Romans 1:18 and the Wrath of God

FireHellfire and Damnation.

That is what I usually think of when I hear the term wrath of God.  I think of street preachers or tent revivalist who make a wonderful spectacle of telling people all the different types of sinners who deserve God’s wrath.  I think of conversations I had in college that poured over Romans 1 to show what kind of people are damned.

So I was very surprised when I read this verse and connected a few different dots.

God’s wrath is being revealed from heaven against all the ungodly behavior and the injustice of human beings who silence the truth with injustice.

This is the “lead-in” verse to the long litany of what people do who deserve wrath and condemnation.  But what Paul does after this verse is not what I usually thought.  He details how God has always given people signs that show who he is and what he desires.  Then, take that idea in conjunction with John 3:17-21, part of Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus:

God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.  Whoever believes in him isn’t judged; whoever doesn’t believe in him is already judged, because they don’t believe in the name of God’s only Son.  This is the basis for judgment: The light came into the world, and people loved darkness more than the light, for their actions are evil.   All who do wicked things hate the light and don’t come to the light for fear that their actions will be exposed to the light.   Whoever does the truth comes to the light so that it can be seen that their actions were done in God.

So, taking these two together, the wrath of God is being revealed when we proclaim, not who is going to be damned, but who Jesus is.  When we proclaim the Good News of victory over sin and death, salvation from sin and alienation, we reveal the wrath of God–without condemning people.  The world is already condemned, and God has left himself with a witness to this (Romans 1).  When we proclaim the redemption from that state in the power and presence of Christ in our lives, the Holy Spirit will convict people of sin (John 16:8).

It is not our duty or responsibility to tell people they are going to hell because of what they are doing.  It is our duty and responsibility to share the Good News that God loves us and has delivered us from all that separates us from him.

The rest of the beginning of Romans shows that no one ought to judge anyone else because we are all in the same situation.  This corresponds with Jesus’ words above as well.  If we, as Christians, have found a life-preserver to keep us from drowning, we ought not condemn others for not being able to tread water.  We ought to offer the life-preserver.

The wrath of God is revealed in our souls by the Holy Spirit when Christians share the Good News of Jesus Christ, not condemnation.  Let the Holy Spirit work in that fashion.  It is his job, not ours.

Acts 26:17-18 and the Mission of a Lifetime

This is the oldest picture of Paul we have found and dates from the 200s.

This is the oldest picture of Paul we have found and dates from the 200s.

Whenever I read through the New Testament I am amazed at the violent reaction against Christians.  Towards the second half of the Book of Acts I can understand, somewhat, why the Jewish people are so strongly against the movement.  This new group was destroying the boundaries between being Jewish and non-Jewish.  These were boundaries that the Jewish people thought were (almost literally) inscribed in stone to define them as the chosen people of God.  And the Church seemed not to care about these supposedly God-given boundaries.

But something hit me when I was doing the readings for today.  Paul himself talks about how violently he persecuted the Church.  He said in 26:11, “In one synagogue after another—indeed, in all the synagogues—I would often torture them, compelling them to slander God. My rage bordered on the hysterical as I pursued them, even to foreign cities.”  This was not because of Gentiles being included in the fellowship, as that was not yet happening.  Rather, this has more to do with the idea that God had already acted in Jesus Christ.

Why such animosity, though?  Why would Jesus and his movement create such a violent response in people?  Because of something else Paul said.  He was recounting his commissioning by Jesus, and he relates that Jesus said to him

I am sending you to open their eyes. Then they can turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, and receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are made holy by faith in me.

The message of Christ is not simply I need to admit I can’t live correctly on my own and ask God for help.  Nor is it only I am truly sorry for my sins and ask for forgiveness.  Both of these sentiments are a part of the Christian life, but neither of these would be bad enough to elicit the kind of response Paul had above.  No, the Christian message is nothing short of leaving the dominion of Satan and entering into the dominion of God.  It is a repudiation of all that is fallen and evil in the world, of all that is corrupt in our nature, and seeking a life that is dictated by God.  It is a battle cry in every life to combat the forces of evil, spiritual and physical in this world, and to live as a member of the reign of God on earth.

Christianity is a mission to move from the realm of Satan to the realm of God.  And that can make people angry, because it implies that everyone needs to make that journey as well.  It means a decision has to be made; a road needs to be followed in life.  There is no middle ground.

Acts 21:10-14 and Prophecy

paulProphecy is an interesting topic in the Church today.  There are those in the dispensationalist camp that claim this gift is no longer available, that it ceased with the first generation of Christians.  Mostly people believe this who have never seen prophecy in their own congregations, and since they believe their congregations are completely all right with God, prophecy does not occur any more.

There are those in many of the mainline camps that claim the gift of prophecy is misunderstood and is not foretelling the future as much as it is forth-telling the present.  In other words, the prophet “tells it like it is” and outlines the rewards or consequences for a current course of action.  The net effect, though, is that they agree with the dispensationalists that prophecy, as most commonly understood, no longer happens.

Both of these views are very American-centric in their assumptions.  Prophecy is alive and well in other parts of the Church in other parts of the world.  Why it is not seen more in America is a topic of some debate, and I do not wish to delve into that topic just yet.

Towards the end of Acts, Paul receives numerous prophecies, “from city to city” (20:23), that if he goes to Jerusalem he will be imprisoned and suffer.  Then there is this passage:

After staying there [Caesarea] for several days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea.  He came to us, took Paul’s belt, tied his own feet and hands, and said, “This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In Jerusalem the Jews will bind the man who owns this belt, and they will hand him over to the Gentiles.’”  When we heard this, we and the local believers urged Paul not to go up to Jerusalem.  Paul replied, “Why are you doing this? Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I’m ready not only to be arrested but even to die in Jerusalem for the sake of the name of the Lord Jesus.”  Since we couldn’t talk him out of it, the only thing we could say was, “The Lord’s will be done.”

This Agabus already had a reputation for being a faith-filled prophet, as he had forewarned the Church about the coming famine.  Now he forewarns Paul that he will be captured, which confirms the same prophecies concerning his trip to Jerusalem that he has received all the way back from Greece to the Holy Land.

I love the effort the believers make here, and truly at each stop along the way prior to this scene, to dissuade Paul from going to Jerusalem.  This is not a contradiction of the Holy Spirit’s leading.  Rather, it shows the compassion and love the disciples all had for one another.

In the end, the only appropriate response to a true prophecy of God is what the group ultimately says, “The Lord’s will be done.”  May we all have the same kind of faith and commitment to God!

Acts 19:13-16 and Real Relationships with God

I have to admit this is one of my most favorite scenes in the entire Book of Acts.

There were some Jews who traveled around throwing out evil spirits. They tried to use the power of the name of the Lord Jesus against some people with evil spirits. They said, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you!”   The seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this.  The evil spirit replied, “I know Jesus and I’m familiar with Paul, but who are you?”   The person who had an evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all with such force that they ran out of that house naked and wounded.

010-paul-ephesusThis is an absolutely ridiculous scene: seven Jewish men running out of a house, probably tripping over each other, bruised and naked.  I know spiritual warfare is not a joke, but this strikes me as funny.

This scene also paints a very serious picture of our relationships with God.  We know from the Gospels that there were Jewish exorcists who really could cast out demons (see here).  But here is a completely different situation.  Here are some Jewish exorcists who invoke the name of Jesus through the name of Paul.  This is the issue.

During the exorcism they do not appeal to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as faithful Jews would do.  Rather, they appeal to Jesus, in whom they have no faith since they do not fully appeal to him, but the Jesus whom Paul preaches.  They have no relationship with God whatsoever.  And as a result, they are beaten and humiliated.

It is a good lesson to learn.  We cannot ever depend upon the faith of someone else or someone else’s relationship with God for our own well being or salvation.  We must have our own relationship with God.  If we will ever hope to overcome the evil forces in our own lives, we must have a real connection to God ourselves.

And that connection to God is only possible through the Holy Spirit, who is made available to us through Jesus Christ.

If you do not yet have that connection, I strongly urge you to seek out a Christian you trust and ask for guidance and instruction on how to have a relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Having a relationship with God, which is being a follower of Jesus Christ, is not an easy life.  It is one full of sacrifice and totally dependent upon God for everything.  Yet it also is a rewarding life as it brings us victory over the sin and evil in our lives.

When we have that relationship, unlike the seven sons of Sceva, we are victorious over the evil forces that confront us.

Acts 12:13-16 and Prayer’s Results

english-peter-s-escape-from-prisonI am always surprised when I find people who believe that if you have any doubts about something God will never answer your prayers.  I understand from where this idea originates, but it is not completely accurate to apply it to all prayer all the time.  If we doubt we may not be able to move mountains, but that does not mean our prayers won’t be answered.

Look at this passage in Acts:

When Peter knocked at the outer gate, a female servant named Rhoda went to answer.  She was so overcome with joy when she recognized Peter’s voice that she didn’t open the gate. Instead, she ran back in and announced that Peter was standing at the gate.  “You’ve lost your mind!” they responded. She stuck by her story with such determination that they began to say, “It must be his guardian angel.” Meanwhile, Peter remained outside, knocking at the gate. They finally opened the gate and saw him there, and they were astounded.

I need to give some context here.  Herod had arrested James, the brother of John, and had him killed.  Then he arrested Peter in order to have him killed.  In 12:5 Luke wrote, “While Peter was held in prison, the church offered earnest prayer to God for him.”  I am certain they also did this for James.  Unlike what happened to James, though, an angel frees Peter.  Then he runs to John Mark’s house where “many believers had gathered and were praying” (12:12) no doubt for his release, just as they had done for James.

And when Peter shows up…they don’t believe it!

Most definitely this had to do with what had happened to James.  Unfortunately we may never know why God seems to answer some prayers the way we want and others he does not.  Yet that does not mean we need to simply go through the motions with prayer, never expecting God to act.

In this instance God responded to the people’s prayers in a mighty way, and yet they were convinced that it could not happen.  They were convinced so much so that they argued with Rhoda not once but twice about whether or not Peter (the one for whom they were praying at that moment) could have been released and safe.

When we pray we need to believe that God can answer.  And even if we do not really believe he can answer the prayer request we are making (because of past prayers that seem to be unanswered), we need to be prepared if God does, in fact, answer the prayer.  God will work with what ever amount of faith we have.  This story is proof of that fact.  But let us strive to have enough faith to accept God’s answers to prayer, even when they are positive!

Acts 2:42-47 and Church Growth

peter_preachingThere is so much information about how to grow churches.  There are so many different ideas, programs, worship styles, outreach strategies, and other ideas that it can seem very complicated and confusing.  In Acts, we see some of the firstfruits of growth.

The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers.  A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles.  All the believers were united and shared everything.  They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them.  Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity.  They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

Here is the result most people would want to see: God adding daily to the number of those in the fellowship community.  So it would be wise to see what caused such a response by God.

First, there are four aspects of life in the Church that these believers hold: the apostolic teaching, community, shared meals (breaking bread), and prayers.  Let’s look at each of these:

Apostolic Teaching: This is the proclamation of the Good News that in Jesus Christ the long awaited kingdom of God and the restoration of all things has begun.  It is the preaching and teaching from Scripture (in this case only the Old Testament since there is no New Testament yet!) to show how God has been preparing the world for this from the beginning.  It is faithfulness to what God has done in the past, application of those past actions to the experiences they had with Jesus, and how these things now apply to people’s lives at that moment.

Community: This is more than Bible studies and fellowship meals.  The former is in the apostolic teaching and the latter will be dealt with below.  This is the kind of community that shares with one another emotionally and physically.  It is the kind of community that seeks to care for each other and provide for one another.  It is a community that creates a new family based upon following Jesus.  It is people that truly love and care about each other and want to be a part of each others’ lives.

Shared Meals: Eating together transforms fellowship time into something more.  There is something that is almost sacred when people get together and eat.  And while these first believers were sharing meals with one another, building their relationships and community, this is also inclusive of the sacramental act of breaking bread, Holy Communion.  In this way, people experienced God’s grace afresh and anew every time they gathered together because in the breaking of bread, Jesus meets them.  People have debated for centuries what actually happens in the Lord’s Supper, but what we know for sure is that in some mysterious way Jesus meets those who gather in his name to celebrate his sacrament.

Prayers: This is a time of spiritual fellowship and communion with God.  The term in Greek is actually the prayers, which implies something radically different than what many people in today’s reading would understand.  This implies the believers were still participating in the times of prayer established in faithful Jewish life, complete with the prayers that go with those times (and this is shown in the beginning of chapter 3 when Peter and John go to the Temple at the time for prayer at 3:00 pm).  It would also include the Lord’s Prayer and other, specifically Christian prayers that the community was taught (which we get hints of in Paul’s letters).

Beyond these four things that grew and enhanced the believers’ spiritual lives, they “praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone.”  Spiritual growth, faithful participation in the life of the Church, and practical demonstrations of God’s love to all.  If we had congregations like this, God would most likely add daily to them “those who were being saved.”

John 19:34 and New Creation

angelicoThere is a strong tradition within the Church that Jesus is a new Adam (see 1 Corinthians for an obvious example of this) and with the new Adam comes a new creation.  Let’s connect a few dots here with regards to something John wrote in his Gospel.

However, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.

This is what happens once the soldiers decide to make sure Jesus is really dead on the cross.  Now, let’s look back at Genesis and the story of creation.

 So the Lord God put the human into a deep and heavy sleep, and took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh over it. With the rib taken from the human, the Lord God fashioned a woman and brought her to the human being (Genesis 2:21-22).

Jesus called death “sleep” when he was speaking to his disciples concerning the death of Lazarus.  And the Church is the Bride of Christ (seen in Paul’s writings and Revelation).

The two things that help mark out Christians from the rest of the world are the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Each of these are ways in which God gives people his grace and presence in their lives.  They are means by182-3 which God moves us from grace to grace and glory to glory as we become more and more like Christ.  It is the waters of baptism that confirm our relationship in Christ and his Church and the blood of Holy Communion that gives us our spiritual strength for the journey with Christ.

So, Adam fell into a deep sleep, something was taken from his side, and his wife was created (Eve).

Christ fell into a deep sleep (of death), something was taken from his side, and his wife was created (the Church).

I love the way God has guided the writers of the books of the Bible to tell one grand narrative!