So we finally get around to the Pauline and other Epistles. Before we go forward, I have to present some disclaimers.
I’ve mentioned this several times, but I have to reiterate: This is a devotional, not a commentary. I plan, God willing, to wrap this up by the end of the year. I don’t think I have nearly enough “material” to take us through another year. If by some miracle I was actually able to do a full commentary (which I’m certainly not qualified to do), that would take us way into next year.
So therefore what you’re going to see over the next few months is an overview of some of my favorite passages from the Epistles. I might or might not (as the Spirit leads) do a few comments on all the passages in a small book or two (like I did with Amos). But if you’re planning on my discussing every verse of the Epistles, probably not going to happen.
Besides time constraints, there’s also the fact that a lot of this stuff has been covered elsewhere on the blog. As you might have noticed, I quote a lot of Scripture sometimes. The Bible is a unified work with several authors backing each other up and repeating certain themes, so I’ve already quoted and referenced Paul’s and others’ writings multiple times. Also I’ve used the Epistles frequently in my short topical series.
Finally, I need to warn you in advance: By necessity, I’m going to repeat myself a little bit. As we come into the home stretch, it’s going to be harder and harder to present completely original material that I haven’t covered at all. I’ll try not to, but I can’t avoid it entirely.
As an example of my first disclaimer, we’re skipping over the first fifteen verses of Romans. I’ve probably said this before (as an example of my last caveat), but Romans—if you held a gun to my head—is my favorite book of the Bible. I’m a theologian, and there is no more theologically rich and complete book of the Bible, with Hebrews being a close second. Can I make a recommendation? Go to John Piper’s website http://www.desiringgod.org and download his series on Romans. It’s a long series, but it’s entirely worth it, and best of all, it’s free. As I write this, my wife and I are going thru his series on Hebrews, and I have yet to hear a sermon by him in which I don’t actually learn something. He goes over virtually every verse in Romans and Hebrews, missing nothing that I’ve noticed. That’s my hearty recommendation; take it for what it’s worth.
So let’s take a look at the reading for today. Like the rest of the book of Romans, there’s 10 pounds of meaning stuffed into a five-pound bag. Paul is going to a church that he didn’t start. He doesn’t know most of these people personally. That’s why this epistle reads more like a theological treatise than a personal letter.
Why is he coming to Rome? So that they might be mutually encouraged (vs. 12), and also to impart some “spiritual gift” to strengthen them. He’s also coming to preach the Gospel to the people in Rome (vs. 15).
But what is the "Gospel" that he’s talking about? What follows in the rest of the book is the most complete presentation of our Message that you’ll ever read in the Bible. This includes why we need Jesus, what Jesus did, what he’s doing in our lives right now, and what he expects of his redeemed people.
But he makes a statement at the very beginning of his presentation, and it bears some examination. Yes, that means I’m finally getting to the reading for today.
He says that he is not ashamed of the “Gospel.” Let me make a little side-note here regarding the term. Literally it is “good news,” or “good message.” The word is euangelion, from which we get the term “evangelist.” The eu- is a prefix meaning “good” (like in the term eulogy, literally “good word”). Angelion means “news” or “message,” from which we get the term “angel” (literally a messenger or a representative).
This is why I actually prefer the term “Good News” or “Message of Jesus” to the term “Gospel” when I'm referring to a specific set of truths which people need to know and respond to in order to become a follower of Jesus. An example would be the presentation I have at the top of my blog which begins "How to understand the Bible in one verse." I usually reserve the term "Gospel" for the four inspired biographies of Jesus which you find at the beginning of your New Testament. Most unchurched people aren’t familiar with what “gospel” means, and I can’t find a good reason other than tradition to use it as a term for what they need to know in order to be saved. But this little quirk of mine is certainly not a hill I'd die on, and every once in a while I'll use "Gospel" the way evangelists use it.
And my preferred term ("good news") emphasizes that what we are presenting is news. It’s not primarily a philosophical or ethical system. Yes, the term entails facts, so we need to get our theology right. But it’s news, as in something that happened in the physical world.
And it’s good news. If someone hears and understands and accepts this, it’s the best news they’ve ever heard or ever will hear. The details of this news are what the rest of the book reveals.
And Paul says he's not ashamed of this Good News about Jesus Christ. Now, this might seem odd at first glance. Why would he or anyone else be tempted to be ashamed of Good News? If I revealed publicly that I’m a shoplifter, that would be not-good news that I'd probably be ashamed to reveal. So why the potential for shame?
Because the world is pushing us in that direction. Paul lived in a time of what we’d call pluralism. The Roman government was actually pretty tolerant of most religions, especially if they were older ones. But even if the new belief system someone was hawking was a new thing, the Roman government pretty much turned a blind eye. But there was one very glaring exception: There was a state-sponsored worship of the Emperor. Everyone was expected to burn incense to him every once in a while and at least pretend to pray to him. Jews were exempt from this because the faith of their ancestors forbade it as idolatry. But when the early church presented the Good News about Jesus to pagans, their typical response would probably be “That’s fine. If you want us to worship Jesus, we’ll make him god # 2773 right between god #2772 and god #2774.”
You see, it wasn’t the fact that they worshiped Jesus as God in human form. The Greeks had stories like that. They might even be open to the story of Jesus’ sacrifice. But the main problem was the exclusivity of the Message. Christians didn't claim that Jesus is a god to be worshiped and served and followed. He is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through him. Following him means you have to give up worshiping anyone (like the Emperor) or anything else. And everyone who doesn’t accept this Message and become a follower of Jesus remains under God’s wrath against sin.
But despite pressure from the world, Paul was not ashamed of the Message. He proudly proclaimed it to everyone who’d listen, and he didn’t wait for people to come to him. Why wouldn't he be ashamed? Because the Good News is God’s means of saving people. It’s his means of displaying his power by saving people—as to saved from what we’ll get to that shortly.
And this Message was first for the Jews, then for the Gentiles (everyone else). Jesus was a Jew, all of his apostles were Jewish, all of the authors of the New Testament (indeed, all of the Bible) were Jewish save one (Luke), and the entire first generation of believers were Jewish. The first Church council was a debate over whether or not Gentiles had to become Jewish in order to be follower of the Way. The answer to that question ultimately was “no,” but the very fact that it was a huge debate and controversy demonstrates that the Good News was “first to the Jew.”
But it didn’t end there. The Message was spread by Jews to Gentiles, and that includes me and most of you.
I apologize for the long post, but I had to get some background stuff out of the way. But before I end for today, I have to ask myself: “Am I ashamed of the Good News? Have I given into the pressure to be silent? Do I really believe that people outside of Christ are lost and bound for a horrible eternity? How could someone tell?”
Lord Jesus, I confess that to my shame, I keep silent way too often when I should speak up. Please forgive me, and give me boldness.