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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

READ: Romans 12
KEY VERSE: Romans 12:21
DEVOTIONAL:
In Chapter 12 of the book of Romans, Paul abandons the lofty halls of theology and gets to the nitty gritty of Christian living. Because this chapter is relatively simple, there is little to expound upon. However, I will do my best to slow you down in an easily skimmed chapter so the entire thing may be appreciated.
The first verse is a bridge from the doxology of the last chapter - because God is so wonderful and has given you the Holy Spirit's power to resist sin, I beg you to offer yourself as an offering to God, this is your reasonable (or spiritual) act of worship. This is a very well known and a very important verse. In the Old Testament, when a sacrifice was offered, the parts which were useful for God's service (feeding the priests) were sliced off the animal and the rest was burned up. God commands us to give Him what serves his purposes and the destroy the rest. Verse 2 tells us to allow ourselves to be completely transformed, breaking out of the expectations of this world and forming to the shape He has for us, "that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God (KJV)." These are tall orders, but Paul commences to tell us how.
Verses 3-8 tell us to identify the talents God has given us, but not to allow us to place our gifts ahead of others. To employ a modern metaphor, the powerful, complex engine thinks he is the most important part of the car until the gas tank (just a dumb, simple bucket, really) skips town. The mighty brain was humbled when a tiny flap between the windpipe and esophagus decided to breathe chicken noodle soup. As different parts of the body of Christ, the prophet might have thought he was the most important member of the congregation until the cannon was closed. Today, we must understand God has given us all different abilities to work in concert.
Verses 9 is translated very awkwardly in the KJV, but the New American Standard Version translates it: "Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil, cling to what is good." If you have a very old dictionary, you'll see the King's English amounts to the same. Once we understand how simple it is, it ought to be a mantra for every moment of our lives. As Christians, Paul goes on to say, we ought to be devoted to one another in brotherly love and to cry out with joy at the privilege of showing the godly honor. We are to pray, to give financially, have a passionate spirit and to overcome tribulation.
Verse 14 is difficult to carry out, but it is plain. We are to bless even when cursed - a statement echoing Christ Himself(Luke 6:28). It begins another line of thought that we are to be what people need. We must sing with the happy and cry with the mourning, as Paul put it - we will become all things to all men (I Corinthians 9:19-22) so they might be saved. We must be humble so that we can go to those who need us without pretention. We are to do what is right in the sight of all men, so we do not cause them to stumble by violating their conscience (more on this in chapters 14 and 15) and we are to never take our own vengeance, trusting in God to repay the unrepentant according to their deeds. When the one we would like to hurt is in need, we are to fulfill his need so that we may keep ourselves innocent and perhaps prick his conscience into repentance.
Verse 21 is very hard, but serves as a book end to verse 9. With good we are to overcome evil - not by "fighting fire with fire" or reasoning that "he started it." With love we are to drown out hate and with kindness we are to repay cruelty.
QUESTIONS
(1) Do you struggle with any of these commandments? Have you prayed for God's strength to do His will?
(2) Write down the top 5 of the commands in the chapter which you struggle with and make a conscience effort to overcome those 5 through prayer and diligence. If you think 5 is too many to handle at once, do 3. If you can handle more, do 10. Systematically identify your greatest weaknesses and try to become more like Him.
(3) Think of somewhat you can't stand. This week, I challenge you to show them a large act of kindness. Pray for the strength to bring it from the right heart and see if you can make such deeds a regular part of your schedule.

The Olive Tree

READ: Romans 11
KEY VERSE: Romans 11:15
DEVOTIONAL:
Romans 11 is a beautiful metaphor explaining God's eternal destiny for the Jewish people, but has been widely misunderstood and misapplied. Before we can venture into an accurate understanding, we will need some background knowledge.
First, the word death literally means "separation" and to die is "to be cut off." It is then amply apparent why the expression "cut off" is a euphemism for death among the Jews and why our modern understanding of what it means to die often causes gross confusion. Death, or being cut-off, can mean spiritual death (Genesis 3 where God and man were separated), physical death (Isaiah 53:8 where body and soul were separated) and perhaps other kinds of division.
Second, the Bible describes us as branches off Jesus Christ, the true vine (John 15:1-6). In this chapter, the Apostle Paul is not speaking of something new, but reminding his readers of an illustration Christ had already used and expounding on it it with the following:
Third, the olive tree is used as a metaphor for the Hebrew people as early as Jeremiah 11:16. Since that verse clearly states that the people of Judah's branches were broken off when they were sent to exile and Paul says that they are cut off for their unbelief, we must understand that it is not the physical territory or genetic traits of Jews which make up the olive tree, but a relationship with the Lord of Hosts, the Jewish God (and only true God) YHWH (usually rendered Lord in small caps). The olive tree has been described, I believe well, as the Spiritual Commonwealth of Israel on Levitt.com.
Last, in a quick botony lesson citizens of ancient Canaan would be very familiar with, an olive tree was the cash crop of the day - cotton and tobacco rolled into one. There was little worry about if wild olives were safe: wild olive trees did not bear anything except small, poor-tasting fruit!
If you were unfamiliar with any of this, I ask you to reread the chapter, slowly filling in the metaphor. You will find the passage very plain now.
Paul opens with a question many have asked: What about the nation of Israel? Did God give them a covenant only to take it away? The scriptural answer is that God could not - in Genesis 15:17, God passes through cloven animals saying he must suffer the same fate as these if he were to break his covenant with Abraham. God offered an unconditional covenant and he did not lie. Paul's response is more personal than that, he cries out against it. He is a Jew, a former member of the Sanhedrin, no less! If God cut the Jews off, he cut Paul off also. But just as God kept 750 of his prophets out of harm's way when Jezebel was on her murderous rampage, he has now made sure that a portion of the Israelites were in a position to accept Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew) as the long awaited Messiah. Of course, God could have allowed circumstances to prevent Israel from having any Messianic believers and destroying the remnant, but by his "election [choice] of grace (v 5)," God did not allow his people to be abandoned. Verse 6 echoes the basic salvation message: It is by God's grace that we have the opportunity to be saved at all; if it is our works we are bound by, we labor in vain.
In verses 7-10, Paul explains that Israel seeks salvation but has not found it, but the elect (the saved, as discussed previously) have. Those who rejected God were then hardened in their hearts, just as Pharaoh. If this unit of verses were taken alone, it might well be said to support predestination, but the next verse provides context.
The Jews have not fallen beyond recovery, the success of the Gentile Christians is God's way of making them jealous, so they will examine their faith again. But, Paul goes on to say, if their transgression brings the riches of faith to the Gentiles, what greatness will their faithfulness cause in the Millenium? "Life from the dead"! When the Jews are faithful, the spiritual death which has plagued the world for millenia will be replaced with spiritual life - a true relationship with the Holy One when he descends in New Jerusalem. When their foundation is the Lord, they cannot help but be holy (v 16).
In the next unit (17-24), Paul defends his people again. If the Jews were cut off for their unbelief, we should not look down on them. Because salvation is not of works, we know we cannot lose our salvation (see v 29 - by the principle "Analogy of Scripture" we use plain doctrine to interpret metaphorical passages) and so when Paul threatens us with being cut off, it must be something different than when the Jews were cut off. If it is not spiritual death, it must be physical (James 5:20). If we accept the premise, then Paul is saying: "Oh yes, the Jews were cut off spiritually, but God is anxious to take them back. If you fall into sin, you will be cut off as well - physically - and he will not be so eager to return you to your body. So do not look down on them, but fear for your own life!"
The nation of Israel as a whole ("all Israel" not meaning every single citizen, but the group rather than a small remnant), Paul proclaims, will be saved. Jesus Christ is ultimately the Messiah of the Jewish people and he will ride in and remove all ungodliness from Israel (Jacob - see Genesis 35:9).
God has allowed us all, Jew and Gentile, to continue in our sin rather than simply striking us down so that he might be merciful instead of just. Yes, the nation of Israel is now disobedient - but so were we, before we were saved!
This thought excites Paul so that he gives a beautiful doxology in verses 33-36, which is simple and true.
QUESTIONS:
(1) When reading the Scriptures, do you remember the basic principles of interpretation? Who was this written to? What is it meant to say? When was it written? Where was it written to? Why was it written? Or do you take the easy way out and assume metaphors are meant to say what they look like to a 21st century American?
(2) Are you in danger of being physically "cut off" because you hinder the Lord's work?
(3) Do you look and pray for the day that Israel comes to Jesus and He returns in glory?
(4) Write the doxology (vv 33-36) down a few times. Really pray and meditate on the grace of God that He would save such wretches as you and I.