all people – “…and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Romans 9:33).
The great power to overcome polarisation in our nation and the world is the Gospel of Jesus. Whoever believes in Jesus will be saved! No matter what your upbringing was, no matter what your social standing is, no matter what sin you’ve committed – putting all your faith in Jesus is the answer and therefore is also the great equaliser and unifying power in the world. May we, as believers, be part of churches that demonstrate this unity in diversity that is only possible through faith in Jesus Christ.
Questions for Reflection:
1. What does this passage teach me about God & faith?
2. What does this teach me about myself, what is God saying to me?
3. What should I do as a result?
In Romans 9:1-16, we learnt that God is mercifully sovereign in choosing anyone to be His people.
(Romans 9:16-18): God’s sovereign choice of actions is not limited. God works in all of human history; God even works through evil despots for the purpose of His will – “that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (vs17). God is free as the sovereign One to have mercy on those He chooses to and to harden whomever He wishes for the broader purpose of His will.
God is not unjust in acting in this way. After all, as Paul demonstrated in the early chapters of his letter, that all human beings are sinful and guilty in God’s sight (3:9,19&23), nobody deserves to be saved or chosen by God. “Therefore, if God hardens some, He is not unjust, for that is what their sin deserves.” – John Stott
(Romans 9:19): But if God is so much in control and since we cannot resist His will – then the question arises; “How can God find anyone guilty?” The answer to this question completes the verses of the chapter.
(Romans 9:20–23): Scripture never defends God’s sovereign free will to choose to show mercy or to express His righteous wrath and to still hold people accountable for their sin. Instead, Scripture insists that we, as finite human beings, are totally out of order rebelliously questioning God’s ways! When we do so, we are like the clay disrespectfully calling the potter to account for his actions in choosing to make what He wanted to out of the clay. “God created a world in which both his wrath and his mercy would be displayed. Indeed, his mercy shines against the backdrop of his just wrath, showing thereby that the salvation of any person is due to the marvellous grace and love of God. If this is difficult to understand, it is because people mistakenly think God owes them salvation! ” (ESV Study Bible)
(Romans 9:24-29): In his grace and mercy, God has called people to himself from both the Jews and the Gentiles just as He promised He would do through the prophet Hosea (Hosea 2:23 & 1:10). God did this to illustrate His stunning undeserved grace. All people who are called by God are sinful underserving people; God has shown His grace to the Gentiles just as He showed His grace to Israel by saving them and choosing them as His own even though they were all undeserving. Anyone being chosen by God for mercy and not wrath is pure mercy on the part of God!
(vs27-29) Remember that not all of ethnic Israel was saved, or were truly God’s people, but only a remnant was the true Israel of God as was prophesied in Isaiah 10:22–23 and experienced salvation and not God’s judgement (Isaiah 1:9).
Are you battling with some of what’s revealed about God in Romans 9? Ask yourself why you’re battling? Is not all of Scripture God-breathed and useful to teaching and rebuking us (2 Timothy 3:16)? Are you not in danger of being the clay screaming at the potter about what ought and ought not to be? We need to be so careful that we do not elevate our thoughts or questions above the revelation of Scripture in such a way that we end up judging Scripture rather than allowing Scripture to interrogate our hearts and minds!
Spurgeon once said when asked about defending the Bible;
“Defend the Bible? I would as soon defend a lion! Unchain it, and it will defend itself.”
This is the revelation of Scripture regarding God’s sovereign merciful free will in choosing some and not others to be saved. May we, may I humble ourselves grateful that God elected to choose to show mercy to us and may we rejoice in His gracious choice and worship Him for His mercy.
Questions for Reflection:
1. What does this passage teach me about God & faith?
2. What does this teach me about myself, what is God saying to me?
3. What should I do as a result?