1 CORINTHIANS: Broken Body (part two)

We previously discussed the context of Corinth and its impact on the setting for Paul’s Corinthian letters, and while we made mention of the cultural diversity that drove deep divisions into the people of God, we hinted at another problem glaring at us from the pages of 1 Corinthians. With Corinth being a centerpiece of goddess worship, particularly with the worship of goddesses like Aphrodite and Artemis, sexual immorality ran rampant in Corinth in a way that was unique to most of the rest of the empire.

Consider the following passages:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this. (5:1–3) 

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.
Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies. (6:15–20)
Paul then goes on to quite a teaching about marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. I know that for me, as a young person, this was one of the most confusing passages in the Text. Did God not want us to get married? Was married a “second-best” plan for God’s people? It certainly can read that way, but knowing more about the context of Corinth has helped me put everything in its appropriate place (at least within my mind). You might remember when we talked about the Narrative as a whole, we said that Paul’s letters need to be read in context, because he was trying to help each of those churches live out the message of Jesus within their own unique setting. In the context of Corinth, Paul is inviting them to tell a different story with their lives. In a world obsessed with sex, Paul invites the people of God to consider a testimony of abstinence. Paul is not making a declaration of biblical morality, which explains why there are so many qualifying statements [“I give this command (not I, but the Lord)…”, etc.] and suggestions, as opposed to imperative commands (which Paul loves to use elsewhere).

But this isn’t the only issue of compromise the church in Corinth is struggling with. We also mentioned that Corinth brought an incredible amount of vocational diversity. In the Roman Empire, vocations were tied to a system of “guilds.” To understand an ancient Roman guild, I always picture the brotherhood of a fraternity combined with the commitment of a labor union. These guilds were vocational factions that provided a system of brotherhood and camaraderie. They looked out for each other.

The problem with this system, besides the fact that it only fostered more division, is that each guild also worshipped one of the Roman gods. The “guild feasts” of the first century were, almost without exception, filled with drunken debauchery and sexual immorality. These events, held regularly, revolved around intense amounts of drinking and feasting around ceremonial (pagan) foods. With this in mind, we can hear these words:
Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.
Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?(10:14–22)
These same feasts also created quite the ethical dilemma. They would often have leftover meat from the celebration. This meat would be sold at a discount meat market within the agora. Could these earlier believers buy this discounted meat? It had been sacrificed to idols! Into this, Paul speaks many words of wisdom:
So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. (8:4–9)
A proper understanding of the context of Corinth helps us interpret this book more accurately. It’s safe to say that these Corinthians had a very hard task living in the midst of the culture of Corinth. They had many challenges that may speak into our own culture (just like our previous conversation).

But how is this body supposed to move forward? How can they deal with this division and idolatry that seeks to tear the mission of God apart?

It is to this end that Paul closes his letter.


1 CORINTHIANS: Broken Body (part one)

It was necessary to go verse by verse through Galatians (since I believe it is crucial to understanding the world of the New Testament), Romans (since everyone who will argue with my theology will do so from Romans), and eventually Hebrews (since it will help us understand atonement). I wanted to present my perspectives on those books without dodging passages or leaving anything out. But now, I’d like to pick up the pace as I survey the rest of Paul’s letters. Again, ignoring chronology, I’ll turn my sights next to the letters to the Corinthians.

A brief note on context would be wise. Corinth found itself as a major port city to the world of Greco-Asia. This centralized port location made Corinth a melting pot of culture. It was one of the most eclectic cities in the Roman empire. While this diversity makes it difficult to pin down absolute statements about Corinthian culture, we do know it was diverse in its people and its idolatry. While ancient Corinth appears to have chosen Poseidon as their god of choice, later Roman Corinth is much more complicated, which most would think was done to “meet the needs” of its diverse demographics.

We do know that Aphrodite rose to immense popularity in Corinth during the first century, along with many other goddesses (Hera, Athena, Artemis, and Demeter, to name a few). Corinth had quickly become one of the centers for goddess worship; with Aphrodite being chief among these, you can imagine how this led to rampant sexual immorality (picture the stereotype of Las Vegas, multiply that a few times over, and we’re getting close).

Needless to say, the main characteristic of the city of Corinth will be its diversity. This will show up all throughout the first letter to the Corinthians and it’s helpful to know where that’s rooted in historical context. Whether it’s the ethnic and racial diversity, the many different idolatrous practices and sexual immorality, or even just the immense variety of vocational pursuits, this will create a culture that is searching for identity and using their identity to be distinct. This will become a massive challenge to a group of believers who are trying to show the world a “blended family” built on unity and acceptance.

This is the first thing I would point out about the first letter to Corinth. They are struggling with unity; they want to define themselves by what makes them unique, not by what holds them together. Consider some of these passages, beginning in chapter 1:
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?
This conversation continues for a couple more chapters, where Paul will write this in chapter 3:
What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.
Consider then, if this is the theme of conversation, how this affects one of the very next things Paul says:
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.
I can’t tell you how many times that passage has been used to hound the youth-group version of myself about the dangers of smoking, drinking, and sex. Didn’t I know that my body — Marty’s body — was a temple for the Holy Spirit? While the point may or may not be valid, let’s take time to correct this faulty exegesis. Paul says that they — and in this case, they is plural — are a temple for God’s Spirit. If they can’t find unity, they destroy the temple of God! They — plural — have to be unified so God can live in their community and work through them.

Imagine the scenario described in chapter 6 (I say “imagine” tongue-in-cheek):
If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers!
The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters. Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
This disunity is ruining their body, their reputation, and the mission of God through them in Corinth. I find this message to be incredibly timely for our culture, as well, although when I read these words from Paul, I feel like the concept is so straightforward that if I try to elaborate on it, I ruin it. We ought to come to grips with the truth, but we just don’t want to follow these commands. This leads me to one other observation I will make about this disunity: it’s getting in the way of how they are able to receive instruction — even from the Apostles of Christ.

See chapter 4:
I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.
Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit?
In a theme that will come up again in 2 Corinthians, Paul addresses their arrogance and the disrespect they have for the work of the Apostles. They presume themselves to be teachers and apostles, and rather than receiving the instruction of Paul (and others), they go their own way.

Which is where this hits home for me. And not just for me, but for all of us.

It’s no secret to us that we have the “Corinthian Plague.” We find ourselves in a culture of immense diversity and we seek an identity of our own. This seeking of identity drives us to preserve that which makes us distinct from others, rather than drawing us together toward the same grace that should unite us. We have an immense disunity problem, whether it be in the form of trends, theological categories, denominational belief statements, genders, political parties…

We have a problem.

We cheat each other, take advantage of our brothers, and seek to hurt those who have hurt us — even within our own family of God! I have sat through far too many courtroom battles where both plaintiff and defendant claim to be a follower of Jesus. Even as I write that last statement, I have to read it again as I am incredulous to the fact that it would be true! And there are far too many times when we are shameless in this disheartening truth, plastering it on Facebook and announcing our self-righteous “identities” for all to see.

We’re ready to pick a fight with anybody who dares.

And for all of our love for Paul and all the ways we worship the parts of Pauline literature that fuel our systematic theologies, we sure don’t have a hard time kicking Paul’s imperative teachings to the curb on this one. And do we all know why? Because we are arrogant. We have no respect for the teachings of the Apostles except when it suits our doctrinal codes. We don’t actually want to love. We don’t actually want to listen to Paul. And we sure aren’t going to do what he says if we don’t like it — we’re Americans, after all. We don’t answer to anybody.

Which is something I can hear the Corinthians saying.


ROMANS: God's Mission, Paul's Mission

Paul continues his last train of thought into the next chapter by inviting us not to be concerned about our own opinions and convictions first and foremost, but instead find ourselves primarily concerned with the needs of others — especially the weak — for this is the way of Jesus.
We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.
As we wrap up the letter of Romans, be prepared for a mess as I try to cover a lot of ground and a lot of “little ideas” that appear in Paul’s concluding comments. Throughout the conclusion of this letter, Paul will continue to break out into benedictory praises of exhortation and encouragement to the church in Rome.
May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul then addresses what I consider to be “the big practical point in context” for the readers. Having directed most of this letter to the Jewish believers in Rome, Paul reiterates the whole point of this argument: If we are all justified by faith, the Jewish believers ought to work hard to accept their Gentile brothers and sisters.
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written:
“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles;    I will sing the praises of your name.”
Again, it says,
“Rejoice, you Gentiles, with his people.”
And again,
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles;    let all the peoples extol him.”
And again, Isaiah says,
“The Root of Jesse will spring up,    one who will arise to rule over the nations;    in him the Gentiles will hope.”
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Before launching into another benedictory exclamation, Paul very intentionally chooses to quote four different passages that speak of the mystery Rome is experiencing: The Gentiles are coming to worship the God of Israel! Paul points out (again) that this is what God has always been up to and they are a part of it. What I love about the quotations Paul chooses is that they speak to both groups. The Jews are reminded of God’s plan, proclaimed by the prophets, to have the Gentiles in worship next to them. At the same time, the Gentiles have an opportunity to realize that they “Rejoice … [in the company of] his people.”

Paul then tells them he believes they can and do understand this, and they are capable of partnering with God in His mission. He also says it is this very mission he has been called to; this is his life’s passion.
I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another. Yet I have written you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles. He gave me the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather, as it is written:
“Those who were not told about him will see,    and those who have not heard will understand.”
This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you.
And it is this very calling that has kept him from coming to visit the people in Rome. God has kept Paul quite busy helping lead this church through a very difficult transition in Asia and Asia Minor.

Paul then works toward some closing thoughts about his plans and salutations:
But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to visit you, I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to see you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while. Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the Lord’s people there. For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem. They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings. So after I have completed this task and have made sure that they have received this contribution, I will go to Spain and visit you on the way. I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ.
I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea and that the contribution I take to Jerusalem may be favorably received by the Lord’s people there, so that I may come to you with joy, by God’s will, and in your company be refreshed. The God of peace be with you all. Amen.
And then, the list of all the people to greet in Rome:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.
Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.
Greet also the church that meets at their house.
Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia.
Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you.
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.
Greet Ampliatus, my dear friend in the Lord.
Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys.
Greet Apelles, whose fidelity to Christ has stood the test.
Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus.
Greet Herodion, my fellow Jew.
Greet those in the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord.
Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord.
Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord.
Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.
Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the other brothers and sisters with them.
Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the Lord’s people who are with them.
Greet one another with a holy kiss.
All the churches of Christ send greetings.
Now, I am far from an expert who could speak on these things, I have no desire to stir the pot more than it ought to be stirred, and it is far beyond the scope of this writing — but one of my favorite things about the closing of the letter of Romans is the list of people Paul greets. For many of us, we have been given the impression that Paul is very “anti women” in his writings and theology. This list tells me quite the contrary. At least half of the names listed above are women — many of whom Paul addresses as fellow workers, deacons, and ministers.

Although Paul will write some instructions to other churches — instructions we love to wave around and trumpet in the conservative evangelical church, talking about the place of women in leadership — it is clear from this passage that Paul is either incredibly schizophrenic or there must be more to the context of the conversations. Could it be that the context of each particular letter drives the conversation within its instructions? However, the one thing we can say at this point is that Paul is no stranger or opponent to working alongside women in the church.

Before offering some final salutations, Paul utters one last exhortation toward unity:
I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I rejoice because of you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.
The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.
The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.
Timothy, my co-worker, sends his greetings to you, as do Lucius, Jason and Sosipater, my fellow Jews.
I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord.
Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole church here enjoy, sends you his greetings.
Erastus, who is the city’s director of public works, and our brother Quartus send you their greetings.
Paul is serious about this idea of one family, one body, one community of God’s people that shows the world what God is like. A proper understanding of the love, salvation, and justification of God is what enables us to find unity with one another.

I will close with the closing of Paul himself; may his words ring true for us today:

Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith—to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.


ROMANS: Whether We Live or Die

One of my favorite chapters in the New Testament comes next. I think it’s some of the most practical instruction I’ve read in the teachings of Paul. It’s probably because of how it resonates with my mentality, but I love it nonetheless.
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
First, there are, apparently, matters of gray in our faith; despite the fact that many would have us believe everything fits into neat black-and-white categories, Paul clearly says there are such things as “disputable matters.” For some of us, this teaching alone is hard to swallow. But if we think about it, our own lives show this to be true and we know it.

Second, Paul describes a world where there are two dominant camps (not to oversimplify things, but merely as a means of example): one camp wants to abstain from disputable things, and another camp wants to live in their freedom to engage the disputable matters. Sound familiar? Of course it does. This is our world. This is our “Christian” world. We find ourselves locked in morality wars over whether we should do something, or not even touch it with a ten-foot pole.

Paul’s ruling: The one who lives out of their freedom must not look down on the one who abstains, and the one who abstains must not judge the one who does not.

Following this one paragraph of Scripture would change the entire tone of the Church universally. And I know that I myself stand convicted first.
One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
We make the decisions we make (hopefully) because of our convictions and desires to serve the Lord. Yet this isn’t just about us as individuals and our opinions — this is about others and those around us. This is about how we treat one another. Most importantly, this is about us and God. No matter what decision we make and where we land in the larger conversation, this is about walking out our faith well with the support of and in the company of those around us. Whether we eat or drink, whether we live or die — we do it all unto the Lord.

This isn’t about a morality code. This isn’t about being right. This is about our sacrifice of worship.
You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written:
“ ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,‘every knee will bow before me;    every tongue will acknowledge God.’ ”
So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.
So why do we pass judgment on our fellow brothers and sisters when we’re all just trying to do our best? I think there are some great answers to these questions, but I will leave that to the psychologists and sociologists, and I will recognize it as being beyond the scope of this conversation and my expertise. I do know from life experience that tearing others down gives us a false feeling of being built up. However, we have learned how to trust the story, as we’ve said a hundred times before in this series — it allows us to stop worrying about ourselves and enables us to worry about others. If we worried about others more than ourselves, we would strive to help others toward their own success. We would work hard not to put stumbling blocks in front of others that would have tripped them up in their pursuit of offering their lives as an act of worship to God.
I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.
Please notice that this “stumbling block” conversation has too often been co-opted by the abstinence crowd mentioned above. In our day and age of pop-Christianity, the “stumbling block” has become a buzzword used to justify our evangelical morality codes. That is not what Paul speaks of here. He speaks of making sure that our lifestyle and decisions have an awareness of the people around us and a desire to help them enter and experience the Kingdom of God.
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall. 
So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.
Paul says that at the end of the day, in these “disputable matters,” we all have to do what we are convicted is the best decision. If we feel like doing something is wrong, we ought not do it. And apparently, according to this teaching, if we do engage it, it has become sin because we are acting against our conscience and what we believe is best. We have to follow the convictions we hold between ourselves and God.

But we also have to make sure we help others do the same. We cannot impose our convictions in these disputable matters onto others. We have to be concerned about their pursuit of a God who loves and accepts. Earlier, Paul said that if this God justifies, then who condemns?

Woe to us if we become the condemner. If God is the one who justifies, who are we to condemn? And why in the world should people experience condemnation because of matters that are as silly as food and drink, holidays and hobbies, entertainment and…

“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.”



ROMANS: Servant Authorities

After making the case that we are all justified by the same grace, from the same forgiving God who loves to show grace and mercy to His creation, Paul then says the only logical response to this graciousness is to offer our own lives as sacrifices —instruments God can use as conduits of His love in the world.

When working through the last section, one of my editors made an incredible observation I’d never realized (thanks Laura!). I had been working off of my trusty old Bible sitting next to me with the translation I have used my whole life, the NIV of 1984. In that version, the translators had rendered the command to “offer your bodies as living sacrifices.” But the newer translation has changed the sacrifice from plural to singular. This is a great wrestling match that I think the newer translation captures.

The call is not for us to offer all of our individual bodies as individual sacrifices, but instead for us to offer our bodies — in service to one another — as a united sacrifice to God. This would be our act of worship. To honor and serve and love each other in a way that God would find our lives to be a pleasing aroma, and the world would see a proper depiction of who God is. Brilliant.

But Paul extends his calling even further, to places that might not sit as well with our postmodern, American mentalities.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
Keep in mind that these “governing authorities” are the same people who have persecuted believers and made them suffer at the end of the sword (as we saw only a few sections back). They are not simply leaders from a differing political party with differing ideologies — they are truly enemies of the state.
For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason.
This verse sits in my head often as I think about all the times I feel as though the government wants to infringe on my rights, or when I start getting a little entitled about privacy or oversight. I am quick to remind myself that as a follower of Jesus, I am called to walk in the light and have nothing to hide. I should be living such a good life that there is nothing to condemn. If I live as I ought, I should have very little to fear.
They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

Again, Paul’s words remind me of the humility needed to see that God has a plan I don’t always understand or perceive. He makes vessels and instruments to use as He sees fit. It is very hard for me to know when an authority is being used by God to accomplish His purposes, so I ought to respect the place God has given them in my world.
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Pay what you owe others — including the government — and when it comes to debt, make sure the only thing you owe other human beings is love and dignity.

Make sure this way of love is what we give ourselves to. Make sure we continue to learn how to master our sarx and be able to lay down our lives for our neighbors, our leaders, and even our enemies.
And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.
As we come to the close of yet another chapter in Romans, we are reminded that our call — our offering of worship — is our ability to love each other. In our willingness to serve and see others as more significant than ourselves, we put God on display to a world that seeks to serve self. May we be true worshipers. May we offer up sacrifices of self-sacrificial living.


ROMANS: Therefore

Paul has spent the last eleven chapters of Romans arguing for unity in this blended family struggling with the full and free inclusion of the Gentiles. He opened with a theological treatise which explained that all of humanity struggles with the same essential condition. The good news (pun intended) is that this means it is the same faith that justifies us all. If we are all justified, by the same faith and the same gift of grace, then there is no reason for division or exclusion of any group.

Although this is hard to swallow when you are a part of the group on the “inside,” Paul reminds his Jewish readers that God is the potter and He gets to decide what He does with His vessels. So if He decides He wants to shower grace on ‘vessels prepared for destruction,’ He gets to. Paul moved on to explain this is all part of God’s plan and always has been; they’ve made their share of mistakes in the past and learned this lesson before. We Jews need to seize our calling to be a light to the Gentiles and welcome them in the family of faith — the children of Abraham.

But it’s not all fun and games for those Gentiles, either. They have to guard themselves against conceit and arrogance, reminding themselves of the kindness and sternness of God. They must remember that — if not for the grace of God — they are a wild olive tree which doesn’t belong.

In light of this larger argument, Paul turns his attention to the application of this truth. With a great “Therefore” statement to begin Romans 12, Paul calls God’s people to love:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
In view of this incredible mercy we described in the paragraphs above, the only logical response would be to let ourselves be shaped by this Potter. How would God shape these new vessels for His divine use?
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
If this is what God is up to in the world, neither one of these groups must think of themselves as better than any other group. (That should remind you of the opening chapters to the letter, right?) Instead, we ought to realize God designed each of us — Jew and Gentile alike — to serve others in the world. We all have something to give. Some of us are teachers and others are administrators. Some of us are prophets, while others encourage. We ought to offer our bodies as living sacrifices and lay ourselves down as an act of service to others around us.

The great Potter is shaping His vessels to be instruments of love.
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
This is what it means to partner with God in His project of redemption. We become His instruments of love and hospitality. We give ourselves as living sacrifices to bless others. Whether these “others” are fellow believers in the Body of Christ or our very enemies matters not. We love and we serve. We bless and we do not curse.

NOTE: While it is a tangential thought and outside the scope of this thematic study of Romans, many people have been confused by the “burning coals on his head” reference. Needless to say, as we’ve learned time and time before, the answer is in the Text. Our initial observation is that this line comes from Proverbs 25. What is often harder to see is that the reference to “burning coals” in the Hebrew is always connected to the presence of God. In Tanakh, whenever you see burning coals, you will also find God nearby. As a quick side note (far too quick), this reference in Romans is not inviting us to “torture our enemies with good deeds,” as if we are taking our vengeance on them in some passive-aggressive form of righteousness. Instead, the author is inviting us to bring the presence of God into their lives by not returning evil for evil. Respond to evil with good — and God will show up.

Might we all be inspired to offer ourselves as living sacrifices. May we offer ourselves to others in love and hospitality. Might we lay our lives down in acts of service, doing the very things God designed us to do for the good of others. May we not shrink back at the sight of evil, but overcome evil with good.