Shout for Joy
We all are aware that something is not quite right about life. A quick look at the global picture reveals malevolence of every kind all the way from a thoughtless word to the destruction of human life. Apparently it has always been that way. The book of Genesis tells us that the first naturally born male killed his brother; that’s how the human race began. I’m not trying to paint a gloomy picture, but on one occasion Jesus recited a litany of things that defile. The crowd was concerned that they not eat something that was ceremonially unclean so Jesus reminded them that people are defiled not by what goes in but by what comes out. By way of example he listed “sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, evil, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, and folly,” and added, “all of these things come from within and defile” (Mark 7:21-23).
The problem is human nature. Scripture tells us that we are made in the image of God, but with Adam’s decision to disobey, human nature was twisted in the wrong direction. History is a lengthy narrative that recounts the struggles of mankind due to this fatal event. The common characteristic at every point is mankind’s propensity to act contrary to the divine will. Granted there are constant illustrations of the image of God at work in human life, but the underlying reason for sorrow and suffering is the dark side of human nature.
Once this Biblical perspective is understood and applied we begin to see why nations war, why people abuse power at every level, why we so quickly weigh every choice in terms of personal benefit, etc. Of course the dark side is not the only side. Christianity teaches that God entered his own creation in the person of his Son, became the necessary sacrifice for the waywardness of all, and invites us to receive, no strings attached, a new nature and an incredibly bright future that never ends.
So, what would I change about life, if I could? It would be what we are by nature. Unfortunately that cannot happen, but interestingly enough the despair of reality makes the transforming presence of Christ all the more exciting. Talk about a redemptive story! And it turns out magnificently for all who are willing to accept the gift of Christ’s redeeming love
In writing the final words of Romans chapter 8, Paul finds it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to describe how absolutely dependable is the love of God. He exclaims that neither “death nor life,” “angels nor demons,” “things present nor things future” will be able to separate him from the love of God his Father (Rom. 8:38-39). Then suddenly, in the next two verses, he confesses that he has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart. (Rom. 9:1-2). But absolute confidence in God’s continuing love and “unceasing anguish” do not seem to go together. If joy is a “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22), and we can be quite sure that Paul had the Spirit dwelling within, how can he be experiencing “unceasing anguish”?
A word about the English language would be appropriate here. When a word is first used in a language, it has a fairly definite meaning. However, with usage it begins to lose its uniqueness and serves in other contexts with a slightly different nuance. In poetry words point to a meaning but fall short. Language has always failed to do justice to the subject being discussed. That concept is basic to Zen Buddhism. Words mean what they mean in context. The “hat” that I throw into the ring refers to my willingness to join an enterprise; it is not something I wear on my head. So when we come to scripture we need to keep genre in mind. Mountains that “clap their hands” make no noise. Were they people celebrating the occasion, they would “clap their hands,” literally.
What time schedule do you think Paul had in mind when he said his anguish was “unceasing?” Never ending? Absolutely never? Every person must be his own interpreter, but I think the expression referred to the intensity of his anguish in addition to what seemed like a long time. I expect Paul smiled before he went to heaven. So the radiant scene in chapter 8 merges with the gloom of chapter 9 because that is the nature of life. He reveled in the saving goodness of God, but facing the fact that his own people, the Jews, had lost contact with God, he was exceedingly downhearted and sad. The old adage is still true that “If the literal sense makes sense, seek no other sense,”
But I would hope that when one reads the more poetic sections of the bible that the literal sense doesn’t have to go into contortions to make sense. It’s the common problem of how to understand what you didn’t quite hear.
On one occasion Jesus was at dinner in the home of a Pharisee. When a woman entered and anointed his feet with perfume and tears, the host was skeptical. He reasoned that
if Jesus were a prophet he would know of her sinful lifestyle. Jesus used the occasion to correct his lack of proper manners (no customary kiss of greeting, no water to wash his feet, no anointing) and to commend the depth of the woman’s love (Luke 7:36-50). How Jesus responded to the situation gives us insight into several remarkable qualities of Jesus: he remained open to his critics, he was not offended by the lack of courtesy, and he was appreciative of a woman’s loving concern. Let’s go through the story.
It was no secret that the Pharisees were dead set against Jesus and the message he was spreading. Prior to the incident we are discussing, they had accused him of driving out demons by the prince of demons (Matt. 9:34) and even plotted how they might kill him (Mark 3:6). So to accept an invitation for dinner in the home of a Pharisee, one who was part of that powerful cadre that opposed him so strongly, is remarkable. It appears that Jesus’ concern for the Pharisee was far greater than the Pharisee’s disapproval of him.
During dinner a woman came with perfume and, kneeling behind Jesus, began to anoint his feet with expensive perfume. Weeping profusely, she dryed his feet with her hair. Although the host obviously disapproved of the woman, Jesus used the occasion to teach a lesson on love and forgiveness. He pictured a moneylender who canceled the debts of two debtors, one double the other. In answer to the question as to which debtor was more appreciative, the Rabbi correctly chose the one to whom more had been given. The application was clear. The host had not provided water for the guest to wash his feet, had not given him the customary kiss or anointed his head with oil. The woman, had, in her own way, done all three and went away forgiven. Jesus was not offended by the rude behavior of the host and the sins of the woman were forgiven.
How Jesus’ actions and reactions in this setting apply to life is not hard to understand. To live like Jesus is to remain open to those who have taken positions on issues that are contrary to ours. In any serious election period it is easy to see how not to conduct oneself. No one is moved to change his point of view by being ignored. Jesus went to dine in the house of a person we would classify as an adversary. Nor was he offended by the lack of courtesy on the part of the host. What the other may or may not do has nothing to do with how we are to treat another. And the last point is obvious – Jesus showed genuine appreciation for the loving concern of the woman.
To summarize: Those who want to reflect the life of Jesus do not categoriz other people, are not offended by neglect, but show appreciation wherever it is due. We’ve always called that being a lady or a gentleman.
I have mentioned before my deep attachment to Romans 8. I would name it “The Best of Paul,” although Paul is simply the one through whom God is speaking. When we arrive at the last major segment in the chapter we read, “What, then, shall we say in response to these things?” If Paul is referring to the three preceding verses then he is thinking of God’s gracious management of our lives, his foreknowledge, his predestination that we be conformed to his Son, our calling, our justification and our glorification. But if the reference goes back to the beginning of this magnificent chapter, then . . . what shall we say? . . . we have a complete theological structure that goes far beyond our ability to fully comprehend. One way to think about Paul’s “What, then, shall we say?” is to read and reflect on how he answers his own question in the following nine verses. Here is my translation:
“So what shall we say in response to all of this? If God is on our side what difference does it make who might be against us? Since God did not spare his own Son but offered him up on our behalf, will he not, along with Christ, give us everything else? Who would dare to bring a charge against the ones that God has chosen? Since it is God who declares us righteous, who could possibly condemn us! Could it be Christ? No! He is the one who died on our behalf, rose from the grave and now sits at the right hand of God interceding for us.
“I asked you: Is there anything in this world that can separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble, or calamity, or persecution? What about famine, destitution, danger, or even the threat of execution? As scripture says, ”For your sake we face death all day long; we are like sheep waiting to be slaughtered.” The answer is a resounding No! In all these difficult situations we are winning a glorious victory by the power of Christ who loves us.
“I am convinced that there is nothing that could separate us from the love of God – be it death or life, angels or rulers, things that now exist or are yet to come. There is no power from above or below, or any creative thing that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Letters of Paul to the Early Church; a contemporary translation, Robert H. Mounce, pp. 70-71)
It was Sunday afternoon and two of Jesus’s followers were returning from Jerusalem to the town of Emmaus. As they were walking along the way, Jesus joined them and asked what they were discussing. They were surprised that he would ask because everybody had heard about that Galilean preacher Jesus who had come back from the dead that very morning. That remarkable event was as all that people could talk about. When the two men told Jesus all about it, he chided them for not knowing that Moses and the prophets had taught that the Messiah would suffer. Then he pointed out all the passages in scripture that spoke of him.
When they reached their destination Jesus was going to continue, but at their invitation stayed for the evening meal. It was when he took the bread and broke it that they realized who he was. At that point Jesus disappeared from their sight. Cleopas and his companion looked at one another in astonishment and said, “Did not our hearts burn within us as he spoke to us along the road, explaining scripture?” (Luke 24:32)
This encounter is one of the most endearing passages in the gospels. The two men were simply returning from the capitol city filled with wonder at what everyone was saying had happened. They were intrigued by the explanation of the one who had joined them. However, it was at the table when Jesus broke the bread that they suddenly caught on who he was. And then he was gone. They looked at one another and confessed that they should have known because while he was explaining scripture along the road – “Did not our hearts burn within us?”
To realize the deeper meaning of scripture is to experience the “burning heart.” Truth needs no support from logic. We have all felt the warmth of divine truth when we have learned it along the road of life. Even the more secular world acknowledges the “ring of truth.” And this truth warms because it puts us in a vital relationship with God, the One who is speaking through it. It’s important to realize that scripture is not simply words in a book. The purpose of scripture is to allow you to fellowship with and learn from God. It is when a favorite passage becomes God himself speaking as being there that the heart begins to burn. The Fourth Gospel tells us, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). He did, and when his presence is revealed to us I can guarantee that our hearts will also begin to burn. May your life be a Walk to Emmaus along with Jesus.
One verse in the bible that the majority of believers know is Romans 8:28. Perhaps not perfectly, but at least the main idea that God is at work in every part of life to turn it into something good. It makes us feel that all those times in life when things were not going right that God was still here and would make it all turn out to be something good. The older translations said that “all things work together for good” and we wondered how that could be. How could double pneumonia produce something good or the loss of a child? Now we know that Paul never said that “all things” would sort of cooperate in order to bring about a favorable conclusion. Inanimate objects don’t plan favorable outcomes. It is God who takes all things and weaves them together for good. In the process he uses every kind of “thing.”
A similar image is the potter who makes from his clay anything he wants. That is his prerogative because the clay doesn’t have any part in its own design. That’s up to the potter. And, as the pot is being turned, should one side collapse, the potter can smash the clay into a hump and turn it into something more usable or beautiful. In the same way, God chooses to make something of value out of our lives and should the process collapse he simple uses the experience to make an even better person.
It is interesting that in life it often seems to be misfortune that turns out to be the most helpful in the long run. The divorce was a mess – wasted time, hurt feelings, remorse, and damaged reputation. Yet God can take that mistake and use it to teach the importance of personal integrity, the nature of mature love, the absolute necessity of putting the other first. Combined with other unpleasant experiences, God the potter can shape an objet d‘art from a difficult past.
But God doesn’t work indiscriminately with all people. It is “those who love him, those who are called according to his purpose” that benefit from his hands-on loving care. So, if you are currently going through a difficult trial, remember that it is one of those “all things” that God can take and create new beauty in your life. Allowing God complete access and believing that he is a willing and able craftsman is our role in spiritual renewal. Stand back and watch the master of renewal’use the problems of life for something of unexpected beauty.
The temple guards had put Jesus under arrest and taken him to the house of the high priest. When questioned about what he was teaching, he reminded Annas that his teaching had always been done out in the open, so why was he being questioned; they already knew what he taught. At that remark a guard slapped Jesus in the face, asking how he dared speak like that to the high priest. Very calmly Jesus asked for evidence that his teaching was not true, and added, “If not, why did you strike me?” (John 18:23). Jesus was then taken to Caiaphas where the high priest and all his cohorts kept trying to trap him into saying something they could use to condemn him. To all their accusations Jesus simply “said nothing” (Matt. 26:73). He did not defend himself.
Once again we see the serenity with which Jesus responded to his accusers. To Annas he provided a simple answer; to Caiaphas and the clerics who had gathered (unlawfully, since it was night) he remained silent. He did not defend himself. In Jesus’ reaction to all of this we see two remarkable characteristics: composure under stress and the willingness not to defend himself. Both of these run counter to human nature. In times of distress it is especially difficult to maintain the emotional balance that keeps us from doing or saying the wrong thing. When accused, especially if the accusation is false, we rush to our own defense. It is what we do because of who we are. We are made that way. But apparently Jesus had no desire to prove himself before others, especially the ruling class, which at that time was the religious leadership. I have a feeling that in most cases one’s reputation is enhanced by saying nothing. At least it deprives others of the pleasure of displaying their superiority by countering whatever you might say.
It seems to me that both of these qualities are extremely important in the life of the believer. They display a high level of spiritual maturity. It may not be our lot to face false arrest with the potential of death but we do face difficult situations with significant consequences. Certainly a steady hand and a careful tongue will serve not only our own personal interests, but the reputation of God as one in whom we may trust. If God is in charge – and we believe he is – then there is nothing in our life in which he is not in some way involved. A personal set back, say . . . sickness or financial loss, need not disturb our trust in him as the One who is always there to help. He didn’t cause it but he can and will, if we let him, use it for our ultimate benefit.
So, may God grant to each of us the serenity of genuine faith. May our days be spent with a calmness that overcomes our inborn desire to defend ourselves.
In the book of Romans Paul uses the word “if” 71 times. It appears there are a lot of contingencies connected with what he has to say to the believers in Rome. Eight of the 71 “ifs” are in chapter 8: Here are three of them:
If Christ is in you (v, 10)
If we are God’s children (v. 17)
If God is for us (v. 31)
Each is followed by a result, and in order they are: you will have life, you are heirs of God, and, no one is against us – obviously great benefits.
So let’s take one of the 8 “ifs” of the chapter and see what it says about the result of living in a certain way. Verse 9 reads, “If a person doesn’t have Christ’s Spirit living in them they do not belong to Christ.” The first thing that catches our attention is that having Christ's Spirit is a necessary requirement for salvation. We do not become a Christian by agreeing intellectually that Jesus died for our sins. Christianity is not a social movement built around the religious insights of a Galilean peasant. Christianity is God himself in the person of the Holy Spirit entering into the heart of the believer and taking complete control. You can become a Republican by joining the Republican Party or a Girl Scout by joining the local chapter, but you cannot become a Christian by joining a Christian church. Christianity is not an organization but a designation for those through whom God is carrying out his work in this world.
What is it like to have the Spirit of Christ alive and well in a person's heart? One thing for sure is that, as the great old song as it, "You’ll never walk alone.” The dearest friend you will ever have is there with you to enjoy the victories of life and encourage you when everything seems to be going the wrong way. There is nothing quite like a good friend and Jesus is ready and able to be that friend. Not only is he available for strength but also for good solid advice. He wants to point out the right way in every decision and warn you about that challenge you will meet just around the corner. He is a very essence of that Greek term, now familiar in English,
koinonia, “companionship, having in common.” What an incredible relationship for us and what a remarkable condescension on the part of the infinite God!
God’s companionship is too wonderful to be expressed in words. It surpasses the most elegant attempt to do it justice. When we personally experience the indwelling Christ we will understand what koinonia really means. In the meantime, when we meet one another as Christians, a powerful sense of companionship in Christ begins to rise and we get a sense of what’s in store for us in the eternal fellowship of God’s presence.
The Pharisees were desperate to trap Jesus in his speech so they’d have grounds for turning him over to Roman authorities. So one day, feigning sincerity, they asked Jesus whether it was proper to pay the poll tax to Caesar or not (Matt. 22:17). A Yes would get him in trouble with the people and a No would make him a threat to the government. Strictly a win-lose question. So Jesus requested a coin and, receiving it, he asked whose image and name was on it. When they acknowledged it was Caesar’s, he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” It was a straightforward question, but it left them unable to respond.
So what did Jesus accomplish in this encounter? I believe he made his point by simplifying the issue. He could have gone into a long discussion about the relationship of religion and government. Or he could have addressed the ethical problem that faced the Jewish people by virtue of the dilemma between their faith and their moral responsibility to their Roman overlords. Instead, he said, “Give Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to him.” In clarifying the issue he used a principle quite similar to what is known as KISS, “Keep it simple stupid.” Jesus took what could have become an exceedingly complicated issue and made it simple. Advance in every intellectual discipline is the triumph of simplicity over complexity.
Simplicity has become the goal in many areas of life. Japanese art forms, such as painting, theater, and flower arrangement, all reflect the beauty of simplicity. Karl Barth, the famous German theologian, summarized a lifetime of scholarly research with the words, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so.” John Calvin praised “lucid clarity” as the goal for writing. Take almost any sentence you have written and remove every word that isn’t absolutely necessary and you will be surprised how much better it reads. Simplicity has a remarkable charm and strength.
So, as Jesus simplified the issue of where to give what, we would probably do well to remove from our lives the unnecessary clutter of stuff. Issues are complicated only when sufficient time hasn’t been given to thinking them through. Lives become complicated with too many unclassified responsibilities. Jesus became incarnate to solve the complexity of mankind’s moral history. He did it by dying and rising again. Simple, clear, and powerful! Our Savior’s life recommends that we adopt what could be called Christian minimalism. When you get right down to it, some things are so vitally important that other things must be set aside. KISS.
A major concern of every thoughtful person is the nature and purpose of life. Why am I here, and what should I be doing? Both parts of the question are dealt with in today’s passage (Rom. 6:8). We are to let our minds be “governed by the Spirit” and the result will be “life and peace.” Verse 8 tells us the way to live (Spirit-controlled) and the result of living that way (life and peace). But the verse also tells us how to “die” and that is to allow the mind to be "governed by the flesh." So we are faced with two options (life and death) and they both depend upon how the mind is being controlled. The Greek word used here (phronema, “mind”) is not the normal term for what we think of as the thinking mechanism. It occurs but 3 times in the New Testament (always in the book of Romans) and refers to a person's way of thinking or mindset. What Paul means by the word is how we view things – do we look at reality from a this-world point of view or do we have a spiritual perspective. It makes all the difference in how one understands reality.
Let's use Scripture as an example. From a worldly perspective it is an ancient book honored by the Jewish religion. However, modernism, unlike Judaism, could not hold it to have a divine origin because strict materialism is at least agnostic about anything thought to be "out there." However, from a spiritual perspective (understanding "spiritual" as related to God's Spirit) it is the very word of God, inspired and authoritative. So when the world reads, "thou shalt not commit adultery" they may smile (it’s not all that big a deal), but the sincere believer will take it seriously as God warning him, "Don't go to bed with that man's wife." The illustration represents how these two points of view lead to vastly differing results.
What Paul is saying is that the worldly perspective leads to “death.” The death of which he speaks is not only eternal separation from God, but the failure to use the present life in any meaningful way. That is certainly the wrong direction so where will a spiritual perspective take us? The apostle’s answer is "life and peace." In the final analysis life is an attribute of God alone. Before there was anything there was God and therefore there was life because "God is life" and apart from him nothing but death. The other result of thinking spiritually is the continuing sense of spiritual wellbeing that we call "peace" – the shalom of God. Outside of God’s presence all is in turmoil. There is individual unrest and there is global confusion. But in God’s presence all is well. To view all of life from a perspective supplied by the Spirit is to live life as it meant to be lived, and therefore prepare us for eternity.
Robert H Mounce