Shout for Joy
The first two verse of Romans 16 represent the first of the five sections that make up the final chapter in the book. In these verses Paul recommends Phoebe to the church in Rome in order to show his approval of the one who is bringing this letter to them. We know little of Phoebe, but she was probably a Gentile in that her name was common in Greek mythology. It is interesting that he refers to her both as a “sister” and as a “diakonos.” The Greek word was used of a servant or helper, but also of an office in the church. That accounts for the various English translations of the term: NIV has “deacon,” NJB chooses “deaconess,” NET has “servant,” and TEV chooses “[one] who serves the church.” It is quite possible that she was the “patroness” of the house church in Cenchreae, legally responsible for all that took place in her home.
In any case, Phoebe was chosen to take this important letter to Rome and probably to let Paul know that it had been delivered. Whether or not Renan is correct in his opinion that “she carried under her robe the entire future of Christian theology,” will not be determined this side of heaven, nor will Dunn’s claim that she was the first recorded “deacon” in the history of Christianity (see my Romans, pp. 271-73). What we can safely presume is that she was a person of dependable character, one to whom Paul could entrust this important letter.
Paul asks the church in Rome to welcome Phoebe as one who was worthy of honor among God’s people. They were to provide her with anything that might need. She goes with Paul’s blessing because she has been such a good friend of so many in the local congregation and especially of the apostle himself.
Having said that, what can these two verses teach us about the Christian life? One thing is the close relationship that Paul, the most prominent figure in Christianity, sustained with members of the church wherever he travelled. Phoebe was “our sister,” not simply that person who is bringing you this letter. The church universal was a family affair; its members were brothers and sisters in the faith. A second thing is that they were to treat her in a worthy manner. While it is true that we are all sinner saved by grace, there are certain among us who are worthy of special respect because of the role they play in the expansion of the kingdom. As one born a Baptist (currently a Methodist) I am not suggesting that the church should have a carefully planned ecclesiastical hierarchy, but simply a genuine awareness of the place certain people play in the church universal.
As Jesus was sharing the Passover meal with his disciples, he became profoundly disturbed in spirit. He told those around the table that one of them was going to betray him. The disciples were stunned by his words. They looked around at one another asking, “Lord, It couldn’t be me, could it?” Jesus responded, saying that he would dip a piece of bread in the sauce and then give it to one of them. That would be the one who would betray him. Jesus dipped the bread, then, turning to Judas, said in a tone that I’m quite sure was both gentle and firm, “Go ahead and do what you intend to do.” I can imagine there was a long pause before Judas slowly reached out and took the bread. Then he quickly left the room and went out into the dark night (Mark 14:18-21 and parallels).
It must have caused Jesus great personal anguish to watch one of his disciples turn against him. As a group they had all been so close for three years. Jesus did not berate Judas or accuse him for the coming act of betrayal. Very quietly, but very directly, he answered Judas’ “Is it I?” with “It is just as you have said.” By his gentle manner Jesus was making it easier for Judas to change his mind and not follow through with his act of betrayal. When that did not happen, he had no option but to let the truth be known. Jesus had done everything he could to prevent Judas from carrying out a plan devised by Satan.
In today’s world such a remarkable quality of character is rarely seen. When faced by someone who intends to harm us, our natural response is to take the initiative and harm the other first. The way Jesus reacted provides a better alternative. We should wait in quietness as the act begins to unfold, praying that God will bring to our opponent’s mind the sinfulness of what he intends to do. Strength of character is not measured by how vociferously we defend our reputation. If we are living in love – and we must be if we are living as Christ desires – we will relate to those who would ham us exactly as Jesus did that night in the upper room.
“But,” you say, “that’s beyond my ability.” And you are right. Scripture has never suggested that we are able to live the spiritual life on our own. There is an immeasurable difference between our ability and God’s power. The good news is that God has supplied us with the power to live as Christ did. The Holy Spirit dwells within and is fully capable to provide the strength necessary to meet the challenge. In situations lying beyond our natural abilities, turn to the One who will freely supply the power for victory.
If you have been following my daily blogs, you probably know that the verses I choose to write on are those through which God has revealed some insight or truth as I prayerfully work my way though a given book. We noted that the doxology in 15:13 concludes the theology section of the letter and leads to information about his coming plans. As Paul lays out his plans for visiting the church in Rome en route to Spain, he asks them for their help in one major way. In verse 30 he urges them as friends to join him in his struggle “by praying to God on his behalf.” I get the feeling that when it comes to determining the one most important thing in the Christian life and ministry, it turns out to be the maintaining of a constant relationship with God through prayer.
All too often prayer is thought of as something we do at various times in the day for different purposes. We pray for the day that is about to unfold, we pray before meals, and we pray before going to bed. Perhaps more, but at least at those specific times. But in his letter to the church in Thessalonica, Paul counsels us to “pray continually” (5:16). That means we are to stay in constant contact with him. In normal dialog, there are times when both people are quiet, but that doesn’t mean that they are unaware of each other. In my Letters of Paul to the Early Church I translate the above verse, “Talk to God all the time.” Frank Laubach, known as “The Apostle to the Illiterates,” makes the point that you can’t think without “talking” to yourself. He suggests that we make God the other person in that discussion, or at least join it. So there is one way to “talk to God all the time” (see his little book, Game with Minutes – it could change your life forever).
We usually think of Paul as an exceptionally bright former Jewish Rabbi who was responsible for westward expansion of the Christian faith. And he was, but I believe we ought to think of him as a man of prayer as well. He mentions prayer so often in his letters (57 times by my count) that we can be sure it played the major role in his outreach to the Gentiles. But his prayers alone were not enough. He encourages the believers in Rome to join him in prayer. He understood that spiritual life needs the constant presence and power of the Spirit. If it didn’t, we shouldn’t call it “spiritual.” As Paul moved into the un-evangelized west, where the message of the saving grace of God through Jesus Christ had not as yet been heard, he prayed – and invited his friends in Rome to join him – for safety, for a favorable reception of help for the poor, and for joy and refreshment when he arrives there (vv. 31-32). Prayer was both normal and necessary for the apostle, as it is for us as well.
When Jesus arrived at the place of execution, the Roman soldiers offered him some wine mixed with a drug called Myrrh. He took a sip, but found it too bitter to drink. Then they placed him on a wooden cross, nailed his hands and feet to it and raised it upright. Hung between heaven and earth, the Son of God gave his life as a ransom for our sin. I believe he was looking down on the battle-hardened soldiers who were dividing up his clothing when he prayed, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” What a remarkable act of forgiving love!
Forgiveness is the decision not to repay, the willingness to not seek revenge. Some might regard it as an indication of weakness, but Gandhi was correct when he said, “Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.” That Jesus – in pain from the scourging, the long trek to Calvary, being nailed to the cross – was able to muster the strength to pray that God would forgive his tormenters, is beyond comprehension. Apart from supernatural strengthening, to undergo such an ordeal would have been impossible.
Forgiveness is a power that changes the life of the forgiver. It frees the one who embraces it and puts it into practice. No longer do they have to be concerned about paying back the offender. Revenge demands that we give full attention to getting even and that concern robs us of our only irreplaceable treasure – time. And while we are spending precious time trying to figure how to get even, our supposed offender goes scot-free. That’s a bad tradeoff! Sin has a way of destroying the one who sins. In a similar way, forgiveness blesses the one who forgives. Once we get our minds off ourselves, it is easy to see that actions, good or bad, undoubtedly benefit or harm the doer more than the recipient. Who can deny the pleasure of those given to random acts of kindness! While forgiveness is specific rather than random, it certainly brightens the day of both.
Romans 15:13 marks the close of the theological part of the letter. From here on, Paul writes of his role in taking the message to the Gentiles, lays out his plans to visit Rome, and sends greetings to an remarkably long list of personal friends (15:14-16:27). Appropriately, he closes the current section with a doxology. He writes, “May God, the source of all hope, fill you with joy and peace as you continue to place your trust in him, thus enabling the Holy Spirit to make your hope even greater.”
The major point of this doxology is Christian hope. Contrary to the way the word hope is understood in common parlance with all its uncertainty, Christian hope is confidence in that which God guarantees will come to pass. It is less how we feel about something future and more about that which God has said will certainly happen. Hope is not something we produce, but something God provides. He is the “God of hope.” One of the beautiful things about the Christian faith is that it is future-oriented. For the believer, the past is over, dead and buried, and we have been born anew into an endless future that stretches out before us. We live in hope, that is, all that is meaningful lies ahead and we anticipate with great joy what we know will happen. God has filled us with that very hope and God delivers on every one of his promises.
Along with joy comes peace. Have you ever thought how differently we tend to think of these two? Our mind pictures joy as exuberant, but peace as tranquil. Joy is that moment of extreme delight and peace is the quiet pleasure that follows. From the Christian perspective however, they join hands in one great experience that reflects the unimaginable bliss of all that lies ahead. It is Paul’s desire that God fill his readers with the exhilaration of joy and the quiet contentment of peace – and both at the same time.
In my commentary on Romans I wrote, “While it is God who provides the joy and peace, it is our continuing confidence and trust in God that enables him to bless us as he does” (p. 262). We have a definite role in realizing all that is laid out by Paul in his doxology. Our reward is not automatic but calls for our participation. It is “as we place our trust in him” that the doxology happens. We are blessed with what are perhaps the two most rewarding benefits known to man – joy and peace. God makes it all happen, but we allow him to bless us. It is “as you trust in him” that the doxology is realized. Once again we have the biblical sequence of God providing as we allow him to act. In salvation he has provided, but we must accept. In a life of increasing joy and peace, he has made it possible, but the transaction is completed “because you trust in him” (NLT).
The story about giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar closes with Jesus’ observation about the religious leaders – that “taken back by my answer, they fell silent and slipped away” (Luke 20:26. Quotations are from Jesus, In His Own Words). On the same day, Jesus answered another question, this one having to do with the nature of life after the resurrection, noting that the Sadducees “didn’t have the courage to ask me anything else” (Luke 20:40). After answering yet another question posed by the Pharisees, Jesus noted, “From that point on no one had the courage to ask me any more questions” (Mark 12:34). Finally, Jesus took a question asked by some Pharisees and turned it back on them; and, since no one was able to answer, he said, “From that day on no one dared to question me further” (Matt. 22:46). These four consecutive encounters (and Jesus’ response to each) yield an important insight as to how Jesus lived out his life: Fully informed, he spoke with clarity about every issue. So much so that his adversaries were left with open mouth and afraid to pursue the discussion any further.
Did this unique ability belong to Jesus alone or should it be characteristic of today’s Christian as well? As you might know from what I have written before, I believe the incarnate Jesus to have been fully human and not to have lived out his life by resorting to the use of his divine nature. If he did, the charge to live like Jesus would be preposterous. But he lived among us as one of us and we are to live as he did. How does this work out?
The central thing is that he was fully informed. No one was able to ask him a question he couldn’t answer. I believe that every Christian should make scripture the fundamental book for life. We need to know how Yahweh dealt with his people prior to the coming of Christ. We need to be able to answer any question about how Jesus lived, what he taught, how he died for our sins, and how he will return. We ought to be able to turn immediately to relevant verses for answers to every basic problem of life.
One result of a thorough knowledge of scripture is the ability to answer relevant questions with clarity and certainty. The believer should approach all of life in a way that mirrors his Master. Tough call? Yes, but we follow the example of one who spoke with certainty, but never in a way that would alienate those who asked. Those who asked in order to trip him up were often baffled by their sudden encounter with truth, but others who really wanted to know were privileged to learn in an atmosphere of love and compassion.
“Accept each other just as Christ accepted you; it will bring praise to God” (Romans 15:7)
It comes up so often in Paul’s letters that it must have been a major problem. What he keeps telling his fellow believers is that they ought to get along. And the same problem exists today and ought to be a major concern for every local church. Whenever the issue arises I keep reflecting on what Jesus said about the vital importance of unity among believers. In his high priestly prayer in John 17, Jesus asks the Father that his followers will become one as the two of them are one “so that the world may believe that you have sent me (John 17:21-23). The unity for which he prays has as its purpose the expansion of the faith. Unity is the neglected tool for evangelism.
Paul’s concern is that the believers in Rome “accept one another” (v. 7). One would think that whenever two people have the same wonderful experience of passing from death into life, they can hardly restrain from hugging one another out of sheer joy. Watch a veteran, home from active duty abroad, take his family in his arms and weep for joy. I’m not suggesting that every encounter between two believers ought to be like that, but the situations are similar: the soldier could well have been killed on the battle field and the believer was under death’s condemnation only to come safely through. However, I am saying that unity in Christ ought to create a sense of warm spiritual joy. Believers, aware of what has actually happened in their life and impressed by the nearness and reality of an eternity of unimaginable joy, can’t help but love the other. The two are inseparable.
It’s clear that as sin separates, love unites. Maybe it’s time to come to grips with division. To coddle sin belongs to the life of the unbeliever. We know that the “big” sins like hate, destruction, and murder are wrong, but how about the “little” Christian sins like greed, envy, a loose tongue, etc.? Both are destructive of what God has planned. These “little” sins separate people and bring a dark shadow over the local church. Paul says, “Accept one another, just as Christ accepted you.” And how is that? When we were sinners and alienated from certain others by our own selfishness – now there’s a self-portrait if I ever saw one – Christ accepted us anyway. And that is how we are to accept/relate to one another.
And all of this has as its purpose the bringing of “praise to God.” We don’t accept one another just to have a sort of healthy personal relationship – and that is good, of course – but we love and care for one another because in brings praise to God. And as Jesus said, that kind of authentic living reaches out to the unsaved and draws them toward the joy of forgiveness. Getting along is, perhaps, the most important thing we can do both for a healthy church body and as the best possible way to bring other sinners to Christ.
In Luke 10:21-22 Jesus says, “Inspired with joy by the Holy Spirit, I prayed . . . .” These two verses reveal several genuinely helpful insights into the prayer life of our Lord. The first is that prayer is a natural and joyful response to a sudden awareness of the presence of the Spirit. When all at once we become aware of the indwelling Spirit and the sheer joy of that relationship we can’t help but pray. And by prayer I mean open, honest, heart felt conversation with almighty God. We can love him in silence, but there is something about each new episode of awareness that can’t be suppressed. To realize anew his constant presence calls for a “shout for joy.”
Jesus’ prayer began with praise: “I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth.” The God to whom we pray is supreme over all and to acknowledge his greatness is neither a chore nor a necessity, but the natural response of an adoring heart. In this particular prayer, Jesus praised the Father for two related things: that he hid the truth “from the wise and discerning” and that he made it known “to the childlike.” God’s truth is not received by those who already know everything (so it seems to them), but readily received by those who humbly admit that they have a lot to learn. The goal of every believer who would learn what God wants them to know is to maintain a child-like openness to God. All too often our prayers contain a litany of things about which we think God should be advised. How about allowing him time to speak! Child-likeness is the prerequisite for insight into truth.
The second verse, which is actually a new paragraph, says that personal knowledge of God is made possible for us through the Son. He is the one who knows the Father and it is only through him that the believer is privileged to share in that relationship. Once again we see the difference between the “wise and discerning” and the “child-like” – followers of Christ who, “unimpeded by preconceived ideas of how God should act, respond with simple faith to Jesus and his mighty works” (Mounce, Matthew in the NIBC, p. 107).
So how can we develop a prayer life like this? Seems to me it requires us to become increasingly aware of the Spirit who has come to indwell us, to remain open to the waves of spiritual joy that emanate from him, to get off our intellectual high horse, and to become like children in our relationship to God. That should sure help.
As near as I can understand it, the vast majority of problems in life are relational – they relate to God, to other people, or to our own conscience. The specific problem among the believers in Rome was whether of not it was okay to eat meat that probably had been offered to idols before being sold in the market place. Since scripture had nothing to say on the issue, Paul urged those who ate meat not to look down on those who didn’t, and those, in turn ,not to judge those who did. The answer to the problem was for each side to give up their divisive attitude and look for ways to live with the others in peace and mutual support.
Regardless of their position on this issue, neither side should do anything to cause the others to stumble (v. 20). Let’s say that the Smith family could eat the meat with a clear conscience, but the Jones family couldn’t. Does this mean that each one should go their own way or is there something else involved in the decision? There is. When the Jones family watched the Smith family having a good roast barbeque, and the Smiths invited them over, they decided that it must be okay so against their better judgment they joined the party. That’s good, one might say. Not so, says Paul because in this situation the Smiths are guilty of influencing the Jones to act against their conscience (check v. 20 again). At the same time the Jones family stands condemned because they went ahead and did something they weren’t sure was right (v. 23).
Conscience is a good workable guide for conduct, but for the believer it needs to be fine tuned by scripture. While is wrong for a person to act against their conscience, it often happens that some believers are overly sensitive about almost everything. One of Satan’s best tricks is to make the Christian feel guilty. It works in his favor to encourage the overly sensitive to develop an abnormal concern about everything. “Could this be wrong?” they wonder. “Perhaps almost everything is wrong!” I can see Satan rubbing his hands together in glee as he strategizes about how to use God’s gift of conscience to work against what God wants to happen. Clever! In fact, diabolical!
So, here is Paul’s position on the problem of the morally neutral items in the life of first century Christians (the adiaphora) and for members of our local churches some two thousand years later:
Don’t judge or look down on how the other person acts when it comes to the less significant issues of life.
Don’t let your freedom cause the other person to act in a way that violates their conscience.
Be sure that your concern to do it right doesn’t become so all-encompassing that you feel guilty for everything you do.
One day as Jesus was out walking along the Sea of Galilee he passed by a Roman tax booth. Glancing inside, he caught sight of Levi, the Jewish official in charge of collecting taxes for the Romans (not an enviable position for a Jew!) When Jesus invited this “outcast” to become one of his followers, he left everything, business and all, and went with Jesus. Not only that, but he was so excited about this new chapter in his life that he prepared a feast and invited all his friends to come and meet Jesus, the honored guest. When the Pharisees and other religious Jews heard about this, they were indignant. How could Jesus, a Jew, associate with a tax gather and his ceremonially unclean friends? A respectable Jew simply would not take the risk. Jesus’ explanation was that he hadn’t come for the “virtuous” (self-claimed of course), but for the “sinners” (Mark 2:17). That being the case, he ministered to those who were open to being “healed” – social outcasts, at least that was how the Jews considered them.
So what can we learn from the way Jesus handled this situation? One thing is that he was not hampered in his ministry by the views of the religious hierarchy. He understood that he was called to help those who were open to the truth. Unfortunately, the practice of religion often blinds people as to what their religion professes to teach. The “doing” of it takes the place of what it essentially professes to be. Practice trumps reality. The Pharisees were committed to the way in which their religion had been practiced over the years, but clueless as to the change it was meant to accomplish in their life.
What about today? For instance, does the average Christian understand the apostle Paul when he says that becoming a follower of Christ involves a death (complete separation) to sin and a resurrection to a new and transformed life in Christ (read Romans 6)? Scripture doesn’t support the idea that church attendance guarantees heaven. Those who might think that way would be the “virtuous” in Jesus’ statement about those he wouldn’t be helping. Today’s “outcasts” are not necessarily those who live on the edge of accepted morality, but those who are open and responsive to the good news that Jesus has a better way. It would appear that they are the ones to whom we also are to direct our ministry. The gospel doesn’t beg sinners to change, but offers the answer to life’s problems to all who are open to change. Someone said that God is a gentleman who offers help, not a bully who demands change.
Robert H Mounce