Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things

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1 Corinthians 13:1-13

First Corinthians 13 is dynamite.  It explodes every myth humanity has ever bought about spirituality.

As we saw last time, Paul holds out three models of super-spirituality:  the ecstatic worshipper, the profound prophet and the stoic do-gooder.  And he then detonates a bomb under each of them.  None of these super-saints are anything if they don’t have love.  Love is the source and substance of the Christian life.

Well then, what is this love of which Paul speaks?  In the second paragraph (verses 4-8), we will see that the love we must have is completely beyond us!

“Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.  Charity never faileth.”  (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

In verse 4 we read that love “suffereth long and is kind.”  That’s an amazing combination.  Some of us can do grim-faced patience… but it’s not kind.  Some of us can do superficial sweetness… but it’s short-lived.  Can you do longsuffering and kindness?  Together?

Patience is a key element to the love Paul speaks of.  He begins this paragraph with it and also ends with it:  “Charity never faileth.”

Love puts up with constant frustration, constant interruption, constant set-back, constant opposition.  But in the midst of all that:  Love never fails.

I sometimes think I’m loving – until someone asks of me just one thing too many.  Or I’m serving one person, and suddenly another need comes from elsewhere.  At that point, I’m tempted to snap at them:  “Go away!  Don’t you realise I’m being loving over here?!”

Then in verse 4 Paul begins speaking of what love is not.  And of course everything that love is not, the Corinthians are.  Paul knows that the Corinthians are envying, boastful, puffed up, etc, etc.  And, if we’re honest, so are we.

We manage both to envy and to vaunt (verse 4).  It should be impossible to be both, but somehow we manage it!  We have feelings of inferiority and superiority simultaneously.  We are able to think both:  “I’m better than everyone” and at the same time think “It’s not fair, I wish I was like them!”

And this is the polar opposite of love.  Love is so consumed with the other person it is simply not interested in inferiority or superiority.  Love doesn’t think more of yourself, or less of itself, it just thinks of itself less! When love is flourishing, vaunting and envy are non-issues.  But vaunting and envy are huge issues for us, so what does that say about us?

Verse 5 speaks of not being easily provoked.  How do we fare at that one?

We all think we’re easy-going until we’re wronged.  Then we see just how self-seeking we are.  We snap, we’re rude, we get angry and we keep score.  That’s what we’re like.  What would it be like to never be rude, never self-seeking, not easily angered, to never keep a record of wrong or bear a grudge.  That’s what love is.

How do you compare to verse 6?  Do you ever wish evil on your opponents?  Do you ever wish you could bend or hide or side-line the truth because it’s inconvenient?  Love never does that.

And what about verse 7 – our famous saying for today?  It’s a lovely sentiment isn’t it.  Love “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.”  Wonderful!  But do you?  Do you bear, believe, hope and endure through all times and in all circumstances?  Be honest!

Love does.

I don’t.

But this puts us onto something vital in this chapter.  Consider the way Paul is describing love.

Superficially, it may look like ‘charity’ is an abstract noun with a lot of adjectives attached.  But look again.

“Charity” here is a concrete, living thing that performs certain actions.  Love is a power with a life of its own.  Love is a Person.

But He’s not you.  And He’s not me.  So who is He?

The night before Jesus died, He entered a garden called Gethsemane and agonized in prayer.  His soul was overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.  He was sweating blood as He faced the prospect of the cross.  It was, for Jesus, a cup of suffering too terrible to contemplate.  And yet if He did not drink down the furious anger of God, we would have to.  The dilemma was this – either Jesus goes to hell or we do.  And in that garden Jesus said ‘Let it be me.’

You see, “Jesus suffereth long, He is kind; He envieth not; He vaunteth not Himself.  He is not puffed up.  Christ doth not behave Himself unseemly, He seeketh not His own, is not easily provoked, and thinketh no evil.  Our Lord rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;  He beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.  Jesus never faileth.”

We often think of the question ‘What is love?’  Perhaps a better question is:  Who is love?

Love is a Person.  A Person who first has loved you.

1 John 4:19 sums up an absolutely fundamental bible truth:  “We love God because He first loved us.”  Love is a Person, who has acted for you.  He has done verses 4-7 for you.  Therefore we are on the receiving end of this love.

Love is first something done to you.  And then love is something done in … and through you.

That’s why verses 1-3 talk about having love or not having love.  It’s one or the other.  Do you have love or don’t you?  That’s the big question for Paul.  He does not ask:  How loving are you on a scale of 1-10?  Paul’s interest – the Holy Spirit’s interest – is in one thing:  Do you have Love?  There is a Person called Love, His name is Jesus and He has loved you incredibly.

Do you have Love?

A faith that can move mountains

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1 Corinthians 12:1-13:3

Together with the 23rd Psalm, and perhaps John chapter 1, First Corinthians 13 is among the most popular chapters in the Bible.  It is read at weddings and at funerals, at state ceremonies, hospital bedsides, school assemblies.  It is the go-to Scripture for any and every occasion.  It is often simply known as St Paul’s “love chapter”.  And people think of it as a kind of Scriptural bubble-bath – warm and soothing and inoffensive.

In fact, it’s nothing of the sort!  When the Corinthians read this portion of Paul’s letter, they would have been devastated, angered, rebuked and only then comforted.  For the Corinthians – and for us when we’ve read it properly – this chapter is nothing like a bubble-bath.  It’s more like a scalding hot bath full of antiseptic!  It exposes our cuts and bruises.  1 Corinthians 13 hurts.

In its first paragraph (verses 1-3) it revolutionises our thinking.  In its second paragraph (verses 4-7) it strips us bare.  Only in the final paragraph (verses 8-13) are we given hope.

Today let’s look at this first paragraph:

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.  And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.  And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.”  (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

The Corinthians thought of themselves as very spiritual.  They loved supernatural signs, hidden wisdom, ecstatic encounters, incommunicable mysteries, uncontrollable experiences.  But Paul will say in this chapter that such ‘spirituality’ is utterly bankrupt without love (or charity as the KJV perhaps unhelpfully has rendered it).  He dreams up the most spiritually gifted people imaginable only to say that such people are nothing without love.

In verse 1 we meet the ecstatic worshipper.  He speaks in indecipherable languages and everyone is very impressed.  Except God. To God it’s like a “sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.”  All noise and no love.  Here is an empty spirituality – self-focused, proud and loveless.

In verse 2 we have another spiritual caricature – the profound prophet. The kind of person who sweeps up into the pulpit and knows Greek and Hebrew and they can quote Augustine in Latin and give examples from Homer the poet and Homer the Simpson.

In addition, this person has incredible leadership skills.  That’s what it means to have ‘a faith that can move mountains’.  Here is a leader that can inspire and direct people towards a goal.  The leader sees the potential, trusts that it’s the way forward and they can motivate many to share in the vision.  Their faith moves mountains.

We are mightily impressed by the profound prophet – a spiritual leader with intelligence and authority.  But, again, God is not impressed.  If such a person has not love they are nothing.  They are a spiritual zero.  They do not show up on Jesus’ radar screen.

Paul’s teaching here is dynamite.  What he is saying is this:  there are gifted leaders in Christian ministry who are not Christians.  They are nothing. They have the gifts of the Spirit but not the Spirit Himself.  Without love, gifts mean nothing.

Now do you start to see why this chapter is not a bubble-bath?  It is profoundly disturbing.  Paul is saying that people can exercise incredible gifts within the church yet not actually belong to Jesus.  (Of course Jesus says the same thing in Matthew 7:21-23).  How do we respond to this?

Well perhaps we think, ‘I know what Paul is saying:  We need to stop investing in the flashy super-natural gifts and get on with sacrificial service.’  Is that it?  No, he’s not saying that either.  Look at verse 3…

In verse 3 we see another caricature:  the stoic do-gooder.  Paul imagines this no-nonsense servant giving away everything – even their very life – ostensibly in the cause of the kingdom.  And yet, it’s possible to do all this without love.  There is loveless sacrifice. (That’s why ‘charity’ is a poor translation.  Charitable works are not the point at all, it’s love that counts).

Love is not simply a ‘decision of the will.’  Love is not reducible to acts of service.  You can choose to do outwardly loving things and still not have love.

And what do you get for it?  Nothing.  Again, this kind of spiritual person does not show up on God’s radar.

How do you picture a properly spiritual person?  What is it to be a Christian who is really ‘going for it’?  Some of us will picture the ecstatic worshipper, some of us will picture the profound prophet, some of us will picture the stoic-do-gooder.  Paul says we are all wrong.  All of those people – even if they are incredibly gifted at what they are doing – have missed the point entirely.  The point is love.

Do you see how absolutely necessary love is?  Not groovy experiences, not profound thoughts, not busy service – actual love. Love for Jesus and love for others.  Love is the source and substance of the Christian life.  Without it we are not even Christians.

When someone asks you how you are going in the Christian life, how do you tend to answer?  Some will speak of their experiences, some of their gifted ministry, some of their sacrificial service, but those are not true barometers of our spiritual life.  Those things are not connected to the state of our soul.  Such gifts and performances might be in over-drive and yet we have missed the main thing.  Is the love of Jesus in you?  And does it come out of you?  Those are the questions we should be asking.

This chapter is not a bubble-bath.  It’s a deeply uncomfortable antiseptic bath and it exposes all sorts of wounds.  But in future posts we will see healing too…

All things to all men

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1 Corinthians 9:1-27

When we hear the phrase we think of two-faced gossips, slick marketing men or political spin doctors.  Actually Paul is speaking about a ministry philosophy of deep integrity.  He’s talking about a flexibility that seeks to honour something far deeper than cultural expressions.

In 1 Corinthians 9 the Apostle is laying bare his modus operandi.  He is discussing how it is that he can move so freely from one culture to the next – from stern religionists in the synagogue, to free-thinking philosophers at the Areopagus, to the common people in the market-place.  In every situation he adopts cultural practices that are appropriate. Why?  Is he a people-pleasing chameleon?  Does he not know who he is? Actually it’s because he does know his true identity that Paul is so able to adapt.  Because he belongs to Christ he is free from the claims of culture. Yet, being free, he uses it to serve:

“Though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.  And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.  To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak:  I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”  (1 Corinthians 9:19-22)

Let me ask you a question:  What does a Christian look like?

The scandal is – everyone knows what a Christian looks like:  Ned Flanders.  Christians look white, middle-class, suburban, university educated, sanctimonius and deeply irritating.  Of course statistically that’s nonsense.  Within my own denomination – Anglicanism – the average worshipper is a 20-something Nigerian woman who has to travel more than 2 miles to get clean water.  But nonetheless, the stereotype persists. And it’s a scandal because the gospel stands above culture.

You actually can’t answer the question “What does a Christian look like?” You might ask “What does a Christian act like?”  But you’d get the answer “Jesus.”  More specifically, “The Jesus who hung out with prostitutes, publicans and sinners, even as he mingles with Pharisees and preaches in the synagogue.”  You see Jesus was all things to all men that some might be saved.  His people follow suit.

That doesn’t mean we are all spin and no substance.  Even when Paul enters deeply into another culture there is still something ruling Paul.  In verse 21 he says he’s not free from God’s law but he uses a wonderful phrase to describe his relationship to Christ.  The Greek could literally be translated: “I am in-lawed by Christ.”  Not that Christ is like the in-laws – that would not be good!  It’s the idea of Paul sunk down into Christ. Christ is Paul’s law.  Christ Himself is the ruling authority in Paul’s life – Christ has en-law-ed Paul.

So Paul has not just cast off every rule and authority.  He is ruled, he has a centre, he has integrity.  It’s Jesus.

Which means Paul could never say ‘I became a drug dealer in order to win drug dealers.’   ‘I became a drug user to win drug users.’  Or ‘I became sex worker to win sex workers.’  But it will mean some people saying ‘I hang out with drug dealers and drug users to win drug dealers and drug users.’  ‘I hang out with sex workers to win sex workers.’

But why?  Why go through all of this?  It’s so much easier to stick with people like us.

We strongly we gravitate towards ‘people like us’.  When we’ve walked into a room we’ve assessed those present in a nanosecond.  Without even thinking about it, we strike up a conversation with people our age, our race, our tax bracket, our sense of humour, our fashion sense.  We’ve made those calculations at the speed of thought, and we slot instantly into cliques.  Because we crave acceptance, we deeply want to belong and it’s exhausting crossing social and cultural boundaries.

So how does Paul do it?  Well first he knows that he is unshakably one of the “in” crowd.  Paul uses the phase “in Christ” over 150 times in his letters.  It is the ultimate “inner ring” to belong to.  And Paul is constantly reminding himself and his readers that we are in with regards to the one club that really counts.  If the Father Almighty accepts us in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:6) we are free from the need for acceptance with others.

But more than this, in verse 23 Paul lets us in on his motivation: “this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.”

Paul does not want to enjoy the gospel on his own.  His vision of the future is to sit at Christ’s table with the religious and the irreligious, the moral and the immoral, the cultured Greeks and the Barbarians alike. With that goal in mind, Paul reaches out with a gospel that is big enough to meet and change anyone.

Who do you want to sit down with on that day?  Jesus has crossed the ultimate barriers to offer salvation to the world.  His blood has paid for every tribe, language, people and tongue.  Today we can join Him in reaching out.  Let us become all things to all men that by all means we might save some.

The time is short

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1 Corinthians 7:1-40

“I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.”

So said French mathematician and Christian thinker Blaise Pascal.  Therefore, said Pascal, we fill our lives with diversions so that we might distract ourselves from “our feeble and mortal condition.”

In other words, we humans are a restless bunch.  The married want to be single, the single want to be married.  One worker wants to be free of work, the unemployed man just wants a job.  We are forever looking ahead and thinking “if only”, or backwards and thinking “those were the days.”  We find it almost impossible to settle in the here and now.

The Corinthians were no different.  In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul addresses a restless church and his overwhelming message is “Stay put!”  And this was his message because these Christians were anything but content.

You see married people didn’t want to act married (v1-5); those married to unbelievers didn’t want to stick with their spouses (v10-16); single people didn’t want to be single (v6-9, 25-40); slaves didn’t want to remain in their duties (v20-24) and even the circumcised wanted to become uncircumcised (v17-19).  How restless do you have to be to want to alter your circumstances at that level.

But Paul’s message is emphatic:  Stay put!  It’s not a hard and fast rule. There are many examples within the chapter of people changing their life circumstances (e.g. v21 or v36).  But as a rule of thumb Paul says, Stay put where God has you.

He has three reasons for this:

First he says, “Remember your calling”

“As the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk.”   (1 Corinthians 7:17)

“Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called.”  (1 Corinthians 7:20)

“Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God.”  (1 Corinthians 7:24)

God has called you into fellowship with His Son, Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:9).  And, Corinthians, He’s done it while you have been in the midst of any and every circumstance.  Therefore your life situation is not the point. Fellowship with Jesus is the point.  And you can have that while married or single, slave or free, circumcised or uncircumcised.  If you’re not content in Christ then getting married/divorced or changing jobs won’t solve it.  There’s nothing in your circumstances you need to change.  Flee sin, but don’t flee your situation.

The second reason we should as a rule, stay put, is evangelism.  As we build up a witness in one station in life it can have a tremendous impact on those around us (e.g. v16).

Thirdly we should generally stay put because “the time is short.”

“But this I say, brethren, the time is short:  it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none; And they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; And they that use this world, as not abusing it:  for the fashion of this world passeth away.  But I would have you without carefulness.”  (1 Corinthians 7:29-32)

Paul is not advocating the abandonment of our marital and other duties (he does the very opposite in this chapter).  But he is saying:  Don’t live for your marriage.  Don’t live for the idea of getting married.  Don’t live for your job.  And don’t live for your kids.  Don’t live for that relationship.  Don’t live for that achievement or that possession or that feeling.  Live for that Day when everything you’ve lost will be more than made up for and when everyone you love will face Jesus.  Live for that Day because the time is short.

When we hear that “the time is short” we usually think “Yikes, I’d better run around and get as many experiences as I can.”  But that’s only because we think that our time to live is running out.  Paul is saying the opposite.  The way he thinks about it, time is short and then we will really live.  Not long now and we’ll inherit immortal bodies, explore a glorious new creation, be released from every burden and labour, and enjoy the ultimate marriage with Christ forever.  Not long now until life really begins.  The time in which you’re asked to stick at that difficult job, that difficult marriage, that difficult singleness, it’s only short.  Relatively speaking!

Are you restless in your work, your home, your marriage, your singleness? Do you peer over the fence with longing, thinking you’ll be happy if only you have that job, that relationship, that set of circumstances.  Those things will never satisfy.  We are not to set our hearts on them.

As we battle discontent, it may be that the Lord will bring us out of our current life circumstances.  But that is not our hope.  Instead, we seek to know Jesus in the place where we are.  We seek to witness to Him in the here and now.  And we take heart, the time is short: Soon and very soon, we are going to see the Lord!

Stumblingblock

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1 Corinthians 1:1-2:5

What would convince the world to believe in God?

I once asked an atheist the question:  “What would convince you to believe in God?”  He answered:

“Until god appears before me as a burning bush or I see his picture on the front of popular science magazines I will remain a non-believer.”

It strikes me that those two kinds of “evidence” represent the two kinds of ways the world looks for God.  We either want the miracle-encounter or we want the rational proof.  Both would be preferable, but usually people lean towards one kind of evidence or another.

Some of us say, “It doesn’t have to make sense to me but if God just showed up in awesome wonder, if He just demonstrated His supernatural powers in some out-of-this-world miracle, that would do it for me.”  Others would say, “I don’t need a burning bush, just show me the equations, take me through the logical arguments, give me the scientific proof, demonstrate that it’s reasonable, then I’ll believe.”

As Paul wrote to Christians in Corinth he recognised these two kinds of thinking.  He identified the “power” people with the Jews and the “wisdom” people with the Greeks.  This makes sense.  The Jews were a people with whom God had been very hands-on.  They were a people to whom God had shown up in mighty acts and so they were a people that came to expect miraculous signs.  On the other hand the Greeks had been left to piece things together from a distance.  They were used to trusting their own minds to reveal the truth.  Therefore, says Paul:

“The Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom.” (1 Corinthians 1:22)

Notice that both the “power” people and the “wisdom” people are making demands of God.  They are both saying to God, “These are the terms by which I am prepared to do business with you.”  Yet Paul says that God is in the business of frustrating all such demands.  He goes on…

“But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness.”  (1 Corinthians 1:23)

Here is the way God shows up:  In a world full of power-lovers and wisdom-seekers, He shows up on a cross.  It’s not the way anyone expected.  And it’s not the way anyone wants.  In fact it is scandalous to the world.

The word “stumblingblock” is a translation of the Greek work skandalon. It’s something that causes you to trip up.  But this is how God wants it. For a people looking up for signs in the sky, God wants a big rock laid in their path so that they stumble and fall.  For a people looking down into their microscopes or fine tuning their logical arguments, He confronts them, not with something obviously wiser, but with something blatantly foolish.

The miracle-lover is given weakness – a bloodied corpse on a cross.  The wisdom-seeker is given foolishness – a God who dies!  It is precisely what they didn’t want.  Yet it’s just what God wants preached.

Therefore those who preach Christ should be prepared to be scorned as the most frustrating, bemusing, scandalous, pathetic God-peddlers imaginable.  Christian preachers simply do not give people what they want.  They are forever laying before the world a giant stumblingblock.

But in the next verse, there’s a true miracle that can happen.

“But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.”  (1 Corinthians 1:24)

Here is the greatest miracle imaginable:  someone can stumble upon the cross and say:  “My Lord and My God!”  In amidst this perishing world, someone can see the perishing LORD and say, “There is God’s power and wisdom.”

Because it is powerful.  Immensely powerful.  Any old despot can rule over people.  What kind of strength does it take to serve beneath them?  Any old debater can out-argue another.  What kind of wisdom does it take to subvert every term of the discussion and turn the arguments right-side-up?  That’s what the cross does.  It shows a greater power and a deeper wisdom, not by agreeing with the world’s definitions but by revolutionising them.  As verse 25 says:

“Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

There is an incomparable wisdom and strength to the cross – death defeated through dying, the curse conquered through condemnation, the devil vanquished by losing, the Son glorified in shame.  It’s the wisdom that is not built upon human foundations, rather it undermines every human foundation.  It’s the strength that overpowers by surrender, disarming every show of earthly force.  When a person stumbles over the cross and sees it for its true wisdom and power, they are won by a very different God.

You see the living God can never be found by the earthly search for power and wisdom.  Because the living God is not a super-human.  He’s not like us just with a few more muscles or brain-cells.  But our sinful selves would love it if He were.  We have a lot invested in thinking of God as some super-despot.  In many ways, that would suit us just fine because then we’d be justified in seeking to be rid of Him.

One atheist told me he’d believe in God if He made the stars to spell out the ten commandments in the sky.  But what a dreadful god that would be!  Such a god simply stays at a distance, pulls off some magic tricks (that are no good to anyone), and is basically interested in making us behave.  If God were like that we’d have every reason to hate and run from Him.

But this is why it’s imperative to lay the stumblingblock in people’s way.  If natural man is seeking a god, it can only be an idol.  We must give them Christ crucified.  There on the cross is the living God – the God who does not stay at a distance, the God who does not glorify Himself with cheap magic tricks, the God who is not basically concerned with keeping us moral.  No, this God draws near.  This God stoops and serves and bleeds and dies.  And He does it not to enforce our goodness but to forgive our badness.

Never give people what they want.  Give them Christ crucified.  When they stumble over the cross they’ll see a God more wonderful than anything they’d imagined.

The powers that be

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Romans 13:1-14

Romans 13 has introduced two phrases to the world that seem to pull in different directions – at least in the way they are used.

On the one hand we have “the powers that be.”  We commonly use this phrase to describe nameless authorities handing down impersonal judgements:

–  “Apparently, in their infinite wisdom, the powers that be have decided to scrap the old policy…

Faceless bureaucrats or untouchable rulers are “the powers that be.”   They are undefined in number, but definitely more than one (it’s not “the power that is”!)  We feel like they are answerable to no-one.  They are the powers.   And they seem, immovably, to be so.  What is worse, Paul tells us to submit unquestioningly to them!

“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.  For there is no power but of God:  the powers that be are ordained of God.  Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God:  and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.  For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.  Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same.”  (Romans 13:1-3)

Here is proof that Paul sometimes uses “damnation” and “wrath” in temporal ways.  Governments might sentence you to prison, or even to execution, but they cannot sentence you to hell.  Nonetheless there is a temporal respect to be paid to temporal rulers who hold temporal powers of punishment over us.  And such an arrangement is not outside of God’s sovereignty – “the powers that be are ordained of God!”

Oh dear – we might think – is Paul giving carte blanche to despots everywhere?  Is he putting the seal of God’s authority onto every tyranny that asserts itself?

Well consider the other influence Romans 13 has had on our language. Paul continues…

“For he is the minister of God to thee for good.  But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain:  for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.  Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.  For for this cause pay ye tribute also:  for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.  Render therefore to all their dues:  tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.”  (Romans 13:4-7)

The true status of a ruler is “minister”, i.e. “servant”.  In the West we are used to considering our politicians as “ministers” and our chief ruler as Prime Minister.  But such thinking should not be taken for granted – it is a deeply Christian conviction.  There’s nothing obvious about considering a ruler to be a servant and in non-Christian cultures the people have suffered for it.

And so Romans 13 actually provides a profound challenge to the powers that be.  They are not ultimate powers at all.  They are servants in the truest sense, and servants with a strictly limited scope – to execute temporal judgements on wrong-doers.   There is an honour to be given them, but an honour in proportion to what is “due”.

Thus the citizen reading Romans 13 is challenged to look beyond temporal rulers to God and His sovereign ordination.  They are to render what is due to rulers, and not because they agree with them.  In all likelihood the ruler on the throne as Paul wrote this was Nero!  Yet even with such a despot, Paul calls them to live peaceably.  As he writes in 1 Timothy 2:

“I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.  For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

The truly revolutionary work, at which Christians should labour, is prayer and evangelism (notice how closely the peaceable life is linked to God’s desire for salvation to spread).  This is the work of the kingdom that outlasts all the powers that be.  That should be our focus.

But for the rulers reading Romans 13 there is also great challenge.  They are not to “lord it over” the people.  They are to be servants.  Because all rulers must take their cue from the King of kings:

“Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them.  But so shall it not be among you:  but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister:  And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.  For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  (Mark 10:42-45)

Vengeance is mine

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Romans 12:1-21

Belief in a God of vengeance will create vengeful people, right?

On the other hand, if we want to pursue peace ourselves, we must dispense with the view of God as some Settler of scores, right?

Actually the Apostle Paul argues precisely the opposite.  He begins by enjoining an incredible level of pacifism on the Christian:

“Recompense to no man evil for evil.  Provide things honest in the sight of all men.  If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.  Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves.” (Romans 12:17-19)

There’s a realism here (“as much as lieth in you”) but also a supernatural expectation:  “live peaceably with all men.”  This is explicitly in the context of “evil” done to the Christian.  This is the occasion when vengeance and wrath will be rising up in us.  How on earth can we resist? Paul says, “Give place unto wrath:…

“ … for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink:  for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.  Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21)

There is a “place” for wrath.  But that place is not in our hands.  We are no good at wrath.  But God is.  The whole practice of vengeance belongs to the Father Almighty.  He takes care of the payback business.  He’s good at His job and He promises to settle scores with perfect justice.  Therefore, says Paul, you are free to love your enemies in extraordinary and counter-conditional ways.

And it’s God’s vengeance that is the grounds for your peace-making.  If that still sounds odd, perhaps we should allow Miroslav Volf to teach us.  He is a Croatian theologian whose family and community saw terrible violence during the ethnic cleansing of the early 90s.  He writes: “The practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance.”  He realises that we in the comfortable West may baulk at this.  But he asks us to face the realities of evil which remain, for most of us, a distant theory.

“Imagine speaking to people (as I have) whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned, and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit…Your point to them – we should not retaliate? Why not?  I say – the only means of prohibiting violence by us is to insist that violence is only legitimate when it comes from God.”

Only the God who is good at vengeance can enable a victim of evil to resist becoming a perpetrator.  There is a judgement to come – a perfect righting of wrongs.  There’s no need for vigilantes. We can entrust all judgement to Christ who, through His cross, showed Himself perfect in justice.

But even more than this, when a Christian knows of the judgement to come, it can inspire something truly remarkable:  pity for the evil-doer.

Corrie Ten Boom told the story of her imprisonment at Ravensbruck concentration camp in The Hiding Place.  One day she and her sister, Betsie, were forced to watch a concentration camp matron beating a prisoner.  “Oh, the poor woman,” Corrie cried.  “Yes.  May God forgive her,” Betsie replied.

Corrie was crying for the prisoner.  Betsie was praying for the guard. That’s the difference it makes to know that vengeance is the Lord’s.  For as their father had once said, “I pity the poor Germans, they have touched the apple of God’s eye.”

How can anyone pity a concentration camp guard?  How can anyone pity the perpetrators of the holocaust?  Only those who know there is a woe greater than Ravensbrook and a power far higher than the Nazis.  In the light of that day, everyone becomes an object of our sympathy, even our foulest enemies.  The vengeance of God makes peacemakers of us all.

O wretched man that I am!

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Romans 7:1-25

It was Jesus who coined the phrase “the Spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.”  It was Paul who explored the idea in chapter after chapter.

According to the Apostle Paul there are three tenses of salvation.  There is the past tense:

“According to God’s mercy He saved us.”  (Titus 3:5)

There is the present tense:

“The preaching of the cross is… unto us which are [being] saved … the power of God.”  (1 Corinthians 1:18)

And there is the future tense:

“We shall be saved from wrath through Jesus.”  (Romans 5:9)

How do we make sense of this?  Well Paul also talks about three aspects to our humanity.  There is our spirit, which is made righteous the moment we trust Christ:

“The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.”  (Romans 8:16)

There is our soul or mind (the Greek word is psyche).  This is in the process of being transformed:

“Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  (Romans 12:2)

And there is our flesh which remains unredeemed until Christ returns. Below is Paul’s cry of anguish in Romans 7.  Notice how his mind is on God’s side.  He wants to live righteously.  He agrees that the law is good. But his flesh is the problem:

“For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal [i.e. fleshly], sold under sin.  For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.  If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good.  Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.  For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.  For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.  Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.  I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.  For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:  But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.  O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.”  (Romans 7:14-25)

Do you hear the terrible struggle of the flesh and the Spirit?  This is the Christian life according to Paul (he repeats the teaching in Galatians 5). We want to do good, we continue to do evil.  We hate our sin, yet we can’t seem to shake it.  It clings to us, like skin to our bones.

What will deliver us?

The law?  No, we might agree that it’s right, but it has no power to effect what it commands.  Some Christians teach that God gives us the Spirit so that we will have strength enough to perform the works of the law – and by this we are saved.  Nonsense.  The person with the Spirit may agree with the law, they may love the law, but the law itself plays no part in our salvation.  It still only condemns us while-ever we remain in the flesh.

Can our will power deliver us?  No, in our better moments our resolve is for righteousness, but we continue to be embroiled in wretched behaviour.

What will deliver us?  Only “Jesus Christ our Lord” can deliver us.  And notice, deliver us “from the body of this death.”  That’s what the Christian awaits – the future tense salvation when not only our spirits and souls, but even our flesh is redeemed.

As chapter 8 will reveal, only resurrection will save us in that final, future sense.  Jesus Himself has already risen beyond sin, wrath, death and law.  But only when He returns to apply that resurrection reality to our bodies will we enter into the fullness of His salvation.  Until then the normal Christian life is groaning, it’s struggle.  But it’s also hope.

You see out of this wrestling, Paul pens one of the greatest verses of Christian assurance.  Because he groans and struggles, he knows that the Spirit is in him, striving against the flesh.  Thus, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, the conflict gives him confidence.  And so he writes:

“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.”  (Romans 8:1)

If you’re stuck in the Christian life – hating your sin but seemingly powerless to change – look up.  Christ alone is your hope.  Nothing within you will save.  But He will deliver you from this body of death.  The day will come when we are righteous – body, soul and spirit – Hallelujah!

In the meantime, let the law speak to your flesh.  Allow it’s condemnation to fall upon that nature you inherited from Adam.  It’s going to perish anyway.  Agree with the law and hate your sin.  But never let the law and its condemnation speak to your conscience, your psyche, your mind.  No, Adam no longer defines you.  He may live on in your deeds, but you are no longer determined by him.  Your true self is hidden in Christ. He is bigger than Adam.  His salvation is stronger than your sin.  His Spirit is greater than your flesh.  And the conflict you feel is actually proof that you have the new life.

Therefore, sinning, struggling, groaning Christian – wretch that you are – there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

The wages of sin is death

Romans 6:1-23

Driving across my wife’s home town of Belfast, it’s difficult not to come across this verse emblazoned on some billboard or other:

“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  (Romans 6:23)

And it’s usually in the King James Version too!

It serves as a succinct summary of the gospel as it outlines three contrasting pairs.  There is wages versus gift; sin versus God and death versus eternal life.

On one side of the divide we have sin as a slave-master.  This is how Paul has been portraying sin throughout Romans 6.  It is not so much an action that we choose but a power that masters us.  We’re not in charge of sin, sin is in charge of us.  But it’s a law-abiding slave-master – it pays a wage.  The whole realm in which sin operates is the realm of working and earning.  This pay-master always gives his workers what’s coming to them. And what is the payment?  Death.

There’s something very organic here.  Sin is anti-life.  It is shutting down from the life-giving Lord and trying to work things out from our own resources.  When we serve this master we get what’s coming to us – death.

But there’s another way.  Is it to just choose not to sin?  Impossible.  We are like Israel in Egypt – in slavery to a dark power that we can’t overthrow.  We need another Master to redeem us.  But thankfully the second half of the verse gives us one:  God!  He is a very different Master. You see, in contrast to how we naturally think, sin is the kill-joy, God is the life-giver.  Sin is the legalist, God is the gracious One.  Sin demands that I work for a wage. God offers a gift by His grace – the Lord Jesus Christ. Sin is death-dealing.  God is life-giving.

And again the outcome of serving this Master is organically related to who this master is.  Since God is a Life-giving Fountain, pouring forth Himself in His Son and Spirit, therefore receiving His gift means receiving eternal life.  It’s just natural that His realm means receiving.  And receiving God’s kind of life is receiving eternal life.

Next time you are tempted to sin, remember it’s bigger than you. Remember it’s a master you have no power to overthrow.  It’s not your servant, it’s a slave-master.  It’s not offering anything, it’s taking.  It’s not bringing you into a realm of grace but only into the realm of works.  And no matter what it promises, it’s not giving you life but only death.  On the other hand, God is offering you redemption, freedom, grace and eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Today spend a moment to re-orient your thinking according to the gospel. Take a moment to see yourself, to see sin and to see God again in light of Jesus Christ.

God forbid

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Romans 5:1-6:14

It’s a far from literal translation, but it traces all the way back to Tyndale and even to Wycliffe before him. “May it never be” would be a stricter rendering of the Greek, but “God forbid” has endured as a statement of indignant resolve. It occurs 26 times in the Bible, the majority of the uses are from Paul.

It was a common rhetorical device of Paul’s to voice a possible objection to his teaching and then to reject it firmly:

“Is the law sin?  God forbid.”  (Romans 7:7)

“Is there unrighteousness with God?  God forbid.”         (Romans 9:14)

“Hath God cast away his people?  God forbid.”  (Romans 11:1)

“Is therefore Christ the minister of sin?  God forbid.”   (Galatians 2:17)

In today’s phrase, both the question and the emphatic answer are vital to understand:

“What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid.” (Romans 6:1-2)

Paul expects an objection to his teaching.  It’s an objection for which every gospel preacher must be prepared.  If a preacher is not faced by this objection, we may question whether they are really preaching the gospel.

The objection is this:  “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?”

If we preach Paul’s gospel, people will ask us this question.  Because it might sound to them as though God’s free gift of salvation is magnified if we commit more and more sins.  If Jesus ‘picks up the tab’ for our bad behaviour and if His payment on the cross is His glory, then we can make Christ look more glorious can’t we?  We can rack up an even bigger debt for Him to cover.  Thus we might continue in sin so that His grace may abound.

Paul’s answer to this is emphatic:  God forbid!  He rules such thinking out of court.  But notice why such thinking is rejected.  He continues…

“How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?  Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?  Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death:  that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.  For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:  Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.  For he that is dead is freed from sin.” (Romans 6:2-7)

So often we think of salvation individualistically and impersonally.  We think that God gives each of us a “thing” called “grace” or “salvation” or “forgiveness.”  It’s like a blank cheque handed from heaven, underwritten by the infinite worth of Christ’s blood.  And so we run off to spend God’s grace on our sinful pleasures.  But no, God gives us a Person called Christ – a Person with whom we have been united.  We have been baptised into Him, planted together with Him, crucified with Him, buried with Him and raised again to newness of life.  We are not individuals with a “get out of hell card”, we are members of Christ Himself, in Whom our sin and its consequences have been dealt with once and for all.  We have been brought through sin and death out into new life.

We have not been saved to sin, we have been saved from sin – freed to live a new life.  And not as individuals.  We are in Christ, united to Him like a bride to a Bridegroom.  And our heavenly Husband loves us to death.  In that context sin is unthinkable!

Imagine two couples.  Both of them have husbands who travel for business.  Wife A says to her husband, “I know what happens on business trips.  Your clients will take you to the restaurant and then the bar and who knows where from there.  I’ve heard about these things, and you need to know that if you even look at another woman, this marriage is finished.  Don’t bother coming back.  I’ll change the locks, it’s over mister!”

Wife B says “I know what happens on business trips.  And if you stray I would be truly devastated.  But when I said ‘Till death us do part’ I meant it.  And whatever happens I want you to come home and be honest and I want you to know I love you always and we’ll work it out.”

Question:  Which husband is more likely to cheat?  Husband A every time.

We imagine that the way to make people good is to add conditions to the love of God.  “God loves you a lot.  But if you sin, the love cools and you’ll have to mope around on the outskirts of His presence.”  Actually conditional love does not “keep us honest.”  Conditional love turns our hearts away from the Lover and towards other things.  It’s unconditional love that captures the heart.  Christ grips us with a love that says “No matter where you go or what you do, I am with you and I am for you.  We have an unbreakable marriage-bond and I love you come what may.”

More than this, Christ has taken us through sin and its consequences and out into freedom.  However we might muck around in the pit, Christ has lifted us to the throne.  And whatever promises which sin makes – they are lies.  The desires we seek to satisfy are truly met in our Loving Bridegroom.  And He will never leave us or forsake us.

Therefore, shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid!