July 28, 2013

Scripture and Commentary, Week of Ninth Sunday after Trinity

Monday after the Ninth Sunday after Trinity
                                       
Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 2, 3, 1 Sam. 16:1-13, Lk. 17:20
Evening - Ps.4, 8, Esther 5, Rom. 1:1-17

Commentary, Romans 1:1-7

Though our evening readings continue in Esther through Wednesday, the commentary is going to turn to Romans, where we will remain for the next four weeks. Written by the Apostle Paul from Corinth around the year 58 A.D., Romans contains the Bible's fullest exposition of the meaning of the life and death of Christ. It is so crucial to understanding the Bible that it may truly be said to understand Romans is to understand Scripture.  And the heart of Romans is found in chapter one verse seventeen, "the just shall live by faith."  This is the theme of Romans.  In academic language we might say it is the thesis statement, for the rest of the book is support for and application of this one, central truth.
      
In the first 16 verses, Paul explains why he has not yet come to Rome to preach and teach.  There has been correspondence between him and the Romans, and he even knows some of the by name.  They have probably invited him several times to come and help them understand the Bible, and establish the church in that city.  Romans is a promise to come to Rome very soon (1:15), and it is also a short summary of the doctrines and teachings of Scripture.  This is what the Church believes.  This is what the Church believes about God, about man, and about how the two are able to span the incredible gulf that currently separates them.  Romans refutes the generally held supposition that Man is able to span the gulf by doing things of which God approves, generally called, "good works."  It is not good works, Romans asserts, that spans the gulf.  The gulf is spanned not by Man, but by God, who, in His grace decrees, "the just shall live by faith."

Though our reading officially ends at Romans 1:17, I urge you to read on to the end of chapter one, for immediately after stating that the just shall live by faith, the Apostle begins to show why faith is the only possible way for any human being to be considered just in the eyes of God.  Paul assumes that no one is just by his own works.  This is crucially important.  It would have been silly for God to become a Man, and suffer a horrible death, and rise again and return to Heaven if there were some other way for us to be justified and reconciled to God.  In other words, why would Jesus bother to span the gulf in such a horrific way, if we could easily span it ourselves?  But, if we are unable to span it, and if not having it spanned consigns us to eternal separation from the source of Life and Joy and Peace, then God, if He is willing to save any of us from that separation, must span it for us.  He spanned it for us in Christ.

The cause of the great gulf, the great divide between us and God, is sin.  That is the point Paul makes in the rest of chapter one.  The wrath of God is revealed "against all ungodliness and unrighteousness."  The essence of ungodliness is that men know the truth, but suppress it in unrighteousness.  Much of what can be known of God is available for all to see (1:19-20) but they turn away from that knowledge and make their own gods instead of obeying Him (1:26).  This is important because it shows that it is people who turn away from God, not God who turns away from people.  And they do so knowing what they do is wrong and worthy of the wrath of God which the Bible calls "death" in verse 32.  Thus, God simply allows them to follow their own desires.

Tuesday after the Ninth Sunday after Trinity
Lectionary
Morning - Ps. 5, 1 Sam. 16:14, Lk. 18:1-14
Evening - Ps. 16, 20, Esther 6, Rom. 2:1-16
Commentary, Romans 2:1-16
The point of this passage is that Gentiles are under the wrath of God, even though they do not have the law as the Jews have.  In contemporary lingo, we would say that even people who don't have the Bible to tell them about God and Christ, are under the wrath of God.  This passage tells us why.
Verse 1.  Paul continues to drive home the point that all are under the just condemnation of God.  He puts it in very personal terms here, "thou art inexcusable."  "Thou" refers to humanity in general, but also to every individual person.  All are inexcusable.  We are inexcusable even if we never had a Bible or never heard the Gospel.  Why? Because God is revealed in nature (Ps.19:1-2) and in conscience (Rom. 2:15) and we refused to honour Him.  We know the difference between right and wrong because it is written on our hearts and we choose to do wrong and neglect good. "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done" (Book of Prayer, p. 6). We often look at the deeds of others and say. "That's wrong."  In doing so we acknowledge a standard that is above our own ideas and desires, to which all people should conform.  We also acknowledge that all people do not conform to it, and in so doing we condemn ourselves, for we know we do not conform to it either.  We are guilty of many transgressions against it.
Question; what does God owe to those who transgress?  Do such people have a right to Heaven?  Does God owe them forgiveness?  Does God have any duty to save them?  Does God owe them Christ?  Does Christ owe them His death on the cross?  Would God be unjust if He just left us in our sin?  Would He be unjust if He decided not to save any of us?
Verse 2.  "[T]he judgment of God is according to truth against them."   The Greek word translated "judgment" here is krima from which we derive our word, "crime."  It means that when God condemns sinners as criminals against His righteous law and traitors against His rightful Sovereignty, His judgment is true.  It is "according to truth."  Read Psalm 19:9.
Verse 3 tells us that when we judge others, meaning to recognise their actions as sin and worthy of condemnation, we also judge ourselves. It asks the question, "thinkest thou... that thou shalt escape the judgment of God?   We are as guilty as everyone else, why should we escape condemnation?  Let's talk again of the way we are able to judge the actions of others, and recall that the ability to judge an action, say theft, or murder, as "wrong" implies the existence of an absolute standard of right and wrong.  Without an absolute standard we have no right or wrong.  We may have a "social contract" or we may have a common assent to what is "useful" or what we will "tolerate" and what we will not, but we can never have right and wrong.  Furthermore, any standards derived from a social contract or common assent of usefulness or tolerance (called by philosophers, utilitarianism) is purely arbitrary.  We are then forced to ask what gives anyone the right to force their social contract on me without my consent.  I am sure prisoners will say they do not consent to having our social contract forced upon them.  "What gives society the right to force its view of what is and isn't useful on me?" they will ask.  Again, if we just agree arbitrarily that murder is not useful, without some absolute standard by which to judge it, we must ask why our view of usefulness can be enforced upon others in our society or world.  What makes our arbitrary views superior to another's arbitrary views?  I am sure, that, by this rationale, some prisoners who are in jail for transgressing our arbitrary standards will not agree or consent to having them forced upon them.  Only an absolute standard that is above the whims and ideas of people can give a foundation for law and justice and society and peace.  When we look at the actions of another person and say they are wrong, we recognise the existence of that standard.  But, we also condemn ourselves because we have not kept the standard anymore than the people we judge.  We may not have committed the same transgressions, but that just means we have committed other transgressions.  We are not under the wrath of God for not committing the same transgressions others commit.  We are under the wrath of God for committing our own transgressions.
Verses 4-5.  The revelation of God, whether in nature, conscience, or Scripture, should lead people to faith and repentance.  Instead it simply hardens most people in their unbelief and rebellion.  As Francis Schaeffer wrote, "What God meant for their good - such things as the witness of creation and the witness of conscience - serves only to deepen these rebels in their rebellion" (Finished Work, p. 48).  They despise the riches of His goodness, the stay of execution, and His patience with their sin.  In the hardness of their heart against God, they store up wrath to be poured out upon them in the day of wrath, which is the day they stand before God to receive their just condemnation.
Verses 6-16 do not teach that we can stave off the wrath of God by turning away from sin and doing good.  They do teach that we do what our hearts tell us to do.  If our hearts are set against God, we do ungodly things.  If our hearts are set towards God, we do Godly things.  But the fearful truth is that everyone's heart is originally set against God.  We are all fallen into sin and wickedness.  We have all placed ourselves on the throne of God.  We are all by nature and by choice hardened in our rebellion and sin against God, and we can't get ourselves out of it. We need a Saviour.  I once found a dead sparrow in the horses' water trough.  I don't know how it got into the water.  Maybe it slipped in trying to get a drink.  Maybe it flew in, thinking it was a bird-bath.  But it couldn't get out.  It needed a saviour, but it didn't have one.  When I found it, it had drowned.  That is what God is telling us in these verses.  We have gotten ourselves into a dangerous situation and we can't get ourselves out.  We don't even want to without special help from God.  We can't get out of it by saying we didn't know about God, or we didn't have the Bible, or we didn't know right from wrong.  That won't excuse us because we did have some knowledge, and we rejected it.  People do not sin because they don't have the Bible to tell them not to.  They sin because they love it.  And those who sin without the Bible will not be condemned for not having the Bible.  They will be condemned for not doing the good they knew they should have done, and for doing the evil they knew they should not have done (vs. 12).  They are trapped in a deadly cycle of sin and condemnation, and they can't get out.  They need a Saviour.

Wednesday after the Ninth Sunday after Trinity
Lectionary
Morning - Ps.9, 1 Sam. 17:1-11, Lk. 18:15-30
Evening - Ps.19, 23, Esther 7, Rom. 2:17

Commentary, Romans 2:17

We now come to another division in the Book of Romans.  This passage really should be in its own chapter.  It begins in 2:17 and continues through 3:8, and the subject is the wrath of God revealed against Jews who have the Scriptures but do not obey them.  Just having the Bible is not enough.  The possession of the full revelation of God in Scripture does nothing to justify any person before God.  The "doers" of the Law will be justified by the Law, but the problem is that, even those who have and know the Law right in front of them in the Bible, don't keep it. Even Jews who have the Law have not kept it, just as people who have the Bible today have not kept it (Rom1:18). All the problems of sin and resisting the will of God described in 1:18-2:14 apply as much to them as to those without the Bible.  Romans talks about this in terms of Jews and Gentiles.  Gentiles are those without the Bible, and they are without excuse.  But the Jews have the Bible.  They have the revelation of God open and available to them.  Their problem is that they have not kept the Law.  Thus, they too are under God's wrath.  Or to put it in more contemporary language, they too, need a Saviour.  To ensure that we get the whole point of this passage, let us call it "the wrath of God revealed against religious people," which we can summarise by saying, religion is not enough.  Paul makes four points. First, they commit the same sins as the Gentiles who don't have the Bible (17-24).  Second, they keep the outward forms, but not the heart of the Law (25-29).  Third, they have the Scriptures but do not believe them (3:1-2).  Fourth, the fault lies with them, not God (3:3-8).

Verses 17-24.  They commit the same sins as the Gentiles.  Remember that the Gentiles profess to be wise but are really fools because they know something about God and His will, but ignore their knowledge and plunge into sin (Rom. 1:18-32).  The Jew's problem is that they have the Bible (2:18) and believe themselves to be guides, and leaders (2:19), and instructors and teachers (2:20) of the Gentiles, yet they commit the very same sins (2:22-24).

It is not difficult to apply this to our own time.  See how blessed some nations are with the knowledge of God.  Bibles and churches abound.  Western culture is founded upon self-evident truth that comes straight out of the Bible.  The culture, the laws, and the nations that share them are impossible without the Bible.  Yet those same nations are guilty of gross sin.  They have not lived according to the knowledge in Scripture.  They have turned away from it and indulged in sin as gross and terrible of the nations who never had the Bible.

The "Church" is no more innocent than the culture, for, rather than standing against the culture, the Church has often led the revolution against the Bible.  I think it may be true that there is more ungodliness in the Church than out of it because in the Church we pronounce God's blessings on our ungodliness.

Unfortunately, this is not just a Western problem.  The Bible is available throughout the world today, and many countries that are now pagan nations inhabit lands that were once leading centers of the Christian faith.

The result of this sin is that the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles (2:24).  Israel was to be a light to the Gentiles, but through its sin it caused the Gentiles to conclude her God was no God, or at best, no different or better than the pagan idols.  Again it is easy to apply this to our own time.  How often people have concluded our God does not exist, not because of logic, but because they see no difference between us and them.  Our sin leads them to blaspheme God.  Our sin does not relieve them of their responsibility.  They are still responsible for their own sin.  Rather, our sin makes us equally guilty, and equally under God's wrath and in need of a Saviour.

Verses 25-29.  In these verses Paul accuses the Jews of keeping the outward forms of the Bible but not the heart of it (2 Tim. 3:5).  You can circumcise, or baptize, a baby yet not be serious about following God.  You can go to church, be confirmed, receive Holy Communion, and do many good works, and yet retain yourself as your god, rather than honour God as your God.  You can say the prayers, and not mean them.  You can outwardly conform to doctrines and ordinances yet still remain apart from God in your heart.

Thursday after the Ninth Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 10, 1, Sam 17:17-27, Lk. 18:31
Evening - Ps. 21:1-6, Ps. 24, Micah 1:1-7, Rom. 3:1-20

Commentary, Romans 3:1-20

Verses 1-8.  The heart of this passage is verse 7.  I hear so many people giving this argument today.  In its modern version it takes this form, "God made me this way, so I must be O.K."  They are saying God gave them the appetites of the flesh and the natural instinct of self preservation, and all these things you call "sins" are just the natural expression of this, so they must be O.K. and I must be O.K. and it must be a positive good to indulge them."  There is just enough truth in this to make it sound good and right.  God did give the natural appetites and self-preservation instincts to us.  But this does not mean He gave us unbridled license to indulge them in any way that pleases us at the moment.  To do so causes unfathomable harm to others and ourselves.  Rather than indulgence, we are responsible for keeping our appetites and instincts under control, and the point of this verse is that the Jews haven't done this any better than the Gentiles.  The Jews have the Law.  They have the Bible.  The word and will of God is made clearer and plainer to them than to any other nation at that time in history.  At the time Paul wrote Romans, the Jews have had more than 2,000 years of instruction through the Law and the Prophets and the Scriptures.  No other people had anything like this.  And yet, what did they do with their opportunity?  They wasted it.  They threw it away.  They had the Law and they lived as though they had never heard of it.

It does not take much imagination to apply this to the Church or to our culture today.  The Gospel of Christ has been available to us for 2,000 years.  Paul took the Gospel into Europe no later than 52 A.D.  He wrote the Book of Romans in 58 A.D. and the church of Rome had obviously been there for some time prior to this, for Paul knew many of the Roman Christians.  From these and other churches Christianity spread rapidly into Europe, so our culture has had its holy influence throughout the Christian era.  It was the Gospel that conquered our pagan religions and brought civilsation to Europe.  It was the Gospel that gave us a growing recognition of the God-given rights of all people, and it was the Gospel that gave us our values and our wisdom.  Yet today we are throwing it away with both hands, and throughout our history we have never really lived up to the teachings and examples of the Christian faith.  Imagine how much greater our history could have been if we had taken the Bible more seriously.  Today we are running away from the Bible as fast as our sinful feet can carry us, and the further we get away from it the deeper we sink into the mud of moral, social, and political chaos. 

Question, why do we choose sin?  Why don't we always choose good.  Why don't we choose God instead of sin?
                 
Verse 9.  What a penetrating question is found in the words, "are we better than they?"  How smug we are to judge the Jews from our advantage of having the completed New Testament and 2,000 years of Christian influence.  How quick we are to imagine that we would have followed God more closely if we had seen the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the sea, and the miracles of Christ.  But are we really better than they?  Are the Gentiles better than they?  That's the real question Paul is asking.  The Jews had the Law and the Prophets and their influence in their culture.  They had the Temple and the sacrifices and the feasts.  In short, they had the Bible, but they did not live by it.  The tendency for the Gentile Romans, was to say they would have been immeasurably more faithful had they enjoyed the advantages of the Jews.  Furthermore, aren't they better now, due to the fact that they believe in Christ while many Jews do not?

This is a natural response of people who believe they have somehow worked faith in themselves apart from the calling and quickening of their spirits by the Spirit of God.  There is a tendency to look at unbelievers and think, "Well, I may be a sinner, but at least I'm smart enough and good enough to ask Jesus to forgive and save me.  If you were as smart or good or holy as I, you would ask Him to save you too.  But you're just a dumb ol' heathen, and you deserve what you get."  How tragic, for the teaching of the Bible is; "by grace are ye save through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast" (Eph. 2:8-9).  Who is under sin?  Who is helpless and needy before God?  Who has rejected the light of God they have?  Who has chosen evil instead of good?  Who is under the wrath of God and unable to do anything about it?  Everyone! Jews and Gentiles are all under sin. 

Verses 10-18 apply the teaching of the Old Testament to both Jews and Gentiles.   For verses 10-12 see Psalm 14:1-3.  For verse 13 see Ps. 5:9, Jer. 5:16, and Ps. 140:3.  For verse 14 read Ps. 10:7.  For verse 15 read Prov. 1:16, and for verses 16-18 read Is. 59:7-8 and Ps. 36:1.  Paul presents these verses not only as Divine revelation, but also as self-evident truth.  He is claiming that we all know this to be true because we see it in others and we see it in ourselves.  Let anyone who can, deny what these verses teach.  Let anyone who will, bring forth evidence to the contrary.  Show us just one human being who does not fit this description like a glove, save for our Lord Jesus Christ.  We can't do it.

Many wonder how the Old Testament applies to the New.  Many think there are actually two faiths, one in the Old and another in the New Testament.  In actuality, both Testaments teach one faith; the entire sinfulness and helplessness of all humanity, and the Divine Rescue by God through the sacrificial life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Verses 19-20 draw the inevitable conclusion from these verses of Scripture, and from what we observe to be true in all people.  First, all are guilty before God.  All are under God's wrath.  All are justly excluded from any claim on God.  God owes them nothing.  All are guilty of crimes and sedition against His Holy and Perfect Law, and all deserve whatever punishment He deems right to meet out.  Second, doing the works of the Law cannot save us.  Suppose we could live a perfect life from now until the day we stand before God, would that make up for our sins?  No.  What do we owe God?  Perfect obedience.  It's what we owe God.  It's not an option.  There's no grading curve.  Anything short of perfect obedience, in heart and thought as well as in deed, is to miss the mark, the target, the goal.  If you are walking through the woods and are charged by a bear, and you happen to have a rifle with you capable of stopping the bear, and you quickly aim and fire the gun, but you miss the bear, does it matter if you miss by a fraction of an inch or by a yard or a mile?  No, a miss is a miss, and any sin, even one tiny little sin, causes us to miss the target of complete obedience.  Anything short of absolute perfection in us is to fail in our duties to God and makes us unprofitable servants.  Fail to pay your bank everything you owe and see how welcome you are in its richly appointed offices.  Failure to pay God everything you owe makes you a debtor to Him.  Does a bank deserve its full payment and the God of all Creation not?

Because all are sinners, as explained to us in the preceding chapters and verses of Romans, and because all are guilty as 3:19 tells us, "Therefore, by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in [God's] sight."  In other words, no person can earn his way to Heaven through his works, that is, by the way he keeps the law because nobody keeps the law perfectly.  All transgress the law many times and many ways every day.  So, by the Law we do not see how good we are.  By the Law we see how far short of the goal we have fallen.  As Romans 3:20 says, "by the law is the knowledge of sin."

So ends the first part of the Book of Romans.  Every human being is condemned here.  Those without the Bible are guilty of rejecting what knowledge of God and His will are available to them through conscience and creation.  Those with the Bible are guilty of rejecting God because, though they have a fuller understanding of God and His will, they have not lived according to their knowledge, but have lived in opposition to it.  All have sinned. 

Friday after the Ninth Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 22, 1 Sam. 17:28-40, Lk. 19:1-10
Evening - Ps. 25, Micah 2, Rom. 3:21

Commentary, Romans 3:21-31

The point of Romans 1:1-3:20 has been to show that all people are sinners and under the wrath of God  This is the very first thing we must understand if we are to grasp the primary message of Romans, "the just shall live by faith" (Rom. 1:17). Tonight's reading turns to a second point, justification by faith, or the righteousness of God given by grace to unrighteous people.  This point is made in Romans 3:21-4:25.

Verse 21.  The Book of Romans has three foundational themes which are re-stated several times throughout the Book, and around which the entire Book is organised.  These themes are; the Righteousness of God, the Sinfulness of all People, and the Free Grace of God in Christ.  Much of the wrong thinking and wrong living on the part of those inside and outside of the Visible Church is cause by a tragic misunderstanding of three foundational truths; the Righteousness of God, the Sinfulness of all People, and the Free Grace of God in Christ.  Regarding humanity, the prevailing doctrine of "church" and world proclaims the basic goodness of all people.  According to this view, man, being basically good, is perfectible individually and culturally, through education and political structures.  It is not man that is the problem; it is the oppressive structure of the political and cultural situation in which man finds himself that is the problem.  If we can change them we can perfect man and accomplish justice and world peace.  This view is the complete antithesis of Biblical teaching.  According to the Bible, the problems in culture and politics arise from problems within man himself.  In other words, man is not evil because he finds himself in an evil cultural situation.  Rather, the cultural situation is evil because it is created and run by evil people who know to do good, but choose to do wrong.  They "hold the truth in unrighteousness" (Rom.1:18 & 19).  Therefore, the first step in changing culture is to change the people creating, running, and living in it.

We have spent some time looking at this problem of sin and the resulting barrier that exists between man and God and man and man because of it.  We have not spent much time looking at the subject of the Righteousness of God.  Part of that is because the Righteousness of God is so difficult to grasp and to put into words.  Part of it is because I know about human sin from personal experience, while the Righteousness of God is almost foreign to me, indeed, would be completely foreign to me apart from the Grace of God in Christ.  And yet, we can never really understand the reality and sickening wickedness of our sin until we begin to see something of the absolute, glorious, perfect righteousness of God. 

God is absolute perfection.  His Righteousness has no flaw (Jas.1:13, 17). What does it mean to be absolute perfection?  Isn't it absolute love? (1Jn.4:8, 16). Because God is absolute, complete and perfect love, He cannot tolerate the presence of anything or anyone that in any way falls short of His love.  He cannot tolerate the presence of those who lack absolute love.  To lack love is to hate.  To sin is to hate one another.  To sin is to hate God.  People today talk about "hate crimes."  All crimes are hate crimes.  No one ever says, "I love you, therefore I am stealing your money, burning your house, and killing your dog."  Any time you break a commandment of God in thought, word, or deed, you are committing a hate crime against humanity and against God (Rom. 13:8-10).  And God in His Love cannot tolerate our hate.

Is God just?  Of course, He is perfect in justice.  What is justice but love in action?  In other words, because God is love, He is just.  And, because God is love He can not tolerate injustice or those who are unjust.  So, the love of God requires Him to hate hate.  Thus we see, maybe, a little glimpse of the Righteousness of God.

Righteousness without the law is manifested.  How wonderful.  The Righteousness of God is manifested, meaning, revealed, and given to unrighteous sinners without the law.  We need to understand that His Righteousness is known in His wrath against sinners, and by His absolutely just condemnation of all people because all are guilty before Him (Rom. 3:19).  The law of God, found in the Bible, is a manifestation of his Righteousness, for there He reveals everything we need to know about how to live according to His will, and the consequences of disobedience.  The law/Bible teaches us to do righteousness and to be righteous.  Though we have failed miserably, the standard is known to us in the law, thus, the Righteousness of God is seen in the law.  But how is the righteousness of God known without, or, apart from, the law?  Paul is saying something like this; since we are all sinners we are all under the condemnation, or, wrath, of God.  And we can never atone for our sins.  We can never make them right.  So, if we are ever going to be received back into fellowship with the Great Righteous One, and escape His Righteous Wrath, it is going to have to be on the basis of something other than the requirements of the law.  It is going to have to be on the basis of something other than our efforts to be good enough.

Francis Schaeffer gives a good illustration of this, saying our guilt has created an infinite chasm between ourselves and God.  Any attempt by us to fill that chasm by doing good things is like throwing finite buckets of righteousness into the infinite chasm of our guilt.  The harder we try, the more we realise it is impossible to fill infinity with finitude.  So, if that chasm is going to be filled, it has to be filled by God Himself, and He has to do it without requiring us to meet the standard.  It has to be done apart from the law.  Fortunately, there is a way, and this way has been witnessed to by the prophets of the Old Testament and even by the Law itself.  "[B]oth the Old Testament and the New Testament tell us that there is a "righteousness of God without the law" (Finished Work of Christ, p. 75).

How does the law of the Old Testament manifest "the righteousness of God without the law"?  The law shows three things.  First it shows the absolute unchanging standard we are required to meet.  Second, it shows the absolute failure of all people to meet the standard.  Third, it shows a Substitute that gives its life for sinners.  In the New Testament we realise Jesus is that substitute. He is the "Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world" (Jn. 1:29).

I am going to tell you a secret.  It is not confidential information.  It is meant to be shouted from the housetops and known by all people.  It is a secret because very few people know it.  What is it?  Salvation does not really make us just, at least not in this life. Rather than actually becoming just we are simply declared just  by God.

Verses 22-24. Now we begin to see how God can be just, and, at the same time, justify sinners. Justification, as used in the Bible, means to be declared righteous and worthy of Heaven. Justification is the opposite of being declared guilty and worthy of condemnation.  Because of the sacrifice of Christ, those who believe in Him through Biblical faith are declared just by God.  We have not suddenly become just.  We have not suddenly by our own power erased and undone our sins or transformed ourselves from being inclined toward sin to being inclined entirely toward righteousness.  We have not suddenly and miraculously become keepers of the Law in absolute, 100% perfection.  Rather, apart from the Law and independently of it, we are declared righteous by God.

To understand this we must understand verses 21-24. Let me share William Hendriksen's commentary on these verses.

"apart from the law, a righteousness from God... comes to all who exercise faith ... for all have sinned ... being justified freely by His grace through the redemption [accomplished] in Christ Jesus; whom God designed to be... a wrath-removing sacrifice, [effective] through faith" (Romans, New Testament Commentary, pp. 126-128).

So, we are all sinners and without excuse.  We can never make ourselves be anything but sinners, and we can never make up for our sins or make things right between ourselves and God by means His law.  Thus, we are all under God's wrath and are condemned to suffer the penalty for our sins.  Do you understand this?  Do you grasp this, not only intellectually as truth, but also in your spirit as reality in your life?  Do you feel it deep in your soul that you are a sinner, guilty of terrible crimes against God, and that you truly and deeply deserve to be cast into hell for eternity?  If you don't understand and grasp this in your soul, you have missed one of the two central teachings of the Bible.  If you don't understand this you cannot understand what it means to be saved; and, indeed, you cannot be saved or forgiven of your sins. You cannot be a Christian because you will never flee to Jesus as your only hope and Saviour. You will always retain some hope of justifying yourself to God by something you have done or something you have become by yourself.  You will never understand that the only possible way of escaping the penalty for sin is for God to make a way to justify you without requiring you to measure up to the absolute, perfect standards of the law.  God has done this by offering Christ on the cross.  He took your sins.  He assumed your "debt."  He became responsible for the payment for your sins.  Your sins were placed in His account, and He paid for them. His righteousness is placed in your account, and you are declared just.  This "justification" is probably much deeper than we will ever be able to understand, but this is all we need to know about it for now.  In Heaven we will understand it better, but that will simply mean we understand this whole process better, not that we will see that justification was another and different process.  So, without the law, that is, apart from it and on a completely different basis, we are declared to be without guilt.

Verse 26 raises an important question.  People often ask how a God who is good can allow evil things to happen.  Well, what is the alternative?  The alternative is for God to make us simply pre-programmed automatons.  But God has not done that.  He has left us free to choose.  The freedom to choose God requires the freedom to reject Him, just as the freedom to choose good requires the freedom to choose evil.  Yes, there are great limits on our ability to choose, and we cannot ignore these limits.  Neither can we ignore the fact that we are always free and responsible for our choices.   It is also important to differentiate between freedom and ability.  We are always free to choose good.  That is not the same as saying we are always able to choose good.  We must remember that we are naturally inclined towards evil, and we tend to act on the basis of this inclination.  That's what makes it so difficult to do good sometimes.  It may be compared to jumping over the moon.  I have the freedom to jump over the moon; what I lack is the ability. 

This also raises the issue of the difference between freedom and will.  I am free to ride a horse in a steeple chase race.  Fortunately, I have no will do so.  Likewise, we are all free to choose good at all times, 100%.  What we lack is the will to choose it.

These are not the primary questions I want to raise at this point, however.  The point, or question, I want to raise follows naturally from the teaching that God will justify people apart from the law.  The question can be stated; how can God be good, yet not punish sinners?  How can God be just, yet still provide a way for sinners to be justified apart from meeting the standards of His law?  To not condemn us seems like He is just letting us off.  It seems like He is just dismissing the charges.  It seems like He is simply not enforcing the law.  To simply ignore the law and our sin would make Him exceedingly wicked.  Simply letting us off would be a tragic miscarriage of justice, and would make God Himself a sinner.  So how can God justify us, and still remain just?  That is the problem addressed in this verse.  One of the best explanations of this is found in Francis Schaeffer's book, The Finished Work of Christ pages 80 and 81, which I quote.

"How can God remain the absolutely just ruler of the universe, and yet justify me, an ungodly sinner?
     Note first of all that God must remain absolutely just, or we have no real basis for moral standards.  It is impossible to have moral standards without there being a moral absolute.  Without an absolute we are left with either hedonism or some sort of relative standard, such as, 'whatever is best for society.'  Words like right and wrong cease to have any real meaning.  There must be an absolute, and the Bible provides the only adequate answer to this need for a moral absolute: The moral absolute is the perfectly 'just' character of God Himself.
     That's why 3:26 is such a key verse.  Because Jesus has borne our guilt on the cross, God can remain 'just.'  The moral basis of our universe can be upheld.  Yet at the same time He can be the 'justifier' of all those who believe in and accept Christ's payment for their sin.
     Whether I have been among those with the Bible, or those without the Bible, I have been numbered among the ungodly.  Whether I've been a Jew or a Gentile, I've been under the wrath of God.  So how can God justify me?  As soon as God would justify me by overlooking my sin, He's no longer just.  And as soon as He is no longer just, we no longer live in a moral universe, everything collapses.  But there is a way in which God can deal with my sin and your sin, and yet remain just.  There is a way in which God, remaining just and therefore not deviating one iota from His holiness, not letting down the bars one tenth of one percent, can justify you and me.  He can do this because Jesus Christ, His Son, took the full punishment for our sin.
     God's love is seen, not in forgiving sin, for in a sense no sin can ever be forgiven or we would cease to live in a moral universe.  God's love is seen rather, in sending His only Son, Jesus Christ, to pay the price, to be the covering for all our sin.  God maintains His holiness.  He doesn't deviate from His total justice.  And yet, without abandoning His moral law, He can fully justify anyone who believes in Jesus and accepts His perfect sacrifice for sin.
     So who is eligible for this covering of sin?  Anyone?  Everyone?  Unlike many modern philosophers, God does not view us as just so many faceless masks.  He doesn't deal with us as if we were machines.  He treats us as individuals.  He deals with us on the level on which He created us-as moral and rational beings.  Therefore, even though Christ's death is a sufficient covering for all sins, there is a condition on who will receive this covering.  This covering of sin, this justification, applies only to 'everyone that believeth' (1:16), to 'all them that believe' (3:22), to 'him which believeth' (3:26).
     Which individuals does God justify?  He justifies those who through faith accept what Christ has done for them, those who are united to the work of Jesus Christ through the instrument of faith"

Verses 28- 30 bring us to the conclusion is that we are justified by faith, not by the law regardless of our background.  Jew and Gentile are saved by one way only, faith in Christ.  I quote Francis Schaeffer again, p. 82. 

"Paul has brought it all together.  Why do we need salvation?  Because we're guilty.  Why do we need salvation?  Because we're under the wrath of God.  The man without the Bible, the Gentile, is under the wrath of God (1:18-2:16).  The man with the Bible, the Jew, is under the wrath of God (2:17-3:8).  Then Paul draws them all together declaring everyone to be under God's wrath (3:9-20).  Then he tells us this marvelous way of salvation that God has provided through the finished work of Jesus Christ (3:21-28).  Then he draws all mankind together again, declaring that God is the same God toward all people; and all people-Jews and Gentiles alike-must be justified in exactly the same way (3:29-30)."

Do you see the Good News in this?  Do you see that because of Christ we are relieved of the terrible burden of having to be good enough for God, all the while knowing we can never be good enough?  Do you see that in Christ your guilt is gone forever because He took your guilt upon Himself?  Do you see that Christ suffered the penalty of your sins for you, and that you are declared righteous because of Christ? Do you see that the gates of hell, once pulling you relentlessly toward them have now been shut, and you couldn't get in even if you wanted to?  Do you see that Christ has purchased Heaven and peace, and everlasting joy for you, and it is yours forever and forever, and all you have to do is receive it by faith?  This is justification by faith.  This is the meaning of Romans 1:17, "the just shall live by faith"

Saturday after the Ninth Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 18:1-20, 1 Sam. 17:41-51, Lk. 19:11-28
Evening - Ps. 84, Micah 3:1-8, Rom. 4:1-12

Commentary, Romans 4:1-12

Verses 1-5.  Justification by faith is not new.  It is not something that came into existence with the New Testament.  Justification by faith has always been the way God saves sinners.  Paul proves this with two Old Testament examples, Abraham and David.  Again it must be emphasised that the Old and New Testaments comprise one faith and one way of being reconciled to God; justification by faith.  The Old Testament reveals the problem we created when we turned away from God.  The Old Testament law, especially the Ten Commandments, shows the absolute moral perfection of God.  It also reveals the standard of 100% righteousness He requires of us, and the absolute failure of all people to measure up to the standard.  Finally, the Old Testament reveals a way to be justified apart from measuring up to the standard.  It shows a substitute, a lamb without blemish, not guilty of sin, which bears our sins and dies for them in a ritual, intentional sacrifice.

The Old Testament often emphasised that the sacrifice of animals was not enough to cover human sins. Nor were the sacrifices something the people were doing for God.  God didn't need their animals or require them for Himself (Ps. 51:16).  The sacrifices were pictures of what God was doing for the people.  He was justifying them by allowing something else to pay for their sins with its life.  All of the animal sacrifices pictured the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  The blood of bulls and sheep could never really pay for the sins of people, but they could point to the one sufficient sacrifice that could atone for all sin, the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ on the cross.  Thus, the Old Testament reveals that we are all, whether in the Old Testament era or the New Testament era justified by an act of God, which we receive by faith.

Abraham was justified by faith.  Many people mistakenly believe people in the Old Testament were justified by their works that is, keeping the Commandments and offering sacrifices, while people in the New Testament are justified by faith.  They call the Old Testament era the "Dispensation of Law" meaning God dealt with people on the basis of commandments and animal sacrifices.  They call the New Testament era the "Dispensation of Grace," meaning God deals with us by grace alone.  So these people create two religions; an Old Testament religion of justification by works through keeping the law, and a New Testament religion of justification by grace through faith in Christ.  This passage of Romans refutes that idea.  Romans 4 shows plainly that justification has always been by the grace of God, and received by faith, Old Testament and New Testament eras alike.

The point of verse two is that Abraham was not justified by works.  Works means keeping the Commandments and offering sacrifices.  If Abraham were justified by his own works he "hath whereof to glory."    If Abraham's works could justify him he is glorious in himself.  If he is good enough to earn his own justification, his own place in Heaven, his own place with God, then God owes these things to him.  They are a debt owed to Abraham by God (4:4).

But Abraham was not justified by works.  He was not justified by sacrificing animals, or circumcision, or in any way measuring up to the ceremonial or moral standards of the law of God.  In fact, before the sacrificial system was fully institutionalised through Moses, and long before circumcision was required of him, Abraham was justified because "Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness" (4:4.  See also 4:22).

Some people mistakenly believe the only promise offered by God and believed by Abraham in this verse is the promise that Abraham would have a son and would become the father of a great nation and his descendents would be like the stars in the sky or the sand on the beach (vss. 12-21).  But the promise to make Abraham a great nation includes the promise of the Saviour.  A major reason for calling Abraham and giving him descendents was to establish the people through whom the Redeemer would come into the world.  Abraham may not have understood this as well as we do from our vantage point of having the complete New Testament, but he understood it in some way, for Jesus said, "Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it and was glad." (Jn. 8:56).  So Abraham's faith was absolute faith in God to make him worthy of Heaven as a gift of God's grace.  Thus verse 5 tells us, "to him that worketh not," meaning does not trust his own good works to make him good enough for God, "but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness."  This faith receives righteousness as the gift of God.

This raises the question, what is faith?  Faith simply believes God.  This is somewhat different from believing in God.  To believe in God is to believe He exists, or it could be to believe in what He is and stands for, as one might believe in the goals and values of a person or civic organization.  To believe God is to trust Him to keep His promises.  It is to believe He is who He says He is, and will do what He says He will do.  It is to regard God as trustworthy.  But faith also means to believe God when He tells us about ourselves.  This is a difficult thing because we want to believe the best about ourselves.  We want to believe everything is fine between ourselves and God, and we will be fine and all go to Heaven.  We don't like to believe we are sinners under the wrath of God and in need of an act of God to rescue us from the fires of hell.  So, real faith includes believing God when He tells us about ourselves. .  I quote Dr. Schaeffer again.

     "A person can never find salvation until he knows that he is a sinner.  We're all sinners, but not all of us know we are sinners.  That's why, when a person expresses a desire to be saved, I never let a person say ' I accept Christ as Savior' until first of all he or she has said, 'I acknowledge that I deserve the wrath of God.'  I think that a lot of people put up their hands in evangelistic meetings and say they've accepted Christ as their Savior, but they haven't really because they don't realize that they are among the ungodly.  They don't see that they are deservedly damned.  If I don't see that I am deservedly damned, then I can never accept Christ as my Savior.  I may say the words, I may join the church, I may be baptized, but I am not saved, (Finished work of Christ., pp. 92-93).


Faith is not just to believe in something.  In The Sound of Music, Maria sings, "I have confidence in confidence itself."  Many people have faith in faith itself.  But that is not Biblical faith.  Many people have faith in their own versions of God and salvation.  But that is not Biblical faith, and that is not the faith that receives justification as the free gift of God.  Let us be very clear that the faith we call "saving faith," which truly receives the gift of justification, is defined by God in Scripture, not by us.  The problem many people have with the Bible is their own desire to pick and choose the parts they like, and discard the rest.  But if you choose to believe the Bible when it tells you of God's love, how can you not believe it when it tells you of God's wrath?  If you choose to believe the Bible when it tells of God saving sinners, how can you not believe it when it tells you how God saves, and on what conditions sinners will be saved?  Either the Bible is trustworthy in all that it says, or everything it says is suspect.  If the part about how God saves isn't true, how can we believe the part that tells us God does save, or even the part that tells about God in the first place?  And so faith believes God.  That is the very first thing we must know about faith.  This is the faith that receives justification by grace.

July 21, 2013

Scripture and Commentary, Week of Eighth Sunday after Trinity

Monday after the Eighth Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps.104, 1 Sam.11:1-13, Lk. 15:1-10
Evening - Ps. 116, Dan 6:1-8, Acts, 26:1-23

Commentary, Daniel 6:1-8

Belshazzar was killed the very night Daniel told him the meaning of the writing on the wall.  Darius the Mede became the new ruler.  He, naturally wanted to secure his position, so he appointed governors and heads over his kingdom, and named three chief governors, or presidents.  Of all these rulers and advisors, Daniel was the chief.

Daniel served Darius with the same faithfulness he gave to Nebuchadnezzar.  It is an honorable thing to serve our employers well.  They may not be Christians, or, even honourable people.  But our service to them should be outstanding simply because it is part of the way we serve God.  Our service to employers, however, does not require us to break the law of God to please our boss.  Just as Daniel served Darius faithfully, he also refused to pray to him as a god.  Instead, he continued to worship God openly and faithfully, just as he always had.

It is evident from the story that Darius has been manipulated by the leaders he appointed, and that their motive was envy of Daniel.  Their desire was to get him deposed, and they decreed to accomplish by making a law Daniel could not possibly obey; a law that requires him to choose between God and the king. 
               
Tuesday after the Eighth Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 111, 114, 1 Sam. 11:14-12:5, Lk. 15:11
Evening - Ps. 118, Dan. 6:9-15, Acts 26:24-27:8

Commentary, Daniel 6:9-15

Daniel does as his enemies knew he would, going to his house and praying the liturgical prayers, which the Jews offered several times each day.  Now they are ready to report him to the king, who will have no choice but to throw Daniel to the lions.  Thus, we see that a foolish law, so easily and ignorantly signed into existence by Darius, is a tremendous danger to the lives and security of people the king should be protecting.

Those in civil government should learn from Darius' mistake.  The laws that govern any land should be enacted only after extremely careful deliberation and examination of all possible effects on the people on whom they will be enforced.  A foolish law, enacted in haste and ignorance under pressure from those who would use it to advance their own agenda and prosperity, can cause suffering and loss that is almost beyond comprehension.  Those who urge and pass such laws have betrayed their people and dishonoured their positions.

Darius has a moral meltdown.  When his enemies charge Daniel with breaking the law, Darius finally realises they are also his enemies, and that they had used him to accomplish their own, evil purposes.  How sad that these trusted leaders had no concern for the security and prosperity of their homeland.  How sad that their only concern was for their own private prosperity and egos, and that they were willing to sacrifice thousands of people, risk the security of their land, and betray the confidence of their king and fellow citizens to gain their own selfish ends.  Yet, does it not seem, looking at the world today, that the names and faces have changed, but the game remains the same?

What should Darius do?  He should publicly and humbly recant his foolish law.  Then he should remove these wicked men from their positions, and replace them with people who truly have the good of the people, at heart.  But Darius does not have the courage to do this.  Again we learn a lesson from the Scripture, that we save ourselves much agony of the soul if we simply confess our mistakes and sins, rather than hide or ignore them.  Rather than correct an evil law, Darius labours to find a way to keep Daniel out of the lions' den (6:14).  He seems to try everything but the right thing.

Wednesday after the Eighth Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 119:81-96, 1 Sam. 12:19, Lk. 16:1-18
Evening - Ps. 119:97-117, Dan. 6:16-27, Acts 27:9-26

Commentary, Daniel 6:16-27

Darius moves from signing an immoral and wicked law, to actually enforcing it.  He commands Daniel to be thrown to the lions.  When he made the law he was guilty of gross negligence, idolatry, arrogance, and abuse of power.  Now, enforcing the law, he becomes guilty of attempted murder.  If Daniel dies in the lions' den, Darius is guilty of actual murder.  His remark that God will deliver Daniel (6:16) does not absolve him of guilt.

Darius must have known about the death of Belshazzar, so his sleepless night was probably as much about his own fear of God as it was about concern for Daniel.  Belshazzar was struck down for abusing objects from the House of God.  What would God do to a man who killed a prophet of God?  The king may have faced danger and death if he had withstood his enemies.  They may have been able to dethrone him, and even execute him.  But that would have been better than the reason for his sleepless night while Daniel remained in danger.  It is no wonder he passed the night in fasting, and his sleep went from him (6:18).

Like Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar, Darius recognises the reality of the God of Daniel, yet he is a long way from being a convert to Biblical faith.  Calling Daniel the servant of the Living God (6:20) is more of a question than a statement.  Even his decree in 6:26 is not a conversion to the religion of God, but merely adding Him to the other gods of the empire.  It is very easy to seek God because one is moved by guilt or other external circumstances.  But crisis conversions are not always true conversions.  It is those who remain steadfast to the end who will be saved.

Once again we see God intervening in history to work His will on earth.  Had Daniel died in the lions' den, an empire wide persecution of all praying Jews would have practically wiped Biblical faith of the face of the earth.  But God is able to deliver His people individually and as a nation.  One of the major points of the book of Daniel is that God preserves His people to return them to Jerusalem and continue as His Covenant people.  Through them the Saviour will come into the world, enabling the purpose of God to be accomplished on earth.

Thursday after the Eighth Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 128, 129, 1 Sam. 15:1-9, Lk 16:19
Evening - Ps. 132, 134, Esther 2:5-23, Acts 27:27

Commentary, Esther 2:5-8, 17-23

Tonight's commentary turns to the second chapter of Esther. As we saw in Nehemiah and Ezra, not all Jews returned to Jerusalem when Cyrus released them in 536.  Mordecai and his wife, in the year 519 B.C., still reside in Shushan, and other Jews live throughout the empire.  But it was not God's purpose for Jews to live in foreign lands.  They were called to live as the people of God, keeping His Covenant and worshiping Him according to His law, in the land He had given them. In Genesis 12:1 we read "Get thee out of thy country... unto a land that I will shew thee."  And in Genesis 1:7, "Unto thy seed will I give this land."  In Exodus the same promise is reiterated, "I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God... And I will bring you unto the land, concerning the which I did swear to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for an heritage" (Ex. 6:7-8).  Jews who did not return to Jerusalem were forsaking their calling and their God.  Yet God did not forsake them.  The book of Esther recounts His providential care of Jews outside of Judea.  Truly He is the Father of all mercies.

In chapter 2, Ahasureus, king of Persia, has banished the queen; essentially divorcing and dethroning her for not appearing at his drunken pagan festival in chapter 1.  He willingly accepts the advice to have beautiful virgins from throughout the empire brought to him so he can choose one to become the new queen (1:4) and add the others to his harem (2:14).

Mordecai or Esther, due to their accommodation to the pagan culture they chose over Jerusalem, view Esther as another candidate for the king's harem.  Naturally, the pagan people they live among also regard Esther as a candidate.  Their compromise with the world allows the world to think of them as being "of the world," and the world treats them as such.   Compromise never works for the Church because the world always demands more, but the world never compromises itself.  Its goal is not to live in peace with the Church; it is to eradicate it.  So, while the Jews in Jerusalem attempt to separate themselves from the world by sending away pagan women they had married, Esther becomes a concubine to the king of Persia.

Friday after the Eighth Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 139, 1 Sam 15:10-23, Lk. 17:1-10
Evening - Ps. 138, 146, Esther 3:1-12, Acts 28:1-15

Commentary, Esther 3:1-12

As we enter the third chapter of the book of Esther we find her in a new role as queen to Ahasuerus (2:17). She is well favoured, partly because she saved the king's life by warning him of a plot against him (2:21-23).  Things look good for her.  Maybe this compromise of faith will work out.  Not so, for Haman is rising to power.  He will attempt to destroy the Jews, and Esther will be forced to make a choice for or against God.  Haman was a very proud man who liked the way everyone bowed to him and gave him reverence; everyone except Mordecai (3:2).

Why did Mordecai not bow to Haman?  Because he was a Jew (3:4). Perhaps Mordecai knew that it was because he did not live in Jerusalem that Esther was now married to a Gentile idolater instead of living as a believing Jew.  Perhaps he was under a growing understanding that he was a transgressor of the law of God, and had put his own comforts and desires above God all of his life.  Perhaps he was beginning to realise that to bow to Haman was to validate his culture and religion, and to give them more honour than he has given God.  Perhaps he was beginning to think he had compromised the Faith long enough, and was trying to finally take a stand. We cannot be sure what he was thinking, but we do know that it had something to do with the Old Testament faith.

How much can a person compromise?  Once one begins to compromise, where does one stop?  If one doctrine of Scripture can be compromised, why can't all?  If one doctrine can be given up, why should anyone bother with the others?  Does not one compromise actually forfeit the entire faith?  The world understands this.  The world knows that getting ministers to deny the deity of Christ, or the resurrection of Christ, or any of the doctrines of the Christian faith, leads people to deny the entire Christian religion.  They may still attend church, and have nice choirs and pretty buildings, but they have no Biblical faith.  They have only a moral or philosophical system.  They claim Divine sanction for their system, but why should anyone believe in it if the book from which they derive it is wrong about the very important issues of the being and nature and work of Christ?
                           
1 Kings 18 records the famous spiritual battle between Elijah and the prophets of Baal.  Actually the clash was between the God of Israel and the idol Baal.  Many Israelites, including the king and queen, Ahab and Jezebel, openly worshiped Baal.  In verse 21 Elijah asks, "How long halt ye between two opinions?  If the Lord be God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him."  This is the very issue Mordecai faces in the book of Esther.  He has been halting between two opinions all his life.  He is unwilling to go to Jerusalem and live as a Jew, but he is also unwilling to give himself completely to the pagan culture of Persia.  His compromise is not working.  In fact, it is not working for any Jews in Persia.  They are all targeted in the accusation of Haman (3:6-12).  They face an ominous choice they never expected to face; fully join the culture, or die.    

Saturday after the Eighth Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps 145, 1 Sam. 15:24-34, Lk. 17:11-19
Evening - Ps. 147, Esther 4:1-17, Acts 28:16

Commentary, Esther 4:1-17

A terrible time of mourning has overcome the Jews.  In their distress they have forsaken their food for fasting, and given up their beds to lie in sack cloth and ashes.  The reason for their sorrow is the decree of Ahasuerus, passed, at the urging of Haman, that went into all the provinces of Persia.  The decree; destroy, kill, and to cause to perish, all Jews, "both young and old, little children and women." (3:13). Every Jew was to die, and their property was to be confiscated.  Even the date of this mass execution was set, "the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar."  We often read Scripture too quickly and without involvement.  The more familiar we are with a passage, the more likely we are to read its words, yet be unmoved by the needs or suffering or faith it expresses.  But let the decree of Ahasuerus sink into your being for a moment.  Understand that it orders the execution of every Jew in the empire.  Understand this will require gathering the Jews into concentration camps, where, in one day, they will all be killed.  Imagine the fear and suffering this will cause; the blood, screaming children, and weeping mothers.

Understand also that, had these Jews returned to Jerusalem when they had the chance, they would not be facing this tragedy.  They would be safe in Judea, the strongest military force in the area, and under the protection of the Persian Empire.  Think of what it would have meant to those who returned, who rebuilt the walls of the city, and rebuilt the Temple of God, to have their presence and their help.  But they chose to remain in Persia where life was easier and more peaceful.  They had learned to love their new homes and lands instead of Jerusalem, and their loyalties lay with their new country, not with Israel; until now. Now they found it not a land of rest and peace, but a land of sorrow, suffering, and death.  If only they had returned to Jerusalem when they had the chance. Mathew Henry wrote a telling comment on this passage, saying; "Those who for want of confidence in God, and affection to their own land, had staid in the land of their captivity, when Cyrus had given them liberty to be gone, now perhaps repented of their folly, and wished, when it was too late, that they had complied with the call of God."  It will not be difficult to find parallels and applications of this passage to our own situation and lives.


Esther has not been living as a Jew.  She has been assimilated into the Persian culture and enjoying her status a queen.  Unlike Vashti, who would not come to the king's pagan festival, Esther must have participated fully in them, for she retained her position.  Mordecai, has openly declared himself a Jew, and urges Esther to do the same.  Our reading tonight includes what are probably the two best known verses in Esther.  Verse 14 is Mordecai's plea for Esther to intercede for the Jews: "who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?"  Verse 16 is Esther's decision to act on behalf of the Jews, "if I perish, I perish."

Sermon, Eighth Sunday after Trinity

Christians Live
Psalm 127, Zechariah 4:1-10, Galatians 3:24-29
July 21, 2013
Eighth Sunday Trinity

To say, Christians live,” is to shock most of the people we know today.  They have been taught Christianity is bondage, a living death of sorrow, self denial, and delusion.  They think we pass over all the really fun things in life, by which they mean the indulgence of our own lust and greed, to live in the sad illusion of a better life beyond this world.  Many blame Christianity for all the ills of the world.  Slavery, genocide, poverty, prejudice, racism, oppression, and pollution, they say, are all the fault of Bible thumping Christians and the culture we have built.

They are wrong, of course.  Any one can see that such things are the complete opposite of what the Bible teaches.  And any one can see that such things have been a part of the human experience in all times and places.  And any one can see that the teachings of the Bible, lived and practiced in everyday life would have enabled humanity to avoid the wars, oppression, poverty, abuse, and grief that stain the pages of our history books, and our own personal lives.  So, it is not Christianity that has caused our problems; it is the lack of Christianity that has caused our misery.  But the enemies of Christianity are neither bothered nor informed by truth and facts.  They have an agenda, and to accomplish it, Christianity must go.  So they willingly and gladly accept the lie that Christianity is oppressive, and its demise will make the world a better place.

When I say Christians live, I mean the Christian life is the only life worth living.  Everything else is despair and ruin, but Christianity is hope.  Only Christianity has hope for man.  We believe man can change, or, at least, be changed.  We believe man can live for something higher than the satisfaction of his lusts and conceits.  We believe that is basically what all people live for.  We believe that is the natural tendency of all people, and that it is the reason for most of our unhappiness and abuse of others.  The Bible calls this tendency, “sin.”  It calls the actions and attitude that come out of this tendency “sins.”  So sin is the tendency; sins are the result.

The basic view of those who want to destroy Christianity is that our lusts and conceits should be indulged.  Christianity is bad, they say, because it tells us our natural desires should be controlled, and that we should live in a way that brings our natural inclinations under the control of God. Thus, they claim, Christianity is bad because it inhibits your rights and freedoms.

There are many reasons why people attack Christianity.  They may have financial interests in sin.  They may want to profit from human greed by selling people things we don’t need, and may even be detrimental to us.  They may want to gain power over us by promising more crumbs from their table if we do their bidding.  They may be happy to see the poor and working classes waste their lives on sex, drugs, and rock and roll, while the ruling classes increase their own power, security and wealth.  Where is the hope in this?  There is none.  But Christianity teaches that man can change.  He can learn and do right, by the grace of God.  And he can make life better for himself and others.

Christians are the ones who look for Divine hope in this world.  We are the ones who believe in a loving God, who has a plan and purpose for this world, and who is going to bring His plan to completion.  We are the ones who believe God Himself is going to overcome evil and establish righteousness and peace on this earth.  We are the ones who believe He is working in people now, converting people to His ways teaching them His love, and building a community of peace.

But, I have not quite stated the point of the sermon yet.  I have been circling it, building up to it, because it is very simple and easy to miss if we are not prepared to hear it.  So here it is; the more faithfully and fully we live the way the Bible teaches us to live, the fuller, better, and happier life will be.  The further we depart from the Bible’ teaching, the more miserable, hopeless, and despondent life will be.  This is because we are made for God and can only be happy in Him.  Remember the words of St. Augustine; “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God, and our heart are restless until we find our rest in Thee.” Christ’s words in Matthew 10:39 apply to this very well.  Talking to His disciples about the persecution and death some of them would face for following Him, He said, “He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”  In other words, it is not in preserving your life to live in comfort according to the world’s definition that we will find real life.  We will find real life only when we follow Christ, only when we live by His teaching, only when we willingly subjugate our desires to His. 


I close with these wise words from Psalm 127.  Their relevance to our subject will be evident. “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.”