3. Law or Promise

Meditations in Romans : 3:  Law or Promise

Rom 4:13   It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.  

Paul has just dealt with circumcision as a possible form of ‘works’, something to be done which may make a Jew feel ‘justified’ or approved by God, by their actions, but then, thinks Paul to himself, if you are going to think of works by conforming to requirements as false causes for justification, the greatest example of that has got to be the Law.  Again, a Jew might think that by keeping the rules of the Law that makes him righteous and right with God, not realising that there is still plenty of scope to be unrighteous in our thoughts.

So Paul thinks back to Abraham again, but this time to the original promise of blessing that Abraham had received: “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.” Wow!  The promise came to Abram (Gen 12:1-) that the world would be blessed through him and his future offspring, but to receive that offspring he had to respond positively in faith to God. As far as he was concerned his body was as good as dead when it came to having children – and the same was true of his wife – yet he responded to God’s word to him with belief, and that was the thing that justified him and enabled the Lord to declare him righteous.  The Law hadn’t been given until over four hundred years later. He was declared righteous before the Law came. His faith-response hadn’t been in respect of the Law but in respect of the Promise.

No, look, says Paul, you’ve got to think about these things, “For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless.” (4:14). Abraham was promised future generations who would be heirs or receivers of that promise of God that they would be blessed. However, if doers of the Law given centuries later were the receivers of the blessing, the original promise was meaningless, for it was given to those who simply believed God. More than that, it is worthless “because law brings wrath.” (4:15a).

The promise of blessing given to Abram meant a good relationship with the Lord whereby He imparted this blessing, but all trying to keep rules does, is create a sense of guilt in the person who constantly fails, and anger in God who is displeased at their failure. The Law, was meant to be a help to guide people into a good way of living but, because of the presence of Sin in each of us, just means that we yet have something else that highlights our sin. The fact is, says Paul, “where there is no law there is no transgression.” (4:15b) i.e. if there were no rules to be kept we wouldn’t constantly be failing. As we just said, the Law simply highlights our propensity to get it wrong! Behind all this, don’t forget, is the point that Paul is trying to make to Jews who might be relying on Law-keeping for their status before God: it doesn’t work like that!

No, says Paul, this justification that comes via a promise is actually all-inclusive and covers Jews trying to keep the Law and Gentiles who don’t have the Law: “the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring–not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.” (4:16) Yes, that promise given to Abraham covers everyone who turns to God, those who simply by faith believe without knowing about the Law, AND those in Israel who are seeking to keep the Law and whose hearts are turned to the Lord.

Paul summarises it: “As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed–the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” (4:17) The Lord had promised Abram that he would be father of many nations (see Gen 17:5) but was actually referring to him being a father to all who had faith in God. You may think (possibly implied in the direction of Jewish believers) that Gentiles are dead to God and there’s no hope for them but Abraham’s experience of God bringing life from his apparently dead body, makes the point: God can bring life where we think there is only death.

There is a challenge here for us today: never look at anyone and write them off as too hard. It doesn’t matter how hard they appear, how evil they seem, how steeped in sin they seem; no one is impossible for God. There will be those who leave this planet to go to hell by their own choice, but they may be people who even appear good to us – ungodly but good. Goodness isn’t the criteria; it is response to God. I have looked back in my life and I have two examples of men who appeared utterly hard and hopeless. Never in a million years were they going to come to God – but they did! We don’t know why it is that some, however hard they appear, do turn and others who appear good, don’t. It is a mystery – but it is so. You and I cannot look at any man or woman and say they’ll never come to Christ. We just don’t know!  So keep your heart open to all people. You never know what might happen!

33. A Real Jew?

Meditations in Romans : 33 :  A Real Jew?

Rom 2:28,29 A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God

People sometimes say, “It’s what goes on inside you that matters,” and in this they are right – partly! It is as important as what goes on outwardly, both are important. Our behaviour is important but what drives our behaviour is equally important. Another thing you hear people say is, “Clothes maketh a man.” This is a bit different, but not much. This is suggesting that what you look like is all important. If you dress up and look good, you’ll feel good and be good. A small element of truth there but it can be deceptive. I believe there is no more deception than in public life. Here are great leaders applauded by the media, apparently achieving great things, but then you hear they are on their third marriage and you wonder. What is it about this person that they are unable to hold together a relationship? Or they do great things but you then hear that they children are all over the place because they feel unloved and ignored. No, you can be good on the outside but inside there is much missing!

We saw in the previous meditation Paul comparing Jew and Gentile, pointing out that the Jew may have the Law and circumcision but the Gentile may show they have more of a relationship with God by the way they live, than the Jew does. Paul draws this bit of the argument to a close by questioning what a real Jew is. Is it someone who belongs to the Jewish race, whose origins are in Israel?  Is this person a Jew?  Most people would say yes, but not Paul. You’re not a Jew because you have the outward marks of circumcision, he says, because that is merely something that has been done to you when you were very young. No, he continues, real circumcision, that marks out a man as a real Jew is that of the heart. When you heart has been cut and given to God that is real circumcision! Anything else is simply an external ritual which can be meaningless.

Moreover, says Paul, it is to be a heart circumcision that is brought about by the Holy Spirit, not something to do with the Law. The Holy Spirit is the one who convicts and converts. A real relationship with the Lord comes about by a work of the Holy Spirit, not by a work of man. It is not by human endeavour (trying to keep the Law), but by the Holy Spirit drawing a person, convicting them and then coming in to them. It is all a Spirit thing, not a Law thing. Whereas the Jew so often looked to others for affirmation that he was a Jew, a real Jew, one whose heart has been worked upon by the Holy Spirit, gets his affirmation from God Himself. It is God affirming we are His children, by the work of His Holy Spirit, is all the praise we want, and brings all the confidence we need. We need nothing beyond that.

When we do something outwardly then, yes, people can praise us for our achievement, but when God has done an inner work in us, then we have nothing worthy of praise in us. We simply surrendered to Him and He did the rest.  As Paul said to the church at Corinth, God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus.” (1 Cor 1:27-30). Similarly to the church in Ephesus he wrote, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph 2:8,9)

That in Romans was Paul to the Jews, but what about us who are Christians? The immediate parallel to the act of circumcision in a baby is probably the unscriptural act of ‘baptizing’ or ‘christening’ babies. If you were christened as a baby that doesn’t make you a Christian today!  The two sets of verses we’ve just looked at say it all. We have no room to boast because when we came to Him we were weak. It was only Him putting His Holy Spirit in us that made us what we are today. It wasn’t anything to do with our works or our achievements (or what was done to us when we were a baby), it is all to do with His grace which we simply receive by faith. It’s not what we do on the outside that is the all important thing – though it is important – it is the work that He has brought about in us that is the crucial thing, the thing that makes Christians.

Thus we come to the end of the chapter and it is worth just reminding ourselves where Paul has been going with this. He has been undermining any pride or arrogance or sense of self-ability that the Jews in Rome might have, as he prepares to tell them all about what God has done through Jesus. But he hasn’t finished yet, so we must continue on into the next chapter in our next mediation to see where he next takes this.

32. Circumcision?

Meditations in Romans : 32 :  Circumcision?

Rom 2:25-27 Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.

Circumcision was a very Jewish thing. Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised.” (Gen 17:9,10) This had been God’s command to Abraham. It was a rite through which every Jewish male went through a week after they had been born. It was a tangible reminder, if you like, of their relationship with the Lord. Thus in Paul’s day Jewish males could say, “We have the Law from God and we have been circumcised as a sign of our relationship with God.” These were things that made them special, different from the ungodly Gentiles – or so they thought.

And then along come Paul who pours cold water on their pride. Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised.” What! Yes, if you keep the Law and show your relationship is real with the Lord, then the marks of circumcision are genuine and meaningful, but of you don’t keep the Law, what is the point of the circumcision, because it is clear you don’t actually have a real relationship with God!

He presses home to point: If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised?” Circumcision and keeping the Law are both signs of a relationship with God, and so if we find a Gentile who is keeping the things that the Law requires, then they are clearly someone with some ort of relationship with God and so, surely, that is as good as circumcision for them.

Then he smacks home the next point: The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.” i.e. the Gentile obeying God’s Law, even if he doesn’t have the outward signs in his body, will show you up, you who don’t keep the Law, despite the fact that you have the outward sign in your body. Your lawbreaking annuls the mark of circumcision.

Now if you are a Christian you may be wondering what this has to do with you. Christians do not have to be circumcised so what is the point of thinking about this? Put in its simplest of terms the subject above shows people who say they are one thing and have outward signs to prove it, but in reality it means little. The same can be true of Christians. I know we have been over similar ground before in these meditations but it is a vitally important issue. We can go to church on a Sunday – that is the outward sign – but in many other ways we show we do not have the spirit of Christ. If we judge others, look down on them, have pride, think badly of others, hold them at a distance and speak ill of them, we find ourselves in the same position as these Jews that Paul was addressing. We claim to be one thing and give some small religious sign of it, but in our lives generally the fruit is missing that would tell us we had a genuine relationship with the Lord.

The sad thing is that there are many good unbelievers in the world. Only yesterday I was told by one such man that he kept the Ten Commandments and that was his rule of life. He doesn’t realise that the first ones are about loving God. But there are many such people who are good but godless – and some of them are in churches on a Sunday morning! Being good, or being nice isn’t the criteria that God cares about; it is how we respond to His Son, Jesus. He doesn’t want us to just be nice; He wants us to be nice, good and godly, having a living relationship with Him whereby He is able to lead us, guide us, teach us and show us the way on a daily basis, as we allow Him to lead us by His Spirit. For us, “keeping the Law” has become “following the Spirit,” and that of course includes allowing Him to teach us through His word. Oh yes, these words of Paul in this part are very relevant!

12. God of Righteousness

Lessons from Israel: No.12 : God of Righteousness

Ex 4:24-26 At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met Moses and was about to kill him. 25But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. 26So the LORD let him alone. (At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.)

We move on now to a rather strange incident in the life of Moses. His interview with the Lord has come to an end and so goes back to Jethro his father-in-law and asks permission to go back to his people in Israel (v.18) and Jethro sends him on his way with his blessing. We then have a little recap which explains Moses next actions: “Now the LORD had said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who wanted to kill you are dead.” So Moses took his wife and sons, put them on a donkey and started back to Egypt. And he took the staff of God in his hand.” (4:19,20). Now we mention that because, as at the end of the conversation at the burning bush, it appears that he is on reasonable terms with the Lord. The Lord has sent him on his way with a reassurance of safety, and so Moses takes his family and sets off. Now in doing this, he is indicating his acceptance of the Lord’s task for him – and that is significant. Up until then he had been on a different footing, but that fact that he takes on the task changes everything.

Sometimes in Scripture there seems a vast understatement or lack of detail and verse 24 is such a verse: At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met Moses and was about to kill him.” Now, we aren’t told how the Lord met him and how He was about to kill him. The fact that his wife was able to take remedial action suggests that Moses was struck down with an illness that was getting progressively worse. A question that naturally will come to mind here is, why should the Lord want to kill Moses, and the answer from those who know the Lord and understand a little of His ways, is that He doesn’t!

Parallel situations that we might consider that shed light on such a time are, first of all, Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac (Gen 22) and, second,  the Lord’s anger on Mount Sinai when Israel made the golden calf (Ex 32 esp. v.10). It is clear that in neither case did the Lord want the outcome that was apparently being suggested. In the former case He wanted Abraham to show his willingness, and in the latter case He wanted Moses to plead for his people. So what is the point of the Lord looking like He is apparently going to kill Moses?  Now if He had wanted to do that, He could have done it instantly but instead, as we have already noted, He gives time for remedial action to be taken.

So what was it that saved Moses’ life?But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said.” The next verse indicates that she referred to circumcision, meaning you are a son of the covenant and your sons should also be sons of the covenant. So what was the covenant that she referred to? That between God and Abraham: “This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised,” (Gen 17:10) which was supposed to be for all following generations as well. Moses had obviously been circumcised as a baby as part of the family of Israel and he should have circumcised his own boys, but obviously he had felt that he no longer had any link with Israel and so had not bothered.

As he makes his way back to Egypt, he is coming on the Lord’s terms and is coming as an Israelite and is required to come in righteousness, conforming to all that had been agreed in the past about Israel. Moses cannot enter into the work of God on his own terms. No, he is an Israelite, part of the covenant people of God and he should be doing all he can to conform to all that that means. If he tries to enter the will of God on his terms, death awaits him. He can only enter on the agreed terms. Now whether Moses told his wife to circumcise their son or she heard from the Lord directly is unclear, but whatever it is, she carries out this act of separation. It is separation of a small piece of skin but it is also a recognition that this boy is being separated off to the people of God. Touching Moses’ feet with the skin is a form of identification of the dying man with the covenant of God and it is on that basis that the Lord lifts His hand off Moses and he lives.

This was simply God’s way of emphasizing to Moses that he goes as God’s ambassador and therefore he should go righteously. Righteousness simply means conforming to all of God’s laws for His people. The law here is simply the sign of a covenant agreement between God and His people. Moses (and his family!) goes as a representative of the covenant people and he himself must therefore conform to that covenant. For us this concept of covenant may not be very significant but it was basically God saying to the family of Israel, you are my family. Today the New Testament speaks about us being the children of God (Jn 1:12,13, 1 Jn 3:1,2) or members of God’s household (Eph 2:19) and the emphasis is on the relationship with God, which goes as far as us being able to call him ‘daddy’ (Rom 8:15, Gal 4:6).

David displayed great awareness of the significance of this covenant relationship when he came against Goliath and asked, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (1 Sam 17:26). He’s saying, why are you allowing this character who has no relationship with God to dominate you, the people who do have a relationship with God? The relationship is all important, and that is something that Moses is having to learn the hard way. No, this is not a strange little incident; this is a very significant little incident, and we would do well to learn from it.