34. God be True

Meditations in Romans : 34 :  Let God be True

Rom 3:1-4 What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God. What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar. As it is written: “So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge.”

Paul has just been saying things that almost appear to undermine being Jewish but he has done it as a means of undermining self-confidence to show them their need of salvation is just the same as anyone else’s. But he doesn’t want them to be driven away. He doesn’t want them totally discouraged; he still wants them to listen to what he writes and so he temporarily steps back as he foresees them asking so what advantage then, is there from being a Jew? Indeed one might go on, what value is there in circumcision? Oh, it’s not pointless he tries to say – Much in every way. First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God – that is important! Oh yes, let’s not completely demolish being a Jew. They need salvation as much as anyone else but let’s recognise that they are in a privileged position having had all those years of relationship with the Lord! He doesn’t expand on it here for that is not his goal, but later on in the letter he does: 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” (Rom 9:4,5) Oh yes, they have much to be thankful for, but that doesn’t make them any the less sinners who need to be saved by the blood of Christ.

But the moment we start thinking about their history it raises a problem for it is clear that at a number of times in their history many of them did not have faith and that creates a problem. God had promised to bless them and make them a special nation so that He could bless the rest of the world through them. Does the fact that they had been unfaithful now mean that God will be unfaithful to His original intention to bless the world?  No, certainly not!

Here it comes – even if everyone else lies, God won’t, He will always remain true and so (implied) if He has said He will bless the world, He will!  The lack of faithfulness of the Jews will not detract from that. The fact is that He still brought His Son, Jesus, into this world through that nation and brought the means of salvation about through this nation, through their sinfulness in fact. Peter, on the day of Pentecost, speaking about Jesus to the Jews said, “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:23) and preaching a few days later, again to Jews, “You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life.” (Acts 3:13-15) Yes, they had the dubious privilege of being used by God to bring about His purposes of redemption.

To drive home this point about God never lying but being revealed at truthful, even through our sin, Paul adds a quotation from the Old Testament which in its fuller version reads, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.” (Psa 51:4) That had been David in confession mode, saying that even though he did wrong, God would be seen to be right. That would have happened when God held him accountable for his sin and stood as Judge, speaking against David’s sin and bringing corrective action against it. Yes, God’s righteousness is revealed whenever He has to confront our sinful behaviour. His words of judgment and His corrective action reveals that He is true to His nature and to His word and so He always remains righteous and always remains faithful to His declared will.

There is a danger, when either we do wrong or others around us do wrong, and everything feels bad, to think and feel that God will not remain true to the loving, forgiving character that He reveals to us, but the truth is that His character does not change one bit when we sin, however bad it is. Yes, He will hold us accountable, but He still remains a loving, caring God who wants the best for us and wants us to come to repentance and back into a relationship with Him. Some of us really need to hear this: He does NOT change when we blow it. He remains faithful and still works to draw us back to Himself. That IS His objective, and He will always remain true to it; that is why He sent Jesus. He wants you back!

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.

30. To the Jews

Meditations in Romans : 30 :  To the Jews

Rom 2:17-21 Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth– you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself?

Paul’s letter to Rome is intriguing in that it is not clear about the state of the church there. When he wrote to the Corinthians he wrote, To the church of God in Corinth.” (1 Cor 1:2). Similarly when he wrote to the Galatians he wrote, “To the churches in Galatia.” (Gal 1:2). However, when he wrote to the Ephesians he wrote more generally, “To the saints in Ephesus.” (Eph 1:1) One wonders if the different designations indicate the level of maturity or state of being established in each case. Clearly in Corinth and in Galatia the churches were clearly established but perhaps when he wrote to Rome or Ephesus he was writing to a less definite body of Christians. Remember, when he wrote to Rome he simply addressed them as, “To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints.” (1:7). It would appear to be a young group of believers, possibly with not very clear beliefs yet, because of the way he is able to address them in this chapter. These first two chapters are really more about the bad news than the ‘Good News’, which is always a precursor to the Gospel.

It would appear that there are both Jew and Gentile ‘believers’ in Rome and here Paul addresses the religious Jews. He is aware that there is a Jewish cultural tendency to be superior about who they are, after all he is one himself. “If you call yourself a Jew”. They may be Christian believers (of a sort) but they still saw themselves as Jews, these first early converts. As such they still had all the trappings of Judaism and Paul is about to show them that this is of little help. “If you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God.”

Those, surely were the two things that marked them out from the rest of the world. They had the Law of Moses as their foundational guide and they had, they thought, a relationship with God. Note so far two ‘if’s. i.e. if you put yourself in this position or if you rely upon this thing, then realise that there are consequences. But there are two more things yet: if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth.” The first ‘if’ here is about of their claim to know God’s will because it has been revealed through the Law of Moses. The second is their belief that as receivers of God’s Law, they are also those who are able to instruct the rest of the world in it. This was the crux of their beliefs, that they were the special, unique receivers of God’s Law and as such were superior to everyone else in the world,  but Paul is about to show how that is an erroneous belief.

Their reliance was in ‘knowing’. They knew what the Law was because it had been given to them through Moses and passed on down through the generations. They knew what God’s will for the world was because they had received it in the Law. Surely that made them superior. This is rather like someone who leaves university with, say, an engineering degree and feels superior because of their knowledge which is greater than others who don’t have it.  Well they might be if they used it and put it into practice, but until they do so they are merely recipients of a lot of information. Information is not for keeping in your head; it is for using in life. For these Jews, Paul is about to suggest that having the Law is meaningless unless they keep it!

However, that is not yet here in these verses. At the end of these verses he asks them something slightly different: you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself?” It is moving in that other direction for the implication is, if you are teaching others to keep the Law are you teaching yourselves likewise?  But that is only an implication. As it stands it is actually a challenge as to whether these teachers of the rest of the world are willing to be taught themselves, for Paul is about to do that. This is quite important. When we think we have ‘arrived’ it is so easy to get into a place where we are no longer open to be taught – and none of us can say we don’t have more to learn.

One very deceived man actually said to me once, “There’s nothing more you can teach me. I know it all.” I think that was the greatest example of deception that I’ve almost ever come across! As disciples of Jesus we are always to be learners, we are always to have an open heart to him to receive from him what more he wants to teach us. We can never stop learning this side of heaven.  But here in these verses is the thing that might stop us, this belief that we’ve arrived, we’ve got it all – certainly in comparison to the rest of the world who haven’t received the Gospel or had the teaching we’ve had.  Humility is an essential requirement at this point! May we have it!

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.