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How Discipline Helps Us Remain Faithful

(2008) An exposition of Deuteronomy 8:2-3
(Extracted from Ajith Fernando’s forthcoming commentary on Deuteronomy to be published by Crossway Books)

Moses explains here that the difficult forty year period of wandering in the dreary wilderness was a time which God used to show many important truths to the people which will help them to remain faithful to God. It was not a terrible waste of time necessitated by the sins of the people. The sovereign Lord worked through this situation to extract some great good from it. It was the rebellion following the incident of the twelve spies the people that necessitated this discipline. But we know that after that the people returned to being faithful to God (see 2:1-3 and our discussion there), giving God and opportunity to bless them. Moses said, “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you” (8:5).

 Humbling (8:2). Verses 2-6 tell us that the whole forty year journey was one of leading and provision by God. First Moses says it was a time of humbling: “And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you” (8:2a). That God used the wilderness wanderings to humble them is mentioned three times in this chapter (8:2, 3, 16). The humbling is closely related to the disciplining process which was the reason for these wanderings (see 8:5).

One of the intended outcomes of discipline is developing humility. Biblical humility is a positive value that is part of the life of joy. Usually discipline produces humiliation which is very different to biblical humility. In fact many people come out of discipline angry over the humiliation not with biblical humility which is associated with joy. People usually do not know how to respond to their friends who have been disciplined. Often they say painful things quite unintentionally. Sometimes because they do not know what to say they avoid the disciplined person. And that increases the pain. The Bible is aware of this, and Hebrews 12:11 says, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant.” However, that verse goes on to say, “…but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Only “those who have been trained by it” come out of discipline with “the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” One aspect of this fruit is humility.

It is through exposure to God’s grace that this training takes place. Let see how this happens. Those being disciplined are aware that the discipline is because of sin. They are sorry for the sin. They see no merit in themselves. But that makes them open to grace. They are hurt and lonely as they feel no one understands them. That makes them cling to God for comfort. God ministers to them with his comfort, and they are deeply grateful that he has restored them and is ready to use them again. Now their focus is on God not on themselves and how worthy they are. This means pride and arrogance is gone, and instead they have the beautiful character of humility. Humility is essentially not a quality we achieve through hard work. It is the natural reaction to being overwhelmed by grace. When we realise that all our good is a gift of God, we can’t help but be humble. We are also filled with gratitude which in turn becomes the trigger of a great joy.

Discipline also helps in producing humility by taking away the human props which we can be proud of. Last night I was working on trying to restore information on my computer till 4.00 a.m. I had lost everything on the computer and was reloading using my backups, but some of my backups did not install. I lost many years of photos. I do a lot of study while travelling, and my key reference works are in the computer. My computer was one of my sources of pride and security. When studying this passage I realised that God had permitted this crash so that he may wean me of finding security in the wrong things. Having lost confidence in earthly props of which I could be proud. I am driven to trust in God alone. I hope that will produce humility.

             Humility of course is essential for spiritual growth. The Bible says, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). Paul said, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). When people are proud they are no longer connected with God. They have already fallen in their hearts. Now they are vulnerable to a bigger public fall.

 Testing (8:2). Moses goes on to say that the wilderness experience was also a test: “…testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not” (8:2). God wanted them to prove their commitment to him through obedience. The great American missionary to India E. Stanley Jones used to say that circumstances don’t make a person; they reveal a person. Of course, in the process, as happens when metals are tested, they are refined. As James said, “…the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (Jas. 1:3). Testing does the work of both revealing and refining. Difficult circumstances will reveal whether people follow God with their heart. If they followed him just in order to get some temporal blessings, the difficult circumstance could reveal their counterfeit faith as they move away from God, or it could refine their mixed-motive faith and help them develop a more genuine faith.

None of us come to Christ out of completely pure motives. We usually come initially because we see that Christ could meet some felt need of ours. But then we enter into a beautiful love-relationship with God and begin to experience the wonders of the eternal salvation he gives. Gradually we transition from an exclusively need-based faith to a faith of which the primary ingredient is a relationship with God.

Difficult circumstances may serve to force us to reorient our lives to become what they should be. Then, while many would leave Christ because his sayings are too hard for them to swallow, we would stick on, saying like Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Such faith was exhibited by Job who cried, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face” (Job 13:15).

 Hunger (8:3a). Next Moses talks about another learning tool that God used: hunger. He says, “And he humbled you and let you hunger.” God is preparing them to live with plenty. But prosperity brings with it so many dangers. As Jesus says, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!  For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24-25). One way to prepare the people for prosperity is to send them through an experience where they have nothing. For when they have nothing they are forced to look to God and discover the most important thing in life, faith. They will see that even though they do not have all that they want they are happy. They will find God giving them just what they need each day, sometimes miraculously. This experience makes them realise that the greatest wealth is living with a trustworthy God. Then earthly wealth loses its lure and they are able to handle the temptations what come with wealth.

Adam Clarke says, “In earthly prosperity men are apt to forget heavenly things. While the animal senses have every thing they can wish, it is difficult for the soul to urge its way to heaven; the animal man is happy, and the desires of the soul are absorbed in those of the flesh.” Prosperity makes us imagine that we don’t need God. So, says Clarke, God, in his love for us, sometimes takes away our prosperity: “God knows this well; and therefore, in his love to man, makes comparative poverty and frequent affliction his general lot.” Clarke then gives the consequence of this discipline: “‘Before I was afflicted,’ says David, ‘I went astray;’ and had it not been for poverty and affliction, as instruments in the hands of God’s grace, multitudes of souls now happy in heaven would have been wretched in hell.”

This is what God does to the Israelites. He brings them to the end of themselves, so that they would acknowledge their helplessness. Then they can look to him and avail themselves of his help, and that, it turn, will give them an attitude which makes obedience to the commands possible. This is why Martin Luther said that affliction is the best book in his library.

Obedience and holiness are primary ambitions of a healthy Christian. Certainly that was the primary focus of Paul’s teaching. In a statistical study I did of Paul’s Epistles some years ago, I discovered that 1400 of the 2005 verses in his Epistles, that is, about 70% of the verses, had something to say about godliness. If godliness is so important and affliction helps along the path to it, then affliction would be viewed as a blessing. Many people can’t think of affliction in this way is because holiness is not the priority it should be in their lives.

Today holiness does not have such a high priority in our preaching. We are concentrating so much on meeting the felt needs of people that we are neglecting their most important needs which they may not immediately feel. We may use felt needs in our preaching as a means of gaining the interest of people. But soon that must give way to the needs they may not acknowledge as important but which are most important from God’s perspective. John Henry Newman (1801-1890) said, “Those who make comfort the great subject of their preaching seem to mistake the end of their ministry. Holiness is the great end. There must be a struggle and trial here. Comfort is a cordial, but no one drinks cordials from morning to night.”

Let’s start looking at discipline and affliction as tools God uses to make us more holy.

The Message of Salvation: Romans 1-5

Published in Renewal and Growth—An Evangelical Pursuit, Edited by Godfrey Yogarajah (Dehiwela, Sri Lanka: Evangelical Fellowship of Asia, 2005), pp. 17-41. Originally Given at the General Assembly of the Evangelical Fellowship of Asia in Seoul, Korea, April 2004.

INTRODUCTION: THE IMPORTANCE OF THE GOSPEL MESSAGE

The greatest thing about the mission of the church is the message we have to proclaim, and it should remain as one of the great features that motivates people to mission. The gospel is what we proclaim to the world, and it is in responding to the gospel that people experience salvation.

However, today if you ask a new Christian why he or she became a Christian you usually get a reply like, “I was sick and we prayed to God, and he healed me. So I became a Christian;” or “I had a lot of problems and I went to this church and they prayed for me. My problems vanished; and I became a Christian.” Even in the Bible contact is made with non-Christians through such signs. In the book of Acts, for example, we find that miracles were used to win people’s attention. In the ministry of Jesus, signs pointed people to Jesus.

But these signs provide only one of the first steps in presenting the gospel. In Acts though the attention was won through miracles, the message that followed was strongly apologetic and theological in style. One of the surprising discoveries I made while studying Acts to write a commentary was that there the miracle workers in the early church, like Peter, Stephen and Paul were also skilled apologists. The people came originally to meet a need, but they stayed with Christ because they had come to realise that Jesus is the truth.

The Epistle to the Romans is a missionary book that focuses on the message of mission. Paul has not visited the church in Rome before, and he is seeking to make Rome a base for his mission to areas further west, such as Spain, where the gospel had still to be proclaimed. Romans is like a letter of self-introduction where he explains to the Roman Christians the gospel that he preaches (Rom. 15:14-29).

 

PAUL’S MISSIONARY DESIRES 1:11-15

After some introductory remarks (1:1-10), Paul describes some of his missionary desires. He first tells his readers about his longing to come to Rome so that there may be mutual encouragement of each other: “I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (1:11-12).[1] But deep down there is that great aim of reaping an evangelistic harvest among the Gentiles that pulsated through Paul’s life: “I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles” (1:13). Behind this aim was an obligation that Paul had to the whole world, which is what caused him to preach the gospel also in Rome: “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (1:14).

The Greek words translated “I am under obligation” in verse 14 really mean “I am a debtor.” When an honest person has a debt, and he knows that the person to whom he owes the debt desperately needs what he owes, he wants to pay it back soon. This is the attitude Paul expresses here. We live with this sense of obligation. Salvation is a great blessing which fills our hearts with joy. But it also brings with it a great obligation to tell others about it. However, the joy of salvation is so great that this obligation does not become a crippling burden.

This sense of urgency is seen in the last moments before the death of a Christian leader called Dr. Bacchus. After the doctor examined him he whispered something to his attendant before he left. Dr. Bacchus asked the attendant what the doctor had said. He replied that the doctor had said that he had only a few moments to live. The dying man said, “Then, quick, put me on my knees, and let me spend my last moments praying for the salvation of the world.” That is our attitude. The ambition that burns in our hearts is that the gospel of Christ must get out. So it is not surprising that Paul says that he is eager to preach the gospel in Rome (1:15).

 

MOTIVATED BY THE POWER OF THE GOSPEL (1:16-17)

We Have a Gospel. As we read through Paul’s Epistles we find that there are different motivations that cause him to be so urgent about sharing the gospel. One of those motivations is mentioned in our passage. In verse 16 Paul, gives the reason why he is so “eager to preach the gospel… in Rome” (1:15): “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16).

            The NIV chooses to leave the “For” (Greek: gar) at the start of verse 16 untranslated. I think it would have been better to keep it, because Paul is clearly making a key point here which would be clearer if it were included. He is saying that he is eager to preach the gospel because the message he is giving is very powerful. It answers the greatest human need—the need for salvation. Paul is excited about evangelism because the gospel can transform people.

It is important for us always to keep the fact that one of the main reasons why we proclaim Christ and are involved in missions is the power of the gospel. Our primary aim is not to grow our churches or to be successful in ministry. Neither is it the desire to control a group of people and bring them under our leadership, as some are accusing us of doing today. They say evangelism is an extension of colonialism—a new way in which the West is trying to control the world. We preach for none of these reasons.

Paul uses a double negative “not ashamed” here to emphasise his point. It is like saying that he is excited about or proud of the gospel. The literal translation of the term “gospel,” euangelion, used in the Bible is “good news.” Good news must be shared. The gospel is God’s definitive message to the world. The Creator of the world, knowing the mess that his creation is in, has provided an answer to its problems. We have found what this answer is. Now it would be selfish for us not to share this with the world.

I was travelling by train once in Sri Lanka seated next to a government official who was a Buddhist. We struck up a conversation and, when he found out that I was a Christian worker going to a predominantly Buddhist area, he asked me why we Christians want to convert people. He told me of the disruption that is taking place in Buddhist villages as a result of people becoming Christians and he told me, “Wouldn’t it be better if you helped Buddhists to be better Buddhists and you Christians also work on being better Christians.”

I told him that we believe there is a God who created this world, and that this God, seeing the mess that the world was in, provided an answer to its problems. I said that we had found that answer. After having found this answer it would be very selfish for us to keep it to ourselves. I do not know whether he agreed with my reasoning. But at least he seemed to understand why we Christians were so urgent about sharing the gospel with others.

The Gospel is Powerful to Save. Using the word “for” (gar) again Paul goes on to say “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (1:16b). He is giving the reason why he is excited about the gospel. Not only has he found that it is God’s answer to the problems of the world, he has also found that it is powerful to save people. Paul was excited about evangelism because he knew how it changed him and changed other people.

This ministry of the gospel brings with it much to discourage us. People fail us; they misunderstand us; colleagues are difficult to get on with; others attribute unworthy motives to what we do; and, sometimes, we ourselves fail. We are persecuted; we get exhausted; and evangelism usually gets very bad press among those who do not believe in it. It would be easy for us to get discouraged so that we can lose our freshness and urgency. The absence of the glow of excitement over the gospel among Christians is a major problem in the church today. The dominant attitude of many in Christian ministry is one of cynicism or anger.

Paul was excited about the gospel. This is why when he contemplated the gospel in his Epistles he would spontaneously break into a doxology which gave evidence of his excitement over the gospel. In Romans 11:33-36, after exploring the mystery of the gospel as it is evidenced in the current rejection of it by the Jews, he said,

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counsellor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

After describing how and unworthy sinner like him was given the task of sharing the gospel to sinners (1 Tim. 1:11-16) he exclaimed: “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Tim. 1:17). 2 Corinthians 2:14-7:16 is an extended reflection on the glory of the gospel ministry triggered by a report of some of the practical problems that Paul faced and God’s answer to those problems.

However severe our problems may be we cannot get over the fact that we have a great gospel. I am sometimes discouraged by the problems I am facing and not inclined to preach, but I know that I cannot be without preaching because that is my “job.” In a state of discouragement I go to read my notes, and I get excited about what I am going to preach. I am struck by the fact that this message is true—gloriously true. It is relevant and powerful to transform people. At least temporarily the discouragement is gone as I go and share the wonderful truths contained in the gospel.

Rodney (“Gypsy”) Smith (1860-1947) was an evangelist who was born in a gypsy tent in Britain and started preaching at seventeen years and preached until he was eighty-seven years old. Someone once asked him what the secret of his freshness and vigour was. He responded, “I have never lost the wonder.” The gospel has to do with the most important message ever given, the message that helps determine the eternal destiny of people. And we have been given the awesome privilege of introducing people to that which will result in their eternal salvation. There is a wonder there!

The great English Reformer and Bible translator William Tyndale (1494-1536), who was killed at a relatively young age because of his growing influence, said in the prologue to his New Testament that the gospel, “signified good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, that makes a person’s heart glad, and makes him sing, dance and leap for joy.”[2]

Salvation Depends on Faith. Paul goes on to explain that salvation is “to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16b). Then he says, “For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” We will look at the nature of faith later, but here we will note that the whole process of salvation is mediated through faith. Paul says, it is “from faith for faith.” This seems to mean, as the New Living Translation puts it, that “this is accomplished from start to finish by faith.”

No Place for Arrogance. Essentially, to believe is to admit that we cannot help ourselves and to entrust ourselves into the hands of God to save us on the merits of what he has done. If so, we cannot associate the gospel and evangelism with arrogance. We are excited about the gospel, but we cannot be arrogant.

Today those who do evangelism are often accused of arrogance, and in many Asian nations people are very angry that Christians are attempting to convert those of other faiths to Christianity. They think that we are saying that our religion is better than theirs and that therefore we are superior to them. But the nature of the Christian gospel makes arrogance impossible. When we become Christians we admit that we cannot do anything for our salvation. We are unworthy people who are thrilled about the grace that God has showered upon us. Therefore we are filled with gratitude to God. Gratitude focuses on another, whereas arrogance focuses on oneself.

In the light of this grace perspective of Christianity it is strange that there is so much manoeuvring for power and recognition in Evangelical circles. Leaders are offended if they are not given the recognition that they feel they deserve, and because of that complex arrangements have to be made at Christian events to ensure that all the “dignitaries” are given proper recognition. This attitude is totally opposed to the gospel emphasis on grace. We are nobodies who have been lifted up by God on the merits of what Christ has done. If we act arrogantly or try to show that we are better than others, we haven’t understood the gospel properly. The great Scottish theologian and pastor James Denney (1856-1917) had these words framed in the vestry of his church: “No man can bear witness to Christ and to himself at the same time. No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.”[3]

Yet with salvation comes great gratitude and an excitement over the gospel. This produces the type of urgency to proclaim Christ which we see in this passage.

 

PEOPLE ARE UNDER WRATH 1:18-32

Having expressed his excitement over the gospel, Paul moves into an exposition of this gospel. Using his brilliant powers of arguing for the truth, he first talks of the need of humans for salvation (1:18-3:20) and then expounds how the gospel meets that need (3:21 onwards).

Ungodliness: The Refusal to Honour God (1:18-21a). Paul first shows how people are under the wrath of God. He says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (1:18). Wrath is revealed against “ungodliness,” which seems to refer to an attitude of rebellion against God, and “unrighteousness,” which seems to refer more to the conduct which that attitude brings about.

Paul says that there is a revelation of God in creation which makes people responsible to respond to it. “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (1:19-20). They should have gone further with the sense that there is a God that they get by observing creation, and inquired about it. But as verse 18 puts it, “by their unrighteousness [they] suppress the truth.” “So,” says Paul, “they are without excuse”

Verse 21a brings us to the heart of sin: “For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him.” Sin is the refusal to accept God for who he is—as the one to be honoured. In verse 28 Paul says that “they did not see fit to acknowledge God.” This is the heart of unbelief. At the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they affirmed that they—not God—will decide what is good and evil. They became like God in that sense. They refused to honour God as God.

The reason why this is so serious is that it is treason against the government of the universe. God created the universe to be run with God as its king. When humans rebelled against God they refused to give God the honour that was due to him. In any constitution treason is the most serious crime that one could commit. This is why unbelief is so serious—serious enough to condemn people to hell.

From Ungodliness to Other Sins (1:21b-32). We said that the heart of sin is a refusal to honour God: what verse 18 called ungodliness. Ungodliness however gives rise to unrighteous behaviour. Paul says that as a result of not honouring God “they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (1:21b). That gave rise to other sins. First Paul mentions idolatry: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (1:22-23). This process is summarised in verse 25: “…because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”

Paul also mentions other sinful deeds like sexual sin as resulting from the rejection of God: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (1:27-28). Then he mentions different types of sins involving inter-personal relationships: “They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (1:29-31).

Three times in this section Paul uses the phrase “God gave them up” (1:24, 26, 28) explaining how God let them go along their chosen path of disobedience into various debased activities. First they rejected God, and then God gave them up to follow their debased path. This process is summarised in verse 28: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” The freedom that people have to sin is itself a part of God’s judgment against their rebellion. They may arrogantly tout their freedom to do what they want. But no good would come from it to them. It only entrenches them in misery now and in the future.

So thus far Paul has argued that the essential problem is that we have decided that we do not need God to save ourselves. This attitude of independence from God has given rise to all kinds of gross sin. I suppose we could add here that rebellion against God’s way could take somewhat more refined ways. For example, a noble lifestyle or religious tradition which does not acknowledge the need to look to God for salvation would also be an expression of rebellion from God.

One reason why Buddhism and Hinduism are growing in the West is that they do not require one to bow in submission to God. Westerners have seen the deficiency of secular humanism and want some form of spirituality or religion. But they do not want to admit that they cannot save themselves, and they do not want to have to submit to a supreme God. Buddhism and Hinduism offer a way by which they can save themselves by their own efforts. The process may take an infinite number of lives on earth through the operation of a cycle of reincarnation (Hindu) or rebirth (Buddhist). Most Western forms of reincarnation, however, seem to give hope of a quicker release or salvation than Asian Buddhism and Hinduism do. Ultimately, all religious systems which operate independent of God are expressions of human rebellion against God.

People Sense that Sin should be Punished. Paul makes an interesting comment in verse 32: “Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” He claims that people know that sin must be punished. We approach all humans with the presupposition that lurking somewhere in the shadows of their minds is a sense of guilt over sin and the fear that sin would be punished.

Francis Schaeffer has said that people have built a roof over their heads to shield themselves from the rays of truth that they are exposed to. The truth is too unpleasant to face up to so they construct a roof to prevent exposure to those rays. People have done this with the sense in them which tells them that sin must be punished. For example, the terrifying idea of hell has been reduced to a swear word, possibly because its trivialisation would take away the discomfort that comes from contemplating it. Schaeffer says that the evangelist’s job is to take the roof off in order to expose people to the rays of unpleasant truth. This is what we must do with the doctrine of judgement. We must lead people to see the horrors of sin and its consequences.

 

WRATH RESULTS IN JUDGEMENT 2:1-3:20

After demonstrating that God’s wrath is revealed against human sin (1:18-32), Paul goes on to say that God’s wrath results in judgement.

Life to Some, Punishment to Others (2:1-11). Paul first says that some people are going to have life following the judgement and others are going to face wrath. This teaching is summarised in 2:6-8:

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.

Judgement for Both Jews and Gentiles (2:12-29). However Paul says that every one will not be judged according to the same measure. The Jews who had more light will be judged based on what they did with the light they had. This teaching is summarised in verse 12: “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” Paul goes on to say that the Gentiles have the law of the conscience and the Jews have the law of the Word (2:14-16).

We often hear people say that it is unfair for God to judge people for rejecting a gospel which they never knew. Yet, that is not what will happen. They will be judged for the failure to live according to the light they received.

Summary: All Under Sin (3:1-20, 23). After arguing his case for why all people are under the wrath of God and headed for judgement (1:18-2:29), Paul makes a summary statement where he points out that all people could be classified as being under sin (3:1-20). So 3:9 says, “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” Having said that he goes on to quote from the Psalms to show how hopelessly lost all people are: “…as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one”

(3:10-12).

He continues his description of human sinfulness until verse 18. He climaxes this description by pointing out again that the basic sin of humans is independence from God, the refusal to give God his due place in their lives: “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (3:18). Paul goes on to say that because of their sinfulness no one can protest to God about their judgment: “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” Verse 23 has Paul’s famous description of humanity apart from Christ: “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Can Some be Saved Without the Gospel? There are some who say that there are suggestions in Romans 2 which lead to the conclusion that people can be saved by living according to the light they have received even without hearing and responding to the gospel. They attribute attitudes to such people which, they say, meet the requirements for salvation. Examples of such attitudes are following their conscience; an attitude of repentance over sin; and an attitude of trust in whom they understand to be God. There are some who even say that Gentiles will be saved by works (based on 2:6-7).

I have grappled with this problem elsewhere,[4] but because it is a growing viewpoint among Evangelicals today, I need to make at least a summary statement here. Indeed some verses in Romans 2 may be interpreted to mean that Paul allows the idea that people could be saved without hearing the gospel. These are only possible interpretations and not necessary interpretations of the text. The context seems to eliminate this interpretation. The aim of Romans 1-3 is to show that all people with no exception need the gospel because they are guilty before God and to show that no one lives adequately up to the light they have received. Paul is trying to show that though everyone had some light, not one lived up to that light. As he says in 2:11-12: “For God shows no partiality. For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.”

I need to add that elsewhere the Bible is clear that there are degrees of responsibility according to the light one receives. To know the gospel and not respond to it is much more serious than not to know and not respond. Jesus said, “And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” Note that both groups are punished for their sin. But those who knew and did not obey are given a much more severe punishment.

Jesus says the same thing about the difference in the severity of the punishment given at the judgement when he says that Tyre, Sidon and Sodom, who did not hear the message of Jesus, will be treated with much less severity at the judgement than Korazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum who did hear (Matt. 11:20-24). Even though the expressions of wickedness in the former set of cities were much more overtly severe, things was going to be more bearable for them at the judgement.

There is a lot we do not know about punishment and how these degrees of punishment vary. But we do know that people who do not accept God’s message of salvation are lost and headed for judgment. We must never forget this. It shapes our attitude to life and gives us a passion to see the lost come to Christ. Paul expresses this passion as he contemplates the lostness of his fellow Jews: “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:1-3).

Lostness and Evangelism. A vision of the lostness of people has been a key motivating factor in the ministries of some of the giants of evangelistic history. Hudson Taylor, said, “I would have never thought of going to China had I not believed that the Chinese were lost and needed Christ.” William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, said he would wish his workers might spend “one night in hell” in order to see the urgency of their evangelistic task. D. L. Moody told an audience in London, “If I believed there was no hell, I am sure I would be off tomorrow for America.” He said he would give up going from town to town and spending day and night “urging men to escape the damnation of hell.”[5]

Today there is so much resistance to those doing evangelism in most countries in Asia. We are described as arrogant, and as traitors to our nations; they say we are destroying the peace of communities which have existed with one religion for centuries. Therefore evangelists and believers are being assaulted and churches are being burned. In Sri Lanka some Christians, knowing that it is evangelism that is causing so much hostility, are even saying that they are not interested in converting those of other faiths. They want to disassociate themselves from the evangelicals.

In such an environment it would be so much easier to confine our evangelistic activities to nominal Christians; or to teach about evangelism rather than do it. The needs of our nations are so staggering that we could spend all our time meeting social needs and conveniently end up with no time left for evangelism. But the lostness of humanity apart from Christ drives us to evangelism.

 

GOD’S ANSWER: SALVATION THROUGH FAITH 3:21-31

After having outlined the problem with the human race (1:18-3:20), Paul proceeds to provide God’s answer to the problem. He points out that God in Christ has done all that is necessary to save us and that what we need to do is to exercise faith. The next section is rich with the use of some key words which describe Paul’s understanding of salvation.

Righteousness: God’s Saving Activity in Christ (3:21, 26). When Paul began his exposition of the lostness of humanity he said that, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (1:18). After expounding on lostness comprehensively he begins the next section saying, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested” (3:21). In this type of context Paul uses the word “righteousness” (dikaiosunē) to refer to “the process by which God acts to put people in right relationship with himself.”[6]

In so doing God acts true to his nature, and acting true to ones nature is another aspect of the word righteousness. He is holy-love, and his holiness is expressed in his punishing Christ on our behalf and his love is manifested in his giving his son for our salvation. This aspect of righteousness in salvation is presented in verse 26 which says, “It was to show his righteousness (dikaiosunē) at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” God is just (or righteous: dikaion) when he justifies (dikaioō).

Paul goes on to say that God’s righteousness was “manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it” (3:21b). On the one hand there is a continuation with God’s action in salvation history. It is the same God who saved in OT times who saves now in Christ. So the law and the Prophets anticipated the salvation which Christ brought. On the other hand the words “apart from the Law” show that a completely new phase has come with the work of Christ.

Faith: Entrusting ourselves to God (3:22). Next Paul describes the new way of salvation as “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:22). Here Paul uses the noun (pistis) and the corresponding verb (pisteuō), translated “faith” and “believe” respectively. In verse 25 Paul says that God’s gift of grace is “to be received by faith.” Faith reverses what happened at the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve affirmed that they will trust in their own efforts and decisions for their salvation. Faith affirms that God can have the lordship of our lives and decide what is good and evil. To believe is equivalent to giving the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil back to God.

I like to tell the story of the little boy who went with his father for a walk to a park. He felt that he was old enough to walk on his own without the father’s assistance. So he tells his father to wait at a certain place while he walks alone. He goes a short distance and sees an unkempt man with long uncombed hair and dirty clothes. He immediately thinks that this is the “boogey man” who comes to take away naughty children. He turns and runs towards his father in terror. The father opens his arms wide and takes his son in and hugs him till his fear is gone. When the boy decided that he will not try to go it alone and turned to the father, he was there to accept him. Similarly God is there to accept us when we turn from our rebellion.

Many today are saying that it is unfair that a simple act of calling on the name of the Lord (Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:13) is all that is needed for a person to avoid damnation and receive salvation. But when you look at the wider context of the New Testament you realise that exercising saving faith is not simply just a case of mouthing a prayer to receive Christ. For example, Peter’s sermon, where this statement about calling on the name appears, has a call to “repent and be baptised” (Acts 2:38) indicating that calling on the name entails leaving behind ones old life and entrusting oneself to God. The other place where the statement about calling on the name of the Lord saved appears is Romans 10. There Paul says, “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). Again what is implied is that there is a change of perspective to life: believing in the heart and confessing with the mouth.

Saving faith is not a work we do which merits salvation. Rather it is an admission that we cannot do any work to save ourselves and a decision to entrust ourselves to God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves: to forgive us of our sins and grant us eternal life.

Justification: Being Treated as Righteous (3:24a) However, giving salvation to sinful humanity could not be simply achieved by a decision of God to forgive the sins which separate people from God. If God is to remain righteous when he saves sinners (as verse 26 said) then justice needs to be satisfied. The next few key words we will look at explain the justice of salvation. Verse 23 presents the sorry state of humanity under sin: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Next Paul brings in a legal word to describe the salvation which sinners receive: “…and are justified by his grace as a gift” (3:24a). The word to justify means “to make just.” This is a word that comes from the courts where when the accused are regarded as just when they are acquitted. They are treated “just as if” they had not sinned.

Leon Morris points out that this “is a legal term signifying acquittal, a fact that makes it unpalatable to many in our day.”[7] The liberal tendency to downplay the penal substitution idea in connection with the death of Christ is illustrated in the rendering of justification in a new translation of the Bible in my language (Sinhala) as “bringing to relationship with God.” This correctly describes the result of justification but avoids the idea that a legal process had taken place where sinners were acquitted of their guilt by the merits of Christ’s death.

Theology explains the righteousness which the justified enjoy as “imputed righteousness,” meaning that the righteousness of Christ our substitute is made to apply to us so that we are now regarded as righteous. The book of Jeremiah describing the New Covenant says, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34b). When a woman who had lived an immoral life understood for the first time the meaning of justification, she exclaimed, “In God’s sight I am a virgin.”

Grace: Unmerited Favour (3:24a). Paul says that we “are justified by his grace as a gift” (3:24a). Grace points to favour given to those who do not deserve it. We cannot merit it but we are given it based on the merits of Christ. Paul will go on to describe that merit as redemption. The following acrostic describes the meaning of grace well: “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense” which gives us G-R-A-C-E.

In our Asian cultures, however, it may be difficult for people to understand the idea of grace as most religious systems present ways of salvation through ones efforts. Indeed sometimes they have gods to help them. Usually, however, people go to the gods for help in solving problems like business challenges, examinations and sickness. The understanding is that ones way of salvation—whether it is understood in terms of Nirvana or whatever other goal a religion looks for—is something they must strive to achieve by their efforts. This presents us with the challenge of making them accept that they can do nothing for their salvation and that another could do what they could not do.

One way to meet this challenge is to show people that, though at first they may find the idea of salvation through substitution alien, it is an idea which is woven into the fabric of life here on earth. Most religious traditions have stories of people who died to save others. In fact sacrificing for others is one of the highest human values in any culture. If there is a God and if this God is the Supreme Being, wouldn’t we expect the highest sacrifice from the highest being? Most religions have practices which seek to transfer merit from one person to another. All of these are attempts to grope towards an expression of a value which all humans, made as they are in the image of God, have been born with. The idea of salvation through substitution agrees with the deepest human instincts. And it is our job as evangelists to, by the Holy Spirit, help surface that instinct so that they see the sensibility of the gospel.

Redemption: A Price is Paid (3:24b). Paul goes on to say that the “grace as a gift” which is given to us is “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:24b). The figure of redemption (Greek: apolutrōsis) which Paul is fond of using (see Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14) is taken from the marketplace where slaves are bought with a price. Jesus used a related figure when he said that he would “give his life as a ransom (Greek: lutron) for many” (Mark 10:45). The focus here is on the freedom we receive from the captivity of sin, through the price paid by Christ.

The story of the boy and his toy boat expresses the biblical idea of redemption beautifully. A boy had a toy boat which he loved very much because he himself had made it. He took it to a lake one day and let it float on the water. Suddenly a gust of wind came and carried the boat beyond the reach of the boy. Sadly the boy saw it go away from him until it was finally out of sight. Some days later he passed a shop and was surprised to see his boat on sale there. When he told the person at the shop that it was his boat, he was informed that he needed to pay for it if he was to get it. He worked hard at whatever jobs he could find until he was at last able to buy the boat. When he got the boat back he whispered to it, “You are twice mine. I made you, and now I have bought you.” Jesus did something like this for us when he died on the cross.

To whom was the redemption price paid? Earlier Christian thinkers like Origen (c. 185-c. 254), Gregory of Nyssa (330-c. 395), Gregory the Great (540-604) and Peter Lombard (c. 1095-c. 1164) said that it was to Satan. Bizarre theories of the transaction that took place between God and Satan were proposed.[8] The advice of Leon Morris, perhaps the foremost evangelical expert today on the biblical teaching of the cross, is pertinent here. He believes that it is illegitimate to look for a recipient of the ransom. This is because “in the New Testament there is never a hint of a recipient.” Morris says, “We must understand redemption as a useful metaphor which enables us to see some aspects of Christ’s great saving work with clarity but which is not an exact description of the whole process of salvation. We must not press it beyond what the New Testament tells us about it.”[9]

Often we speak of people paying a great price to achieve some goal. For example, a soldier pays the ultimate price of sacrificing his life for the nation. Usually we do not concern ourselves too much with the question of whom that price was paid to.

Propitiation: Taking away Wrath (3:25). After stating that justifying grace is “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:24), Paul describes Jesus as the one, “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (3:25a). He goes on to say that this is another expression of the righteousness of God: “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (3:25b).

Propitiation is a figure that comes from the temple ritual. This word and its related words are used in the King James Version for the Greek words, hilasmos (noun: 1 John 2:2; 4.10), hilasterios (adjective: Rom. 3:25) and hilaskomai (verb: Heb. 2:17). The word propitiation is related to the rituals of the temple where sacrifices are given to turn away God’s wrath against sin. The meaning is well expressed in the rendering of 1 John 2:2 in The Living Bible, “He is the one who took God’s wrath against our sins upon himself, and brought us into fellowship with God….”

However, there is disagreement about the meaning of these Greek words in the New Testament. Evangelical scholars like Leon Morris have shown convincingly (to me) that the traditional interpretation as propitiation, meaning pacifying or turning away God’s wrath, is still valid.[10] It is heartening to see some new translations like the New American Standard Bible, the New King James Version, the English Standard Version and the Holman Christian Standard Bible going back to using this difficult word. Indeed this may not be a suitable word to use in a version aimed at attracting outsiders to Christianity. But in a Bible believers use for study I think we should use this because of the richness of its meaning.

Instead of using propitiation scholars, like C. H. Dodd, prefer the idea of expiation which means to make amends for a wrong.[11] This is reflected in translations like the New English Bible, the Revised English Bible and Revised Standard Version (The New Revised Standard Version and the New International Version use the more neutral “atoning sacrifice”).

Propitiation focuses on the seriousness of sin and God’s wrath against it which is borne by Jesus. Perhaps the reason why we find propitiation difficult to accept is because the doctrine of God’s wrath has been neglected by the church. Right through church history efforts have been made to tone down the biblical teaching of God’s wrath. In the second century Marcion tried to separate the loving Father of the New Testament from the supposedly vindictive God of the Old Testament. F. D. E. Schleiermacher and A. Ritschl in the nineteenth century and C. H. Dodd and A. T. Hanson in the twentieth century tried to divorce wrath from the essential nature of God. Dodd said that wrath is retained in the New Testament “not to describe the attitude of God to man, but to describe the inevitable process of retribution.”[12]

So wrath became something like the law of karma: an impersonal process of cause and effect. Hanson looked at wrath as an impersonal character and said it “does not describe an attitude of God but a condition of men.”[13] This view has been ably countered and shown to be not in keeping with the biblical witness.[14] In both the Old and New Testaments wrath is considered part of the essential nature of God.

We will miss so much of the significance of Christ’s death if we take wrath out of the picture. We will also miss something of the freedom of forgiveness if we do not realize that God’s anger against our sin has been fully spent on Jesus.

Paul’s Strategy of Using Figures to Explain Christ’s Work. Paul’s use of so many figures to explain Christ’s work and its results gives us a key to how we can effectively communicate this message, especially in cultures where their idea of salvation through a substitutionary sacrifice is very different to the prevailing understanding of means to salvation. The list of figures used here and elsewhere in his Epistles is most impressive.

  • Justification: from the law court.
  • Redemption: from the market place.
  • Propitiation: from the temple ritual.

In other passages in Paul’s Epistles and in the other Epistles we find the following figures.

  • Reconciliation: from family life and friendship (Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:19).
  • Triumph: from warfare (Col. 2:13-15)
  • Cleansing or purification: from home life (Heb. 9:14; 1 John 1:7, 9).

We too can use different figures in our communication of the gospel. We can hope that, even though the idea of Christ’s work bringing salvation may seem strange to them at first, exposure to these figures will reinforce the idea of the atonement from different angles. In the process more and more of the meaning of what Christ has done will be communicated. They will see that the work of Christ agrees with their deepest instincts. We, of course, recognise these instincts as arising from vestiges of the image of God that still remain in every human being.

The Law of Faith Precludes Boasting (3:27-31). The next paragraph (3:27-31) is a transitional one where Paul prepares to address Jewish concerns. If there was a revelation from God before the work of Christ how does the way to salvation there compare with that which is revealed through Christ and his work? He first says that boasting is precluded because salvation is through faith and not works: “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:27-28). Then he describes how salvation through faith in the work of Christ unites Jews and Gentiles: “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one. He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (3:29-30).

This would bring up the question of what place the Jewish Law has in the economy of God’s dealings with humanity. Does the work of Christ contradict the teaching of the Law? Paul makes an affirmation about this here: “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (3:31). He will explain this answer more fully in the next chapter and in subsequent chapters of Romans.

 

Even Old Testament People were Saved through Faith (4:1-25).

In chapter 4 of Romans Paul goes on to show that even in Old Testament times salvation was through faith. He shows that Abraham was credited as righteous not through his works but through believing in God (4:1-4). Then he has a small parenthesis on how David also celebrated this truth of people being forgiven and credited as righteous apart from works (4:6-8). He goes back to Abraham pointing out that he was justified even before he was circumcised (4:9-12).

Then in verses 13-25 Paul argues that “the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith” (4:13). He shows how the law produces wrath not salvation (4:15). Elaborating more on Abraham’s crucial role in salvation history as the father of the faithful, Paul explains how he has become a father not only to Jews but to all who receive salvation through faith (4:16-24).

Paul closes this discussion by explaining once again what happened through the death and resurrection of Christ: “He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (4:25). It is interesting to see how Paul criss-crosses between Abraham’s salvation and Christ’s work, almost as if to say that the work of Christ applies to Abraham also.

The idea that Christ’s sacrifice applies to Old Testament saints emerges from other sections of the Bible. Because it was an eternal sacrifice the efficacy of Christ’s work extended to all time: before and after Christ. So the book of Hebrews says that Jesus “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (Heb. 10:12). Hebrews also refers to “the blood of the eternal covenant” (Heb. 13:20). Peter, after speaking of the, “the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot,” says, “He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for your sake” At the time God created the world there was a cross in his heart.

Implied in all of this is the fact that provision was made for the sins committed even before Jesus died. When people were making sacrifices in an attitude of repentance God was forgiving them through the merits of the blood of Christ’s eternal covenant.

One thing that comes out loud and clear from this chapter is that the means to salvation in the New Testament is not as markedly different from the means to salvation in the Old Testament as many people think. The God of holy-love did not change his nature during the different eras of salvation history. The work of Christ brought to completion God’s way of saving people that was already operative in the sacrificial and legal system of the Jews.

 

SALVATION AND SUFFERING (5:1-11)

After expounding on the nature of salvation Paul goes on to discuss the issue of suffering. At first this seems to be out of place in a profound theological discourse on salvation. However we see that Paul discusses suffering after his discourse on sanctification in chapters 6-8 also (8:17-39). This should tell us that suffering is an issue that is basic to Christian theology.

Two basic questions which are answered by discussions on suffering after the expositions on salvation and sanctification in Romans are:

  1. If God has provided a way of salvation from sin then why do those who are saved still suffer? After all the Bible teaches that suffering is ultimately a consequence of sin coming to the world?
  2. If sanctification results from the filling of the Holy Spirit who now leads us in all that we do and directs all that happens to us, why does he allow sanctified people to go through such a hard time?

The religions of Asia have a lot to say about suffering. The Four Noble Truths of Asia’s biggest religion, Buddhism, form the basis of the Buddhist approach to life. The first truth is an affirmation that the reality of suffering is basic to existence. The concept of Dukkha in Buddhism is somewhat akin to the futility or frustration which Ecclesiastes and Romans 8:20-24 talk about. Buddhism and Hinduism present the suffering of individuals as being the result of negative karma accrued in previous lives. Many Buddhists feel that they have a superior answer to the mystery of suffering than the Christians do. Christianity says that the prevalence of suffering in the world is not primarily the result of individual sin but the result of the curse which came upon creation after the fall of humanity (Gen. 3; Rom. 8:20).

The distinctive feature of the biblical approach to suffering is not its philosophical reasoning on its causes, effects and cure. It is about how God makes a difference in a sufferer’s life. Far from being immune to suffering, the godly are promised suffering as a normal part of the Christian life. But there is a common thread that binds biblical, especially New Testament, reflection on suffering. That is the theme of joy. So it is not surprising that Paul begins his discourse on suffering with an affirmation that Christians rejoice in suffering (5:3).

Suffering and Joy (5:1-3). First Paul summarises the meaning of salvation which he had just finished expounding: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (5:1-2). Then he affirms that we rejoice in our sufferings: “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance…” (5:3).

I have counted 18 places in the New Testament where suffering and joy are connected. These passages come in all the different segments of the New Testament: The Gospels, Acts, Paul’s Epistles, the General Epistles and Revelation. In Romans 5 the word translated as “rejoice,” is not the usual verb for rejoicing (chairō). Instead it is a word (kauchaomai) which has more the idea of boasting, and taking pride in something. Of the 36 occurrences of this word in the New Testament, the NIV translates it as rejoice only on three occasions. Usually the word is translated something like “boast” or “brag” or “glory in.”

I think Paul’s choice of a word which basically means boasting is significant. Usually suffering is a cause for shame. It seems as if we are without God’s blessing, that we are failures. Sometimes people think that we are suffering because they have done something wrong. Just yesterday I was talking to a colleague who told me said his mother who is a godly woman is very sick. She has had a strong Christian witness in her predominantly non-Christian neighbourhood. Now her sickness has become a serious problem to many. Some are saying it disproves all that she has been saying about God. Others are saying that God will heal her because she is a faithful servant of Christ.

The problem is aggravated by the fact in Asia what initially caused many people who have come to Christ from other faiths to consider Christianity was the prospect of or the experience of God hearing their prayers and alleviating their suffering. In their appeal to people to come to Christ evangelists proclaim that Christ can solve all their problems.

Yet the Bible teaches that Christians will suffer. Christ’s basic call to discipleship was a call to suffering: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). Note that the suffering is presented as a means to something good here. And that is the thrust of the biblical teaching about the suffering of individuals: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28).

I believe that the biblical teaching about suffering is a key aspect of the gospel and could be one of the great attractions of Christianity to outsiders. The happiest people in the world are not those who do not suffer. They are those who are not afraid of suffering. And Christians have no need to be afraid of it because God who is sovereign over suffering works some good out of it and gives us his joy to be our strength while we go through it.

Therefore the Christian approach to suffering could be a powerful tool for evangelism. It is no secret that some who became Christians in the early years of the church were attracted by the way the Christian martyrs died. It is no accident that the word for someone who dies for the faith is “martyr’ which is so closely related to the Greek word for witness, marturia.

A Christian student, Susan, found that her first semester in university was very hard to endure. She was homesick, falling behind in her studies and ready to withdraw. After her first semester she went home for the Christmas holidays. When her roommate returned to the university after the holidays she announced to Susan that she had committed her life to Christ and that Susan’s life had been a major factor influencing that decision. “My life!” Susan responded, “What has there been in my life to make you want to be a Christian? I’ve been thoroughly depressed and discouraged.” Her roommate replied, “I observed the way you suffered.”[15]

Five Reasons for Rejoicing in Suffering (5:2-11). Paul gives five reasons in this passage as to why Christians can rejoice in suffering. I will only briefly list them here.

  • Rejoicing in the hope of glory (5:2)
  • Rejoicing because God turns it to good (5:3-4)
  • Rejoicing because of God’s love in us (5:5)
  • Rejoicing because of God’s love for us (5:6-8)
  • Rejoicing because of the salvation we experience (5:9-11).

Asia’s Distinctive Contribution? There is a lot of Christian writing today which gives therapy for suffering but not enough which gives theology for suffering. Consequently Christians are not equipped to face up to suffering. They suffer more than they should because they do not see it as a means through which God is going to bless them. Suffering becomes a source of disappointment to them.

Perhaps it is true to say that we in Asia encounter more suffering than Christians in the more affluent countries where they often have the facilities to escape from suffering. Sometimes they escape from suffering that comes along with their call, which means that the suffering causes them to abandon their call. We in Asia could be affected by this problem too. And the way Asian Christians are changing churches when they encounter problems is an indication that we have already been infected by attitudes which avoid the suffering that goes along with our commitments.

My prayer is that, without being infected by an escapist attitude to suffering, Asian Christians would distinguish themselves in the way they embrace suffering because of their commitments. I pray that Asian writers will enrich the church at-large by writing their theological reflections on suffering that have been forged out of a matrix of suffering. I hope that like Paul they will include discussions on suffering in their reflections on other topics like salvation, sanctification, mission, and community life. I believe that this could be the distinctive theological contribution that Asia can make to the world church.

 

CONCLUSION

What an amazing journey the first few chapters of Romans takes us on as we delve into the heart of Paul. Paul was a man passionate about the gospel. He said, “For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16). It was Paul’s conviction of the urgent need for people to hear the gospel that drove him to become the great hero that he was.

The content of the gospel continues to be one of the greatest motivating factors to mission today. The Scottish theologian James Denney was once invited to speak at a missions meeting. Almost his whole talk was an explanation of the meaning of propitiation. The organisers of the meeting were rather mystified by Denney’s approach until he came to his conclusion. Denney said that if Christ’s work was indeed a propitiation for us, then this is a message that must be given to the whole world. That final punch really got through to the hearts of his hearers.

Evangelicals have got their name because of their commitment to the gospel (Greek: euangelion). May we be true evangelicals: passionate for the gospel and paying the price to see it proclaimed on earth.

 

 

[1] Unless otherwise stated the Scripture quotations in this paper are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2]Cited in R. H. Mounce, “Gospel,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), p. 472 (I have modernized Tyndale’s archaic English language).

[3] Cited in John Stott, I Believe in Preaching (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1982), p. 324.

[4] Ajith Fernando, Sharing the Truth in Love: How to Relate to People of Other Faiths (Grand Rapids: Discovery House Publishers and Manila: Life Change Publishing, 2001), chapter 14, “Those who have not Heard.”

[5] Cited in Stanley N. Gundry, Love Them in: the Life and Theology of D. L. Moody (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976 [reissued by Chicago: Moody Press]), p. 97-98.

[6] Douglas J. Moo, NIV Application Commentary, New Testament: Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) from the Pradis software version.

 

[7] Leon Morris, “Justification,” Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), p. 441.

[8] See H. D. McDonald, The Atonement of the Death of Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), pp. 138-146.

[9] Leon Morris, The Atonement (Leicester and Downer’s Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), p. 129.

[10]Morris, Apostolic Preaching, pp. 125-185. Morris’ ideas are presented in a simpler form in his book, The Atonement, pp. 151-176.

[11]C. H. Dodd, The Bible and the Greeks (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1935); and The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1932).

[12]C. H. Dodd, Romans, p. 23.

[13]A. T. Hanson, The Wrath of the Lamb (London: SPCK, 1959), p.110.

[14]See Gustav Stahlin, “orge,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. V, edited by Gerhard Friedrich,  translated and edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968), p. 427-429; Morris, Apostolic Preaching, pp. 129-36, 161-66 and Ajith Fernando, Crucial Questions about Hell (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994 and Eastbourne: Kingsway, 1991), chapter 10, “Wrath versus Love.”

[15] From Leighton Ford, Good News is for Sharing (Elgin, IL.: David C. Cooke Publishing Co. 1977), pp. 106-07.

Claypot Treasure: Paul’s Perspective on His Suffering

An Exposition of 2 Corinthians 4:7-12

The history of the movement Dr James H. Taylor III has been associated with for most of his life (CIM/OMF) is a history marked by the suffering of faithful servants of God. My contribution to this volume honouring Dr Taylor seeks to reflect on the suffering that inevitably comes to those who serve Christ even today.

Paul expounds his theology of suffering in many passages. Each one brings key insights into his understanding of what it means to suffer. I want to focus on one such insight found in 2 Corinthians 4:7-12. It is found in an autobiographical passage where Paul is giving an apologetic for his apostolic ministry (2:12-7:1). He has just talked about his boldness as a minister of the New Covenant (3:4-18). Our passage comes in the middle of a description of the suffering and the glory that accompanies the ministry (4:7-5:10). Here I will focus on Paul’s insight that the weakness associated with suffering helps highlight God’s power (4:7-12).

THE GOSPEL WAY: TREASURE IN CLAYPOTS (4:7).

Claypots in an Appearance–Oriented Age. Verse 7 summarises Paul’s point: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” “Treasure” here refers either to the gospel or to gospel ministry. Jars of clay can break, get chipped and crack. The focus is on fragility and weakness and possibly unattractiveness.

Paul’s suffering, and perhaps even his physical characteristics and style of public ministry seem to have highlighted his weakness and made him unattractive. His opponents would have used that to discredit him. Paul’s opponents were high on appearance. Therefore three times in this section of 2 Corinthians Paul appeals to conscience as a key to judging ones authenticity (1:12; 4:2; 5:11). Twice he appeals to what is in unseen or in the heart, as opposed to outward appearance (4:18; 5:12).

A key feature of worldliness today is the preference for outward appearance over what is in the heart. Often appearance is more effective in winning votes than the goodness of the person in an election campaign. Campaigns are fashioned in order to make the person appear attractive. I am told that Abraham Lincoln’s appearance would have disqualified him if he were to contest today. Much of marketing works on this premise. And the characteristics of the models and actors used in advertising are helping shape people’s ideas of the value of a person. Even a Christian might reject a proposal of marriage to a wonderful Christian with a beautiful personality on the grounds that this person has a small physical flaw, even though this flaw would not be a block to a happy marriage.

In this environment the church could get dragged in and let market factors influence her strategy. We tend to gauge the significance of a ministry by things like its buildings, the number of paid staff, and the popularity of the leaders. Yet those very things may take away our effectiveness. The lifestyle of many relief and development workers is so far removed from the poor they serve that they would find it impossible to identify with them. They can help them economically; and we know that good work is being done by them. But they will fail to impact the poor with gospel values. Peter told the lame man in Jerusalem, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk” (Acts 3:6). Though they had little economic clout they had much spiritual power.

We are seeing a sad scenario today. Very effective ministries are initially developed by indigenous leaders whose ministries have grown by nurturing new believers through incarnational discipling ministry. Then a foreign sponsor is attracted to the ministry and a lot of funds to it. This, in turn, results in the ministry becoming huge and numerous “projects” being started. With more funds coming in, the leader’s lifestyle becomes somewhat removed from that of those among whom he or she ministered. The ministry becomes so large and the workers so busy working on projects that there is no time for the incarnational discipling aspect of the ministry which takes place through a lot of time being spend with individuals. The result is that the believers are not nurtured and the church becomes fat and unhealthy.

Paul said, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are” (1 Cor. 1:27-28). What appears small and insignificant may be more powerful that impressive looking things. Towards the end of his life when Paul was in prison in Rome he encountered this problem. The church seemed to be so ashamed of him that nobody came for his trial. He sadly reports tat only Luke was with him (2 Tim. 4:11). But today, he is a hero. Dennis Kinlaw has said that at that time in Rome if someone were to ask who would have the biggest impact on history people would have mentioned Nero and no one would have thought of Paul. But today we name our dogs Nero and our sons Paul.[1]

Worldliness can rob the church of its heroes. It can cause capable people to shun the cross for ministries that impress the world. Therefore, there is an urgent need to recover the sense of the glory of jars of clay and to combat the infiltration of the current mood of devotion to appearance. If we fail here we won’t produce heroes in the church. We will produce successful entrepreneurs whose rewards are limited to this world.

Claypots Demonstrate the Power of God. The value of jars of clay is that they “show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (4:7b). There is no verb equivalent to “to show” in Greek.  Instead we have the word hiva meaning “in order that,” or “so that.” The more literal NAS renders this, “So that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.” Our weakness becomes a means of unleashing the power of God and, by so doing, of demonstrating God’s greatness. For this reason the godly are embarrassed, uneasy and wary when the focus is on them and their greatness.

I think my favourite moment in Western Music is the place in Joseph Haydn’s Creation where the creation of light is described. The choir quietly sings “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’” Next softly in staccato it almost whispers, “And; there; was….” Then there is a pregnant moment of silence, after which the choir cries out loudly: “…light.”  When Haydn was an old man living in Vienna he was brought on a stretcher for a performance of the Creation. Just after the choir sang, “light,” the people rose to their feet and burst into applause. Haydn lifted up his trembling hands and said, “Not from me; it all comes from above.”[2]  May we develop the discipline of deflecting attention from ourselves so that people may see the power and glory of God.

WE CAN COPE (4:8-9)

Next Paul describes his experience of suffering using four couplets each presenting a type of suffering and an antithesis to it describing how God provides grace to help him cope with the suffering. The first two are internal sufferings and the next two are from external sources.

Suffering Internally (4:8). First Paul says, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed” (4:8a). The word translated “afflicted” (thlibō) appears ten times in the New Testament of which three times are in 2 Corinthains. This is the verb of the much used noun thilpsis which appears 43 times and is often translated “tribulation.” It literally means “pressing, squeezing, or crushing,”[3]  and is used for pressing upon or burdening the spirit.[4] Paul is talking about stress.

There are many books on how to avoid stress today. But Paul seems to be saying that stress is a normal part of his life and ministry. We see this in his anxiety until Titus came with news of the Corinthians’ response to his harsh letter (2 Cor. 2:12-13). We see this when he says, “And apart from other things there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” The word pressure is used here “in the sense of anxiety caused by a heavy sense of responsibility.”[5] When you are committed to people, or to a cause you can’t avoid stress.

We are not talking here about the stress of a driven person whose ambition to succeed takes unhealthy forms. Such do not take Sabbath rests; they do not delegate responsibilities to others. They relentlessly pursue earthly success because they need success to feel significant. We are talking here about the stress of one who loves others and hurts when they move away from God’s best for them; of one who is so passionately committed to the glory of God that he or she is provoked to anger and sorrow when God is dishonoured.

Paul says that though he is “afflicted in every way” he is “not crushed” (4:8).  This word has the idea of being “in a circumstance that seems to offer no way out.” [6] Things will get tough, but we know that there’s a way out. In the darkest hour, our faith deep down assures us that God is sovereign, and that he will see us through. One of John Greenleaf Whittier’s hymns says,

Here in the maddening maze of things;

when tossed by storm and flood;

to one fixed ground my spirit clings;

I know that God is good.

Often in ministry we encounter situations which seem to offer no way out. At such times we simply just cling to hope knowing that God is bigger that this situation and will see us through. Therefore we won’t be crushed; we won’t give up, or do something rash.

Second, Paul says that they are “perplexed, but not driven to despair” (4:8). The word translated perplexed means, “to be in a confused state of mind, be at a loss, be in doubt, be uncertain.”[7] Some people feel very uneasy when they are not in control of things. We are taught to be decisive, always on top of things. But it is as we grapple with perplexity and uncertainty, as we grapple with how to solve this problem, as we weigh the pros and cons of different lines of action, that we grow deep. Our grappling deepens our faith. When we are deep, we influence people deeply; and that surely is the need of the hour.

Frustration is part of life in a fallen world. Paul expounds this in Romans 8:19-23 and says that, because of this, even believers in Christ “who have the first-fruits of the Spirit” groan along with the whole creation. Groaning, then, is an integral part of the Christian life.

You can avoid all of this by not getting close to people; by not letting your emotions be influenced by the behaviour of others. The only other time this Greek word is used in the New Testament is in the context of Paul’s commitment and love to the Galatians. He says: “My little children, for whom I am in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you” (Gal. 4:19-20). This is the heart-cry of a discipler. Incarnational discipleship will produce such perplexity, because many of the people we disciple will fall and struggle. Some will not even make it to the end. No wonder there is so little discipling today. We have efficient discipleship programmes with excellent biblical courses. But it is too inefficient, too cumbersome, to be pouring ones life out to individuals.

Large numbers of people are getting converted in Asia these days, but many are not moving towards maturity and holiness. Discipling is so needed in Asia because our shame-cultural orientation has many features which are incompatible with what it takes to battle sin in our lives. We find it difficult to walk in the light through confession of sin so that we can have fellowship and grow (1 John 1:7). If the truth of the gospel is to really go deep inside our people we will need to get close to them and “stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24).

Grappling with perplexity and uncertainty also helps us to grow deep. We learn deep truths about God and his ways as we grapple with how to solve the complex problems that emerge as we get close to people, and as we weigh the pros and cons of different courses of action. So our groaning deepens our faith, and when we are deep we are able to influence people deeply. And is that not the need of the hour in ministry?

Out of the perplexity over the problems in the church in Galatia came the Epistle to the Galatians. In it you often see his pain and anger over the way the Galatians were being misled. This is one of the most influential writings in the history of the world. James Montgomery Boice says of Galatians: “Not many books have made such a lasting impression on men’s minds as the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians, nor have many done so much to shape the history of the western world. Galatians has been called the ‘Magna Carta of Christian liberty’ and this is quite correct.” Boice points out that “Luther in particular was influenced by it. He called it his Catherine Von Bora [his wife’s name], for, he said, ‘I am wedded to it’.” Boice says, “In Luther’s hands the book became a mighty weapon in the Reformation arsenal.”[8]

John Chrysostom, who is considered the greatest Bible expositor of the early church, experienced much perplexity. He was discouraged over the seeming deafness of his listeners as they failed to apply the truths he preached about week after week. He once complained: “My work is like that of a man who is trying to clean a piece of ground into which a muddy stream is constantly flowing.” Yet, 1560 years after his death his commentary on the New Testament is still in print and there are many electronic versions of it. Perplexity helps us develop penetrative insight which will leave long term affects on the church.

Paul says that though he is perplexed he is “not driven to despair” (4:8b). There is an interesting word play here as the two Greek words (aporoumenoi and exaporoumenoi) sound very much alike. Their meanings are also similar. The second work seems to be referring to perplexity that drives one to the point of despair, of giving up. One lexicon puts it like this, “Sometimes at a loss but not a loser.”[9] Though there isn’t much difference between these two words—being perplexed and despairing—there is a huge difference in the end. One drives you to making a deeper impact while the other drives you to give up.

Suffering from External Sources (4:9). After presenting two internal sources of suffering, Paul presents two external sources. First, he says they are “persecuted, but not forsaken” (4:9a). The word translated “persecuted” (diōkō) originally has the meaning of pursuing or running after something. Of the 45 occurrences of the word in the New Testament, it takes the meaning “to persecute” thirty times. Persecution takes place when people pursue us to stop or hinder our work. While this is something one would like to avoid, Paul says, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim. 3:12).

Is it really true that all godly people will be persecuted? Christianity is too radical a religion and the biblical ethic is too radical a way of life for it ever to be too popular. Our belief in the absolute uniqueness of Christ, which propels us to evangelism, is too radical a concept to ever be popular especially in our pluralistic age. Godly Christians will sooner or later face persecution.

John Wesley was riding along the road one day when he realized that three whole days had passed without him being persecuted. Not a brick or an egg had been thrown at him for three days!  He was alarmed, and he stopped his horse. He thought, “Can it be that I have sinned and am backslided?”  He got on his knees and prayed to God to show him where he had failed. A person on the other side of the ledge heard the prayer and recognized Wesley. He said, “I’ll fix that Methodist preacher,” and threw a brick at Wesley. The brick missed Wesley. He leaped to his feet joyfully and said, “Thank God, it’s all right, I still have his presence.”[10]

Humans naturally like to be liked. We love the people we are called to minister to, and will love them no matter what they do to us. We like them to reciprocate that love. So it hurts us when they reject our love. In fact our sacrificial service of evangelism is considered unethical and dishonourable. Evangelists among the unreached are often considered traitors by their people. This is not easy to endure if you love your country. When the calling that propels you is despised, there is a great temptation to do something more respectable. The organisation I work with, Youth for Christ, could be tempted to stop evangelising unreached youth and start working with Christian youth and training them in evangelism.

Evangelicals in many parts of the world are not the despised, marginal group they were fifty years ago. Many of our institutions are respected and prosperous. An Amish Bishop has said, “Prosperity has often been fatal to Christianity but persecution, never.”[11] Now that we are accepted as a mainstream entity we will be tempted to downplay those things which take us against the stream. I fear that many evangelicals have stopped proactively going after the lost and instead contented themselves with living the Christian life in the hope that they could share the gospel to people who come to them asking them about their faith. We will never reach the world for Christ if we only wait for people to come to us! We may be coming back to facing the old “proclamation versus presence” debate in the church.

After saying that they are persecuted, Paul says, “…but not forsaken” (4:9a NIV “abandoned”). Though we face the pain of rejection, God will not abandon us. David said, “For my Father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in” (Psa. 27:10). God’s ministry to us when persecuted is often through his comfort. At the start of 2 Corinthians Paul mentions how he faced a huge crisis. But that opened the door for God’s comfort resulting in a powerful statement of praise to “the God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3-11).

Persecution can cause people to become bitter. I have seen some faithful servants of God in Sri Lanka turning quite bitter after facing persecution. God’s comfort takes away the bitter edge of persecution. You can’t remain angry when you’re thrilled by the beautiful way God has ministered to you. John Bunyan, who encountered a lot of persecution during his life, once said, “Were it lawful, I could pray for greater trouble for greater comfort’s sake.”[12]

We praise God that today there is a lot of praying for the persecuted church and speaking up for the rights of persecuted people by Christians all over the world. These are very healthy developments. But there is little teaching on the inevitability of persecution and on how to prepare for it. If we do not prepare God’s servants for persecution, they could end up disillusioned when they face it. Some may even move away from God’s call to something easier thinking that it is not God’s will for them to suffer in this way.

The last of Paul’s four couplets is, “…struck down, but not destroyed” (4:9b). Again there is a play on words by Paul. Several translators follow the lead given in J. B. Phillips’ paraphrase: “We may be knocked down, but we are never knocked out.”  The expression “struck down,” carries the idea of being thrown down to the ground. Paul’s experience in Lystra illustrates this point. He was stoned, dragged out of city and left for dead. When the disciples gathered around him, he rose up and walked to the city (Acts 14:19-20). Christian ministry is like this. We receive blow after blow; and sometimes we look like we are out for the count. But, like the Duracell batteries in the familiar advertisement, we get up and fight on and finally win the war!

We have found that, when gospel workers start pioneering evangelism in new areas in Sri Lanka, usually there is severe opposition for the first five to ten years. They may be assaulted; their houses stoned; and their families will constantly be under the threat of attack. After some years the people realise the Christians are not as bad as they were rumoured as being. In fact, they see the Christians making a positive contribution to the village. Then they begin to accept them as a legitimate part of the community. Sadly, some give up and leave before that acceptance comes. But others stay on to reap a harvest.

We need perseverance that comes out of a commitment to the call we received from God. Perseverance arising from commitment is not very common in our mobile culture. When people face inconvenience or setback or pain they change their job, or their church, or small group, or neighbourhood, or even spouse. I was once preparing message on stress in the ministry while I was travelling in the west.  During my time of preparation I was told of three Christians who had been liberated from difficult circumstances. One left his church, another the Christian organisation for which he worked and the third his spouse. When I heard each of these stories the question that came to me is whether they should have stayed rather than splitting.

William Carey had an amazing impact on India even though he faced some huge obstacles! When he first proposed the idea of taking the gospel to unreached areas, the proposal was rejected by his church in England. Someone is supposed to have told him “Young man, if God wants to save the heathen he could do it without your help or mine.”  When he arrived in India the British did not give him permission to work in areas under their control. He had to go to a Danish colony. Fire in his press once burned a lot of the work he had done. His wife went insane and finally died.

But Carey stayed on, and he and his team “the Serampore Trio” “founded 26 churches and 126 schools (total enrolment ten thousand), translated Scripture into 44 languages, produced grammars and dictionaries, and organized India’s first medical mission, savings bank, seminary, Indian girls’ school, and vernacular newspaper (in Bengali).” Carey had a hand in several other social projects too. He “campaigned for the eradication of suttee (burning a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre) and conducted extensive agricultural experiments. He was instrumental in founding the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India in 1820. Carey was responsible for India’s first organized printing operation, paper mill, and steam engine. He initiated the first English translation of the great Sanskrit epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata.[13]

When Carey was asked for the cause of his amazing success he is reported to have said, “I can plod, I can persevere in any definite pursuit. To this I owe everything.”  He was a plodder; he persevered.

We are facing a big problem in Asia with some of the people who come back from the west with high qualifications. They seem to have imbibed a worldly understanding of vocational fulfilment. They look for jobs where they spend most of their time using their gifts and doing what they like to do. They like to be able to concentrate on their specialisation. But most countries in Asia can’t afford that kind of specialist. So they end up frustrated and unhappy. Some conclude that they are in the wrong place, and they leave. Some become consultants in their specialised field and others start their own organizations. The attitude of people like Carey was to do what God’s call necessitated however hard it was, to die for the work they were called to do.

CLAYPOT TREASURE: THE THEOLOGICAL EXPLANATION (4:10-12)

Theologizing our Experiences. Verses 10-12 interpret the experiences described in verses 8-9 in terms of the death and resurrection of the Christian and the fruit of it in the lives of others. What we find is a theological reflection on the suffering Paul had experienced. A theological orientation to life can help us cope with suffering. Whenever we encounter something we don’t like, we reflect on it theologically. We interpret it using our Christian worldview—of which a major ingredient is the cross. The theology provides us with the muscle to face the suffering. It tells us how God will work in it and through it. This helps us to persevere with a positive approach amidst the suffering. Paul had developed the discipline of theologizing using his experiences; of sending his experiences through his theological grid.

The effects of the widespread disdain for theology in the church today will be revealed when Christians face suffering. They could end up paralysed when it comes without the muscle to endure and persevere doing God’s will.

Carrying on the Dying and Revealing the Life of Jesus (4:10-11). After listing four couplets showing how he copes with suffering Paul goes on to say, “…always carrying in the body the death of Jesus.” The NAS is more literal when it translates the last phrase as “the dying of Jesus.” The Greek word nekrōsis is used for the process of dying.  As F. F. Bruce translates it, “We continually carry the dying of Jesus about in our bodies.”[14] Paul is dying all the time, just as Jesus was dying. C. K. Barrett comments, “One who observed his life as a Christian apostle… would see, constantly repeated, a process analogous to the killing of Jesus.”[15] As Paul says, “…for your sake we are being killed all the day long” (Rom.8:36); “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Gal.6:17).

Paul puts four sets of antithesis together in verses 8 and 9. Now he presents another set. He says that the dying is “so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (4:10b). Note that the life does not come only after we die. While we are dying we are also living. As Murray Harris puts it, “It was not a matter of life after death, or even of life through death, but of life in the midst of death”[16] Suffering is never the last word for the Christian. In the Bible, it is a prelude to blessing, and sometimes, as here, the two are experienced together.

Paul uses the Greek word hina meaning “so that,” or “in order that.” The purpose of the dying is that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our bodies. The word translated “manifested” (phaneroō) means “to bring to light, to manifest, to display.” People who observed their suffering also observed resurrection power in them. They had something stronger than death; they had a life which had conquered death which expressed itself in death-like situations. A persecuting Government official captured a Christian and asked him, “What can your God do for you now?” The Christian answered, “He can give me the strength to forgive you.” When a Christian was being burnt at the stake, the person performing the burning found him to be smiling. He asked the reason for his smiling and was told, “I saw the glory of God and was glad.” Manifesting life in the midst of death to a hostile world!

Verse 11 gives the same principle as the preceding verse a little more forcefully: “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh”

Life to Others through Our Death (4:12). The next theological principle about suffering is that it brings life to others. Verse 12 says, “So death is at work in us, but life in you” (4:12). Paul seems to be saying, “The more we die, the more you live.” Some of the Christian leader’s greatest ambitions in life have to do with the people they lead. We want to see them holy. We want to see them blossoming as fruitful servants of Christ. We want to see their children properly educated and their housing problems solved. We want to see them great. So we devote our life to them. But, in the process, we suffer so that they’ll be blessed.

This is Jesus’ style of servant leadership. He said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). He said, “For their sake I consecrate myself. So that they also may be sanctified in truth” (Jn.17:19). The context shows that the consecration he is speaking about is his death. Let’s see how this applies today. We write letters on behalf of those we lead or of their children. We spend hours preparing to teach them. We try to raise funds for their projects. Though we are very busy we visit them when they are sick or discouraged or when there is a birthday in the family. We listen to their outbursts when they are angry with us and bear the pain of rejection until they are healed of their anger. We jeopardize our reputation by standing up for them in public.

But these supposed sacrifices are viewed like the sacrifices made when studying for an exam. The study may be costly, and we may give up a lot to do it. But the study helps us achieve our ambition of passing the exam. Similarly, our ambition is to help people to be great, and we will pay a price in order to achieve that. This is servant leadership. Like the great Suffering Servant, we suffer for those we lead. But when we view it as the cost needed to achieve our ambitions it becomes a source of satisfaction. And when they thrive while we suffer, we rejoice. Some who are willing to be servants of the Lord are not willing to be servants of the people of the Lord. The two go together. Paul said, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). He was a servant of those difficult-to-handle Christians in Corinth.

CONCLUSION: THE COUNTER-CULTURAL NATURE OF CHRISTAINITY

What a counter-cultural religion Christianity is; and how counter-cultural Christian leadership is!

  • In a world where pleasant experiences are the measure of an authentic life, we affirm that theology—not experience—drives us. We send every experience through a theological grid. We are a people driven by unchanging truths.
  • In a world devoted to comfort and convenience we embrace the discomfort and inconvenience of suffering for other people.
  • We look at life as a daily process of dying because we know that it’s the path to really living.
  • Some say to really live is to not suffer. We say vibrant life is resurrection life which is preceded by death.
  • In a world where selfishness is applauded and where people jeopardise the welfare of people in order to fulfil their personal ambitions; we say our personal ambition is the welfare of others. And when we suffer for them we see that as a measure of our success.

[1] Dennis F. Kinlaw, This Day with the Master (Nappance, IN, 2002), Sept. 17.

[2]The Gift of Music, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1987), p. 52.

[3] William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Worlds (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), p. 508.

[4] Cleon L. Rogers, Jr. and Cleon L. Rogers III, New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament (2003), Pradis 6.0 Electronic Version published by Zondervan Interactive (2007).

[5] A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Early Christian Literature, 3rd edition, revised and edited by Frederick William Danker based on previous editions edited by Walter Bauer, W. F. Arndt, F. W. Gingrich and F. W. Danker (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000). Electronic edition by Logos Bible Software.

[6] atenochōreō, ibid.

[7] aporeō, ibid.

[8] James Montgomery Boice, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, edited by Frank E. Gabelein, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976-1992), Pradis 6.0 Electronic Version (Zondervan Interactive, 2007).

[9] Danker, op. cit.

[10] Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 15,000 Illustrations, Electronic Version, WORDsearch 7.0.

[11] The Bible Illustrator 3.0 (Parsons Technology), # 3480.

[12] Jan Pit, Editor, Bound to be Free: With the Suffering Church (Tonbridge, Kent, Sovereign World 1995), p.109.

[13] M Fackler, Who’s Who In Christian History, edited by J. D. Douglas (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1992), electronic version, Wordsearch 7.0.

[14] F. F. Bruce An Expanded Paraphrase of the Epistles of Paul (Palm Springs, CA: Ronald N. Haynes, 1981), p. 135

[15] C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 139-140

[16] Murray J. Harris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, edited by Frank E. Gabelein, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976-1992), Pradis 6.0 Electronic Version (Zondervan Interactive, 2007).

1 Cor 9:1-22 Passion For Our Mission

MESSAGE GIVEN AT THE DEDICATION OF THE NEW YFC CENTRE IN JAFFNA

1 Corinthians 9:1-22

Ajith Fernando

As we dedicate this building we marvel at God’s providence to us. For 23 years we had a wonderful place. But to coincide with our time there coming to an end, a Canadian Foundation gave us the funds to get this building. We are grateful to the Anglican Church who have leased out our old centre. They let us stay for a little longer their when they knew that the renovation of our building would take more time than we had expected.

Let me say, however, that the main thing we celebrate and dedicate today is not the building. It is what should happen in this building. The main thing is the mission of Youth for Christ: to reach unreached youth with the gospel and disciple them into the church. That is what drives everything we do. Buildings can make us proud of what we own and also make us spend too much energy on maintenance rather than outreach.

I am going to talk about our mission today. That is what drives the way we will use this building.  I want to use as the base for our thinking one of the most important Bible passages for Youth for Christ: 1 Corinthians 9:1-23.

GIVING UP RIGHTS AND PRIVILEGES FOR THE GOSPEL (9:1-15)

In verses 1-15 Paul says how he gave up the legitimate rights and privileges that he had in order to be more effective in his gospel work. So, in verse 15 he says, “But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting.” The privilege of preaching the gospel was so great that he would rather die than be hindered in that by getting too many personal privileges.

In the history of the church we have seen many brilliant people who gave up all their privileges for the gospel. I think of Lottie Moon. She was a University student when a revival took place in her town among students. She went for the meetings hoping to scoff at what was happening. That night she couldn’t sleep because of a barking dog, and while she was awake, God began to speak to her about what she had seen and heard that evening. She gave her life to Christ subsequently became a leader in the work of God. J. A. Broadus, a key Christian leader in that town and a famous Bible scholar, called her the most educated (or cultured) woman in the American South. She was a brilliant leader; but she gave it all up at the age of 32 to go to China as a missionary. She led many Chinese to Christ, and she also sent letters back to the States which had a huge impact upon people—resulting in many more going as missionaries. She initiated a Christmas offering in her denomination—the Southern Baptist Church—which is still taken. Millions of dollars have been raised for the gospel cause through it.

Lottie Moon served in China for 39 years. Once a mob came to attack the believers. And this brave lady who was 4 feet 3 inches tall stood in front of the mob and said, “You will have to kill me first.” She suffered from the sicknesses that were common in the area where she lived. When she died she was reduced to 52 pounds, or 23.6 kg. But what an impact she had! Here is one of her famous statements: “How many million more souls are to pass into eternity without hearing the name of Jesus?”

PASSION FOR THE GOSPEL (9:16-18)

Lottie Moon had a passion for the gospel. And that is what Paul had too! He says in verse 16: “For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” Thomas Coke was an old man when he led the first team of young Methodist missionaries to Sri Lanka. He died on the way, but the mission flourished. I have a biography about Thomas Coke entitled, Mad About Mission. That is what YFC people are: We are mad about our mission! In verse 18 Paul says, “What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.” Our reward is the great privilege of preaching the great gospel—the most important news there is in the world.

Robert Murray M’Cheyne, who died before he was 30 years old but had a great impact on Scotland, once quoted someone who said, “I would beg six days, to be allowed to preach on the seventh!” That is how highly he regarded his work. I have felt that if there comes a day when my heart does not burn with a passion for the mission of Youth for Christ—to reach unreached youth with the gospel and disciple them into the church—that day I must leave Youth for Christ. I will do irreparable damage to this movement if I stay on without a heart burning for our mission. Now, I must say that I spend a considerable amount of my time trying to find funds for YFC. I do not think I am very fond of that. But I am glad to do that, because I am raising funds for a noble cause: it is in order that we can fulfil our mission.

Sometimes we hear people in ministry say, “I could have been a successful businessman or doctor or engineer if I did not join the ministry. I have made a big sacrifice to do this work.” When people say things like that I would like to say, “Please go, and do that work. We don’t need people who feel sorry for themselves because they are in the ministry.” The ministry is so glorious a work that those who grumble about being in the ministry are proclaiming a huge lie. It is ultimately not a sacrifice to do the work of ministry.

As a young man, David Livingstone wanted to be a great preacher. The first time he preached in a small church in Scotland, he forgot what he was hoping to speak on. He tried and tried to remember, but nothing came to him. He apologised to the congregation and left the church in great shame. The famous missionary Robert Moffatt happened to be at that service. He met Livingstone and told him, “You can be a great and wonderful servant of God. Why don’t you go to Medical School?” This is what he did. After passing out as a doctor, he became the great missionary who opened the interior of Africa to others so that missionaries could come there with the gospel and also so that there could be legitimate trade there in place of the horrible trade in humans for slavery.

But he suffered a lot while he did that. He was alone most of the time. His wife died before he was fifty years old. He was often sick and delirious with fever. He was close to the Africans and believed in them, so he got them actively involved in his missionary activities. But other European missionaries were not happy about that. His fierce battle against slavery and the policies of the British government that hurt the Africans made him even more unpopular with his own people. One day someone told him, “Dr Livingstone, you must have sacrificed a lot to do your work.” He is said to have got upset by that remark. “Sacrifice?” he said, “The only sacrifice is to live outside the will of God!”

A SLAVE TO ALL (9:19-22)

Next Paul says he is a slave of all people. He says in verse 19: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.” The Greek literally says, “I enslaved myself.” The verb for slavery is used here. When used figuratively the slave metaphor (doulos {noun} and douloō {verb}) carries the idea of total dedication. We are slaves of the youth in Sri Lanka—we are totally dedicated to their welfare.

Paul goes on to say that this ministry involves him making huge adjustments in his style of living and ministering in order to win different kinds of people (verses 20-23). He says, he becomes like a Jew to win the Jews; like one under the law to win those under the law; like one outside the law to win those outside the law (9:20-21). Then he says something quite strange: He says,

“To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak” (9:22a). We all like to feel strong when we minister. But sometimes people are threatened by our strength, and turned off from the gospel. I think this is particularly relevant in Sri Lanka where people are saying that we come with the strength of foreign funding and lure our people to the gospel. They say, “What chance do we have against such wealth.” What if we go without earthly power but loaded with the power of the Holy Spirit? The gospel could become irresistibly attractive to the people!

Paul then says, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (9:22b). We will do whatever it takes to win people to Christ. I am estimating that we have about 20 different youth cultures in Sri Lanka. To reach youth in these different cultures we will need to use different methods. Each one requires a distinct strategy. We can’t say, “I don’t like to work in this way;” “I don’t like this kind of music;” or “It is so difficult to make contact with these people, so I will go to another group of people.” God never called us to comfort. We leave our comfort zones to reach people. Whatever it takes! That is our motto. I have heard the director of Netherlands Youth for Christ, Edward de Kam, say, “If we can’t get in through the door, we will try the window!”

Robert Murray M’Cheyne once told his congregation, “I sometimes feel, brethren, that I would willingly lie down beneath the sod in the churchyard ([that is, be buried], and be forgotten and trampled on, if only you were friends of Christ.” Actually, this lifestyle of a slave may be needed more in the work of discipling people than in evangelism. Discipling calls for hard work. Describing the work involved in presenting “everyone mature in Christ,” probably at the Second Coming, Paul says, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col. 1:28-29). We visit people for our discipling appointment even though we are tired or don’t feel like going. We refuse to give up on people when they hurt us and humiliate us. We pursue them and seek to be agents of change in their lives. We have ambitions for them, and if they become more prominent than us, like Paul did with Barnabas, we will rejoice; for their success is our success.

So we will do whatever it takes to reach and disciple youth. So as we dedicate this building let us dedicate ourselves afresh to our mission. On his 59th birthday, David Livingstone wrote: “My Jesus, my king, my life, my all. I again dedicate my whole self for thee.” This is the kind of prayer we will keep praying until the day we die. We want to be totally dedicated to God and his mission!