14. Hardened

Meditations in Romans, Ch.9-11 : 14:  Hardened

Rom 11:7   What then? What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but the elect did. The others were hardened

Before we get to our verse above we have to see the verses that lead up to it. We concluded the previous meditation at the point where Paul had said,So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace.” (v.5) He had been answering his own question about whether or not God had rejected Israel (11:1), and had answered in the negative (v.1,2) by pointing out, first, that he himself was not rejected (v.1) and historically, even though Elijah had thought himself alone, the Lord had pointed out there were in fact seven thousand believers in the land, a faithful remnant. Thus he concluded it was the same today, there were a faithful remnant from Israel who were saved by grace.

Having said that, he can’t stop himself making the point yet again that if it is by grace it cannot be by works: “And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.” (v.6) Grace implies a free gift, not something worked for. You remember previously he had spelled out that many of his countrymen could not accept the simplicity of grace and could not get away from the feeling that they had to work for God’s approval.

Indeed, there were often strong desires in people to work really hard for that approval, for righteousness as they saw it. Paul’s own testimony shows this: “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers,” (Gal 1:14) and “in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” (Phil 3:5,6). Of his fellow countrymen a little earlier he had testified, “For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” (10:2) Oh yes, he previously, and they now, were all out to prove they were righteous by the way they lived.

Thus now he questions: “What then? What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but the elect did.” (v.7) Here is that same idea: Israel sought earnestly to appear righteous but never found it. All they found was a self-centred working to perform religious rituals which did little to create a meaningful, loving relationship with God. But there were some who believed, referred to as ‘the elect’.  Just to recap what we saw in Chapter 8, ‘the elect’ refers to those who God saw from before the foundation of the world would respond positively to the message of the Cross. He knew then who, down through history would respond, and these believers are referred to as ‘the elect’. Thus even in the company of Israel there is the faithful remnant, some of the elect.

But then come those terrible words: “The others were hardened.” Again we covered this briefly when Paul referred earlier to Pharaoh and the matter of hardening (9:17)  There we suggested that there are those who have hard hearts, who resist God’s overtures and prefer the self-centred life, the godless life, and the reality is that whatever is said to them simply hardens them further. We see this was Paul’s experience when he went on his various missionary journeys. Some Jews received the word but others reacted with great hostility: “At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed. But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.” (Acts 14:1,2) The believers – the elect – responded and were saved, but others became harder in their rejection of the Gospel.

Paul explains this yet again by reference to Scripture: “as it is written: “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes so that they could not see and ears so that they could not hear.” (v.8) Here he appears to quote Moses: “Your eyes have seen all that the LORD did in Egypt to Pharaoh, to all his officials and to all his land. With your own eyes you saw those great trials, those miraculous signs and great wonders. But to this day the LORD has not given you a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear.” (Deut 29:2-4) They had seen incredible things and yet failed to understand the wonder of it. He also seems to be referring to Isaiah: “Be stunned and amazed, blind yourselves and be sightless; be drunk, but not from wine, stagger, but not from beer. The LORD has brought over you a deep sleep: He has sealed your eyes (the prophets); he has covered your heads (the seers)”. (Isa 29:9,10)

Jesus spoke of this same thing: “This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.” (Mt 13:13-15) Jesus explained the blindness of his people as having come about because “this people’s heart has become calloused.”  A calloused heart is a hardened heart. How does a heart become calloused or hardened? It slowly turns away from the Lord and becomes devoted to materialistic things (idols) and self-centred living. After a while it starts making excuses for why it is right to live like this and bit by bit hardens against the truth. When the word comes, it is like it just bounces off it and cannot be received or understood. Why some people act like this and others are open to the Lord is a mystery, but at the end of it all, you end up with two groups of people – the elect and the hardened – and you find both groups among the Jews and among the Gentiles.

2. They had it all

Meditations in Romans, Ch.9-11 : 2:  They had it all

Rom 9:4,5  Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.

As Paul reflects on his fellow Jews as an historical people, after his initial expression of anguish for them (the reason for which is not given at this stage but it does become clear that it is because of their hardness against the gospel), he now highlights all the good things they had going for them which marks them out as a unique people.

He now starts out, Theirs is the adoption as sons.” The Lord had declared, “Israel is my firstborn son.” (Ex 4:22) He had adopted Israel, they were a chosen people, a people called into relationship with the Lord. He continues, “theirs the divine glory.”  God’s glory had been a feature of their experiences of Him. (See Ex 16:10, 24:16, 40:34, 1 Kings 8:10,11) There is also the sense that on some occasions Israel were glorified before the eyes of the watching world who saw that God was with them to do great things, but the primary emphasis must be on the presence of the Lord’s glory with them.

Theirs also were “the covenants”. With who else had God made binding agreements?  The Lord had entered into a covenant with Abram (Gen 15:17,18), and with  Israel at Sinai (Ex 19:5,6, 24:3,4) and later again Deut 29:1-15 and Josh 8:30-35 and so on. Also they were known as the only people “receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.” Guidance, direction, commands and promises has all been part of their experience with the Lord. Who else in the world had received all this? No one!

He reflects on. It started right back with Abram: “Theirs are the patriarchs” seen in Abraham, Isaac and Jacob before the nation was fully formed. But from them, “is traced the human ancestry of Christ.” Jesus may have been the divine-man but the man side could be traced right back to these people. When God chose to come in human form, that human form was part of a family that went back centuries in the history of this people. This Christ, who had come out of their midst “is God over all.”  Isn’t that incredible! And for that He is to be “forever praised!”

So there is it. They are a remarkable people, made remarkable by their relationship with God Almighty. He had chosen their early fathers, He had called them into being as a nation after miraculously delivering them out of Egypt,  He had given them law by which to live, He had led them to take the Promised Land, and He had been with them throughout the centuries of their existence calling them again and again back to Him. They are an amazing people!

But Paul looks at this people who had been called to be a light to the Gentiles (Isa 42:6) a light to reveal God to the rest of the world, the people of God supposedly, a people relating to God and revealing God, and he realises that they had fallen short of all that.  So often they had turned away from God, so often they appeared no different from the rest of the world, and he ponders on this.

It is not as though God’s word had failed.” (v.6a) God had spoken, God had called, God had chided, God had made the way ahead plain and clear, God had corrected, God had promised, God had shown the potential of a wonderful future. Yes, in all these ways God had spoken and God’s word had come forth. But had His words failed? Had all His words missed the target, fallen on the floor so to speak and been to no avail? No, His words had not failed, they had all been true and nothing that He had said had been untrue or contributed to their failures. No, from God’s side there was no failure. So what was the truth?

Then he makes this astounding statement which upset so many: “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” We may look at millions of people that we call ‘Israel’ but the Israel that God speaks about are a people of faith, a people truly relating to God. If they are not people of faith, if they do not truly relate to Him they are NOT Israel, God’s people. That is God’s verdict.  Throughout Israel’s history there had been a faithful remnant, the true people of God; the rest simply went by the name, performed the rituals but had no real relationship with God. The Lord works on reality, what is real and true, not on the names we call ourselves.  ‘Christians’ for example, are not just church goers or good people, they are faith people, people who have put their faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour and been born again of the Spirit of God. These are not merely words, they are the reality. Paul continues making the point: “Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children.” (v.7) They may be literal descendants but as far as God is concerned real descendants are those who faith people like Abraham was. It’s not about outward appearance; it’s about inner reality.  What is your inner reality?

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!

28. Righteous

Meditations in Romans : 28 :  Righteous in God’s Sight

Rom 2:12-15 All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.)

Paul now comes with a clear logical flow of doctrine. Earlier he quoted from the Old Testament: “God will give to each person according to what he has done.” (v.6) and then, “There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil.” (v.9). Now he anticipates questions about how sin will be assessed. Will it be according to the Law? What about those who don’t have the Law, the Gentiles? How will God assess them? These are the thoughts that flow through his mind. He lays down a number of principles that we need to look at.

Principle one: If you have the Law you’ll be judged by that; if not, you’ll be judged by another means: All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.” i.e. one way or another sin WILL be judged. That’s the first thing to note.

Principle two: It is doers of the Law, not merely hearers of it, who will be declared righteous: For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Merely because the Jews had the Law and were taught it, that did not mean they were automatically righteous. That is what is being inferred here. God gave the Law for it to be obeyed. But what about the Gentiles who don’t have the Law?

Principle three: Even if you don’t have the Law and yet live according to the things found in the Law, it becomes obvious that goodness is a natural thing found by a good conscience. Paul breaks this down into a number of statements: Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves.” i.e. when people outside the Jewish community, who do not know about the Law, do things similar to things found in the requirements of the Law, they show that they have a law within themselves, the law of right and wrong. That is how God has made us: even though they do not have the law, … they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts.” That is the truth; every person has within them an innate sense of right or wrong and it is shown by the way people try to live according to standards. We don’t live wildly and recklessly, by and large. We live according to various pre-determined standards and by that we show something of God’s design within us, to be moral beings.

This is revealed even more by the awareness of conscience: their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.” Conscience is simply that inner awareness that we are moral beings and there are standards to be lived up to, standards that say there is a distinction between right and wrong.

We live in a day of moral relativism in the West, where people say there are no absolutes and that we live according to culture or our times, but the truth is that this is merely an excuse because, in reality, everyone does have standards. We may try to think that we are free and can do whatever we like, but when others start doing whatever they like and it harms us or affects our property we quickly squeal for the Law to come and apprehend those who have hurt or harmed us. We would all say that it is wrong for another to come and murder me or rape me. We all say it is wrong for someone to come and vandalise my car or steal my goods. Oh yes, as soon as it touches our lives these relativistic excuses are rapidly thrust away. They are the play toys of philosophers and those who want to excuse their bad behaviour.

The truth is that the moment you speak about something that “is not right” you reveal that you are a moral being and you have to wonder where that comes from. It is not merely a survival thing because I have so many possessions that if you steal one it does not threaten my survival. No I appeal to a hidden standard that says this is wrong, give me back what you have stolen. Even more we may appeal to the Law of the land to punish the person who took my goods; we appeal in the name of ‘justice’.

No, whether I like it or not I am a moral being. The only trouble is that I don’t even live up to my own standards. I think it is wrong to get angry and upset but I can’t stop myself sometimes. I know it is foolish to worry and get stressed but I can’t stop myself sometimes. Here is the human dilemma that Paul is inching towards: we are moral beings who have standards – whether laid down by God (the Law of Moses), laid down by our society (the law of the land) or laid down by me (my conscience) – but unfortunately we cannot abide by those laws. (Paul will expand on this in Chapter 7). Accept the truth: we all live – or fail to live – according to the rules. We have the rules, fail to keep them, and then feel bad. That is the major human dilemma.  That is the dilemma that the Gospel addresses. Hallelujah!

18. Inclusive God

Lessons from Israel: No.18 : Inclusive God

Ex 12:48,49 “An alien living among you who wants to celebrate the LORD’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat of it. The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you.”

I find again and again as I read the Bible, I come across verses that I have surely seen before but have never really taken in.  Our two verses above are a little like that. They appear quite inconsequential until you start thinking about them. Indeed these verses might give the unthinking unbeliever grounds for shouting, “See, a contradiction!” because a few verses earlier we find, “The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “These are the regulations for the Passover: “No foreigner is to eat of it.” (Ex 12:43) which appears to convey the oft believed statement that everyone less than a Jew is excluded by God, which is, in reality, as far from the truth as you can get!

So how do we reconcile these verses? Well verse 43 clearly indicates that the Passover is only for God’s people to remember; it would be meaningless for anyone else. But then, when we come to our verses today, we see the Lord making an allowance for, “An alien living among you who wants to celebrate the LORD’S Passover.” i.e. if there are foreigners who want to become part of the community of God, then they may join that community, but it will be on the terms of the community. So, a sign of community membership, if we may put it in this way, was for all males to be circumcised (Gen 17:10) and so if the foreigner wanted to join Israel, then they would need to show their commitment by doing this. All this is somewhat painful for adult males, so it was not something they would do lightly. They wouldn’t do it for superstitious reasons; they would only do it if they really did want to join the people of God and really become part of them.

Now when we go through the Old Testament for the first time, we may be tempted to think that God is just concerned with the nation of Israel and that the rest of the world don’t matter, but that is very far from the truth. Going right back to Israel’s origins, right back with grandfather Abraham, we find God’s first recorded words to Abraham declaring, all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Gen 12:3). That was God stating His intention that through this family He was going to bless the whole world, or at least the part of it that would respond to Him. What is interesting, when we refer back to the Passover is that we find, “Many other people went up with them.” (Ex 12:38). We have already commented in a previous meditation that the nature of the plagues meant that there were already two groups of people in Egypt: those who believed the Lord and those who didn’t: “Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the LORD hurried to bring their slaves and their livestock inside. But those who ignored the word of the LORD left their slaves and livestock in the field.” (Ex 9:20,21). Thus we find that along the way the Lord was attracting many people by what was happening already.

Later on through Israel’s history we find lots of interaction with non-Israelites (see the lives of David and Solomon in particular)  During the time of Elijah the  widow of Zaraphath in Sidon (1 Kings 17:9 – see also Lk 4:25,26) was an example of God and a Gentile, as was the instance of Elisha and Naaman (2 Kings 5 – see also Lk 4:27). Later Isaiah was to prophesy in the ‘servant songs’, “I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles.” (Isa 42:6) and “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isa 49:6) i.e. not merely the Jews but to all the earth.

In the beginning of the New Testament, we find Jesus’ family tree including: “Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth.” (Mt 1:5) Rahab and Ruth were both Gentiles who joined the family of God. In Jesus’ ministry we see him interacting with a Canaanite woman (Mt 15:22) and a Roman Centurion (Lk 7:1) among others. As the church began to grow, it soon included more Gentiles than Jews and the word spread around the whole world.

The simple lesson that is here in Exodus, and seen throughout the Bible, is that God uses His people as a light to the rest of the world, for it is His intention for the rest of the world to hear about Him and people from all nations to come to know Him. His intent is not that just one small group should know Him, but the whole world. No one is excluded, no one is substandard, no one is beyond God’s love; all can come as He calls them.

35. World’s Way

Ephesians Meditations No.35

Eph  4:17-19 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.

We start with another ‘link-word’ – “so” i.e. because of all I’ve been saying, Paul says, about being part of this body with Christ as the head, this has consequences – you are the people of God, so live like it. That perhaps sums up what we have here today. But look at how strongly he says it: So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord.” This is as strong as we’ve seen Paul in this letter. This must be very important.

So what is he telling them with such urgency? “that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do.” When he speaks of Gentiles here, it is simply shorthand for ‘unbelievers’, because in fact many of them at Ephesus were Gentiles and not Jews by birth. He has previously, you may remember, in Chapter 2, reminded them of how they used to live, and in many ways this is simply a stronger reminder of that with the exhortation that they should no longer live like that – because they are the body of Christ and are growing up into the head.

But what was it that he had against unbelievers? “the futility of their thinking.” We do really need to understand that the godless, self-centred thinking of the unbeliever is futile. Now if you have ever been a watcher of Sci-fi you will remember the cry of the Borg, “Resistance is futile.” Oh yes, we understand what ‘futile’ means. It means ‘hopeless’. The unbeliever may struggle and strive to achieve, but ultimately it is all hopeless, because you cannot have true peace without knowing God through Christ.

Now Paul describes their state even more: “They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God.” Do you see the two things there? There is a mind thing and a relational thing. First the mind thing: “they are darkened in their understanding.” I like the JBP version here – “they live blindfold in a world of illusion.” They don’t understand the truth because darkness prevails, the darkness of sin – the self-centred and godless approach to life – and because of the deception that Satan brings them. (see 2 Cor 4:4 & 1 Jn 2:11). Sin and Satan has blindfolded them and they are trusting in a lie, “I’m all right.”  Second, the relational thing. Sin and Satan have separated them from God. Ask an unbeliever and they will either deny God exists or say something that suggests that He is a million miles away. Neither of these two things is now true of the Christian. Our minds have been enlightened by God and we do see the truth through Christ. We now have a close relationship with the Lord. So, is the implication, don’t live as if you are confused and away from God!

But Paul goes on to explain why they are blind and away from God: “because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.” They are ignorant of the things we have been learning about in this letter and the reason they are ignorant is because they have hardened their hearts against God. The unbeliever is not passive; they actively harden themselves against God. The extreme of this is the crusading atheist but it is still true in lesser ways in all other unbelievers. If it wasn’t they would seek God until they find Him, or they would listen and hear what the Lord is saying to them, for He surely does speak to all men and women, I am convinced. This ‘hardening’ may simply be the resistance that says, “I want to rule my life and no one else can.” Thus they push God away and harden themselves to Him. (This only goes to show the marvel of the gospel that God by His Spirit can penetrate sometimes the chinks of this hardness and bring a hunger and then a conviction).

But there is an outworking of that which Paul goes on to explain: “Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.” This spiritual hardening has a practical outworking. Hardness means a loss of spiritual sensitivity, and a loss of spiritual sensitivity means you are left with only material awareness and when that is utterly self-centred (because that’s all you are left with) then personal pleasure and getting your own way becomes the ultimate and sole focus on life. We see it in a multitude of ways, but this is a true description of the unbeliever. Watch the lives around you, or that you see in the media, and you will observe godlessness and self-centredness. No longer having any boundaries, as God is rejected by society, we thus see the exact working out of what Paul is saying in Western societies. When he speaks of ‘impurity’ and ‘continual lust for more’ you can see these exhibited in Western societies more and more obviously. All you have to do is look with enlightened eyes with God’s help.

What is the point of these verses? It is Paul saying that this godless and self-centred lifestyle is what unbelievers are stuck with. There is absolutely no room for it in the Christian life because we are joined to Christ, part of his body, and he is holy. Check it out. Make sure there is no expression of the godless, self-centred life in you if you are a believer.