Last weekend, Reverend Raphael Warnock, one of the newly senators elected from Georgia, tweeted the following: “The meaning of Easter is more transcendent than the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Whether you are Christian or not, through a commitment to helping others we are able to save ourselves.”
Now, I may not agree with Senator Warnock politically, but I am not a politician. Like Rev. Warnock, I am a pastor, and my issue with him is not political in this sense, it is deeply theological. The words he tweeted are against everything we have studied in Romans for the last nine months, and they stand against any biblical principle I know. After he tweeted the words, he did delete them, but he has not renounced them.
But his words serve as a reminder of how easily we may lose focus ourselves. We often commit ourselves to others for reasons that are less than noble, and many (or even all of us) may find some confidence in knowing that what we are doing in a given situation may be pleasing to God, and if we are not careful we can take that too far and think we are “saving ourselves.”
That is a part of our problem as humans. Far too often, we place our confidence where it should not be placed. One comment about the tweet was made against someone else who commented. The second comment said, “I am going to listen to Rev. Warnock, the pastor of the church where Martin Luther King, Jr. pastored, before I listen to you.” Even if Warnock was right, that later tweet shows the error of our ways as human. The person was willing to listen to Warnock, just because of where he preached, instead of listening to what the Bible said. And frankly, that is one of the reasons James 3.1 is so important – people do listen to what teachers say (and watch what we do), so those of us who teach better be careful. It is why I have the Bible right here and encourage you to follow along. I am not perfect, in general, not in understanding God’s Word, but if you are not checking for yourself, then you are putting confidence in me that I may not deserve. Granted, I have been trained and am well-schooled, but that does not mean I am always right. None of us are – because we are human.
And that is the reminder we continually get from Paul’s letter to the Romans. And this week, we begin a section that talks about the challenge for the people of Israel, and specifically where they placed their confidence.
Anywhere we put our confidence, unless we put it in Christ, is the wrong place.
Paul’s aim in this section is to ensure that the church in Rome had confidence that God was still faithful. But to correct a person’s thinking is hard enough – to correct an entire history is quite another. This week’s passage shows Paul’s tactics as He begins this quest.
Many of you will know that Romans 8 is my favorite chapter. It is the conclusion to an argument that Paul began very specifically in Romans 5, and more generally in Romans 1. As the new title of our series says, it is about living in the Spirit because of being in Christ, and that because of that we are children of God who will never cease to love His children.
And then we come to Romans 9-11 which raises a lot of questions. Many believe that these chapters are like a set of parenthetical remarks. Indeed, Paul could have gone straight to the application portion of this letter by going from the end of Romans 8 to the beginning of Romans 12 and maybe tweaked just a couple of words and we would not know the difference.
However, something greater was at stake for the readers then, and that issue has a parallel concern for us today. In fact, the concern Paul addresses is extremely relevant today. The issue then, and the concern now, is does God keep His promises?
Now, some listening may not think that He does. Others will exclaim, “Of course, He does.” And to that we may add the caveat that we do not always receive the fullness of God’s promises in this life. And that is certainly true.
But the issue that Paul is addressing is more direct than that. God called a people to Himself. God chose the Israelites as His own. And after eight chapters, the Jewish audience in Rome had to be asking, “What about the promises God made to our ancestors (and therefore to us) in the past?”
The Old Testament is filled with promises to His people (His children). He made a covenant with the people of Israel, and if God does not break a covenant, then why does it appear that the Jews have been left out if this whole idea of salvation is about faith in Jesus and life in the Spirit? After all, God gave the Israelites the Law and chose them as His people?
This is the matter that Paul addresses in Romans 9-11. And we will discuss those issues in more detail over the next couple of months. Paul likely knew the consternation He caused the Jewish portion of his audience. But a second aspect of these chapters is to help the Gentile audience realized that God has not forgotten His promises and will keep them, which can give assurance to the Gentiles as well.
For today, we are just looking at the first few verses of this section which reveal Paul’s understanding of how the Jews in Rome would likely understand what he had written thus far.
Paul showed a deep concern for a people… (Romans 9.1-2)
Paul begins by sharing that he is deeply burdened. In other letters we see Paul’s concern for the various churches, but here it is for a particular group of people. Throughout Romans, Paul has been challenging the Jews (a term he first used in Romans 1.16), but now he reveals his desire is not just to challenge them. He challenges them because he cares for them (as we will see in verse 3).
Notice Paul’s wording here. He says he speaks the truth in Christ, he is not lying. He says his conscience makes this plain, but it is not just his conscience, it is his conscience as governed by the Holy Spirit. In other words, Paul is not just relying on his emotion, He is guided by Christ (in this truth) and by the Spirit (in his understanding). And what he has is a great sorrow and anguish that never ends.
Sorrow is deep disappointment and even regret. Anguish means to suffer greatly. Why does Paul feel this way? Because the Jews don’t get it. They are living on a misunderstanding of the past promises of God. Indeed, God made promises as we will see in a few moments, and more in the coming weeks, but this group of people have misunderstood and misapplied those promises. Paul knows that and it causes Him pain.
I know of few professions that cause depression more than those who serve in ministry. Don’t hear me say that ministers have it all figured out – quite the contrary. But the pain we feel is two-fold. First, we struggle knowing that so many others are missing out on what God wants for them. And second, we struggle wondering how much of that is our fault because we can’t get it right ourselves. Some of the greatest pastors in history (e.g. Charles Spurgeon) have struggled mightily with depression. The apostle Paul says he despaired of life itself (2 Corinthians 1.8). It is a burden. Again, the burden is not because we have it figure out, but because we know even in doing our best, most people don’t care. We are to love people where they are, but we want so much more for them. And the problem is that we know so much more exists for us as well, causing many pastors and vocational ministers to fail to love themselves.
This is at least a part of what Paul means when he says he has sorrow and great anguish. But notice how far this burden goes.
…and revealed a deep connection with a people… (Romans 9.3)
Paul makes the statement that he would give up his salvation for the benefit of his fellow kinsmen. It is important to realize that what he is saying here is impossible, and Paul knows that. He says, “I could wish” which we should understand as “If it was possible, I would make this request.” And the request would be to give up his salvation for the sake of his countrymen, which he calls brothers here. (Paul almost always uses brothers (which means brothers and sisters) in the context of those who believe in Christ, but here is one of the only instances where the idea refers to his heritage as from the lineage of Abraham – that is, an Israelite).
For the Jew hearing these words, they would likely have remembered that Moses asked God something similar. In Exodus 32.30-32, after the Israelites made the golden calf, Moses interceded for them by asking God to forgive them and take him instead. Paul is alluding to this idea, but such an act is impossible. Paul cannot be accursed and cut off from Christ. That would mean the person was separated from Christ. And as we saw last week, someone who is in Christ cannot be separated from the love of Christ (Romans 8.35) or God (v. 39), so he cannot be separated from them generally either.
To even think such a thing is remarkable. It reminds me of a story of Maximilian Kolbe. Kolbe was a Polish priest who was prisoner 16670 at Auschwitz. When a prisoner escaped from camp, the commandant chose ten others to be killed by starvation in the “hunger bunker” as punishment for the escape. Franciszek Gajowniczek was chosen for the bunker, but pleaded to be spared because he had a wife and children. Father Kolbe offered to take his place. The request was granted. As they were being taken to the “bunker” Kolbe helped another man who could barely walk. Everyone eventually died in the bunker except Father Kolbe, who was given a lethal injection after everyone else had died. For what its worth, Gajowniczek did survive, even after being moved to another concentration camp. Overall, he served nearly 5.5 years in two concentration camps, and lived to be 93, dying in 1995. He was able to reunite with his wife who died in 1977. Unfortunately, his sons died when the Russians were bombing the Germans in Poland before he was released.
To give your life for others is a great sacrifice. It is what Kolbe did. It is what Paul was willing to do. And, of course, it is what Jesus did on behalf of everyone. And that was what the Jews were missing.
…to correct the deep confidence of a people. (Romans 9.4-5)
The people of Israel, the Jews as they were called by many during this time period, missed the greatest blessing – who Jesus was and what He did. Romans 9.5 provides that evidence for us. But that evidence – that truth – has its origins in the Old Testament.
Paul is appealing to the Old Testament, not just as anyone, but as a fellow Israelite. I touched on this in the previous point, but notice that Paul uses the term Israelite in verse 4, not the term Jew. He uses this term to identify himself with them. It was usually the outsiders who referred to the people of Israelite as Jews. The people of Israel still called themselves Israelites for the most part. Paul knew that and used that idea to make the connection with them.
But the problem was that the Israelites had so much going for them – the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises (all in verse 4) that they did not see the greater need for Jesus. The people of Israel had confidence in what they believed was true, but what ultimately was only to point to the greater truth of Jesus. (I will say more about these areas of confidence in the videos this week.)
In verse 5, Paul continued that this people had descended from the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). The truth of being a descendant of Abraham was a strong confidence for them. But as Paul wrote in Romans 4, it wasn’t what Abraham did that saved him (or made him great), it was the faith he had in God. And so, Paul closed this short section by helping the people of Israel to realize that the messiah, who was Jesus, also came from this same bloodline. More importantly, it is this same Jesus, who was also the God whom they were supposedly worshipping.
The reality is that we all get our priorities wrong at times. We all put confidence in the wrong things, the wrong people, etc. The bulk of Paul’s argument for their confidence being in the wrong place will begin next week, but the crux of that idea is this: God saved a group of people, but each person still had a choice to make. And, we still have a choice to make today as well.
The same is true for us. And that is why this section of Scripture is so important for us today. Romans 9-11 is addressing a couple of different issues, but primarily it is addressing the faithfulness of God. God is faithful even when a person or a group of people cannot see it. The Israelites may have felt abandoned by God who was now in the business of including Gentiles.
But the message to the Israelites here, and for the Gentiles as well, is that God has not forgotten this group of people He chose in the Old Testament. Furthermore, if God had not forgotten His people, and would not forsake His promises from the past, the church in Rome (and elsewhere) could be certain that His promises would remain true in the future as well.
And that is the message for today. God’s promises are still true. As we saw last week, a true child of God cannot be separated from His love. We may not think He loves us in the moment, or even for a season, but it is there. That was true for the people of Israel. It would be true for the churches made up of Gentiles (and Jews) then, and it is true today as well.
Again, in the coming weeks, we will flesh out this argument even more. Paul does a masterful job of showing God’s faithfulness, even as some of these chapters may challenge our understanding, and perhaps even our faith. But that is for next week and beyond.
For today, our task is to realize that the only confidence we have comes from God. Contrary to what Reverend Warnock might say, nothing in us is good apart from God. We cannot save ourselves. Only God can do that. And only God has made a way for that.
So, we return to the question that Jesus asked His closest followers – those who had followed for a couple of years or more. He asked them, “Who do you say that I am” (Matthew 16.15)?
Who do you say that Jesus is? Do you put your hope and trust in Him or in yourself or perhaps someone else? Where is your confidence?
As Paul will show, it is not enough to be a part of a family or a nation that knows God. True confidence comes only from knowing God. And that is what we must seek to do ourselves.
This week, I encourage you to write down a few things/people that you might be tempted to give you confidence. Then determine why those people and/or things give you confidence, and if that confidence you have in them (or yourself) might keep you from ultimately having confidence in Christ.