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Romans 2: A Religious Riot

Romans 2 Bordered Reduced

Scene 3: The religious crowd is getting ready to stone some of the partying pagans.

1. Overview

Romans 2 is a continuation of “The Problem”. From the perspective of our “Courtroom Drama” we are still focusing on the first frame, namely “Breaking the Law.”

In Romans 2 Paul lists 6 errors that are classically committed by religious people. The deceit behind these errors are exposed so as to show religious people that the “sinners” whom they are so quick to judge, because of their obviously sinful lifestyles, are no worse than the judges themselves.

In fact, in verse 2 the religious judges of Romans 2 are told that they “practice the very same things!”

We shall now look at these 6 religious errors under the heading The 6 Habits of Highly Religious People:

  1. Habit 1: Equivalent Evil (2:1-3)
  2. Habit 2: Pompous Presumption (2:4-6)
  3. Habit 3: Biased Beliefs (2:7-11)
  4. Habit 4: Proudly Possessing the Law (2:12-18)
  5. Habit 5: Pretentiously Preaching the Law (2:19-24)
  6. Habit 6: Outwardly Obeying the Law (2:25-29)

Remember that we use the term “religious” here as referring to self-willed efforts to impress God without any change of heart. We are therefore not referring to the “pure religion” spoken of by James, which he clearly associates with the Christ-like characteristics of selflessness and “giving” (See James 1:27).

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 1.43.49 PMImportant Note: You will see a great number of Roman soldiers amongst our Big Picture characters in this section, and also in chapters 3 and 5. The reason for their presence is that they represent the judgment of God.

If this sounds strange, keep in mind that God used the Romans to oversee the sentencing of Jesus Christ, and that he used Roman soldiers to physically execute the death penalty by nailing Jesus Christ to the cross.

As we will see, both the “verdict” and “sentencing” (Frames 2 and 3 of our Courtroom Drama) were announced over us, but that Jesus Christ “served” it on behalf of us (Frames 4 and 5). Romans 6 tells us that our old Adamic selves were crucified “with Christ”, and so it is quite in order to represent God’s judgment over humanity by using the very historic characters that he chose to execute this judgment: The Romans.

2. Characters

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3. Commentary

3.1 Habit 1: Equivalent Evil (2:1-3)

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 Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God?

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In chapter 2 Paul speaks to religious Jews who not only call themselves “Jews”, but who also “rely on the law and boast in God.”[1]

The party who was notorious for this attitude was the Pharisees, and it is certain that Paul has them in mind here. However, Paul’s message is relevant to all Jewish people and also to all religious people.

The reason for this that there is a generic (common) component underlying all religion, no matter how it is expressed. We covered this in chapter 1’s “Religion” section, and won’t do so again here. But it needs to be stated so that we will not make the mistake of reading over chapter 2, thinking that it does not apply to us because we are not Jewish.

The 6 religious errors pointed out in chapter 2 are universal amongst religious people and therefore extremely relevant to our study.

3.1.1 Were the Pharisees Vile Sinners?

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 2.57.01 PMIn verse 1 Paul tells his religious readers that they do the same as the people whom they are judging:

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.”

The strange thing about this statement is that the Pharisees and religious Jews of Paul’s day were not exactly prone to behave in the same way as the sinning “Gentiles”. They were not murderers, God-haters, sexually immoral or disobedient to their parents.

In fact, they appear to have been regular “nice guys.”[2]

According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the Pharisees were affectionate to each other and cultivated harmonious relations with the community,[3] were naturally lenient in the matter of punishments,[4] enjoyed the support of the masses (unlike the Sadducees who were supported only by the wealthy,[5] lived simply, did not indulge in luxury and respected their elders.[6]

So why then does Paul charge them in verses 1-3 with doing the same as the sinners whom they were judging?

3.1.2 The Heart of the Problem

As we have seen in Romans 1, the real problem of people is not bad deeds (lifestyle), but the rule of desire in their hearts (life-source).

Romans 2 goes a step further than Romans 1 by presenting us with the problem of “religiosity”, namely changing our outward behaviour (lifestyle) without first changing our heart condition (life-source).

And so, quite naturally, the chapter concludes with the following statement:

For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.[7]

The “letter” that Paul is referring to is the Law of Moses. As we will see, the law can be interpreted merely outwardly, namely as a set of rules intended to be followed in the same way that one would follow traffic regulations: “Do this, don’t do that.” But the aim of Romans is to show that the law is spiritual,[8] and that it demands a life-exchange that is also spiritual and inward.

The aim of Romans 2 is to expose the deception of thinking that a religious lifestyle can solve the problem of sin. Romans 1 introduces sin as an inward, spiritual reality, and Romans 2 discloses that a person’s conversion must therefore also be inward and spiritual.

This explains why the religious Jews and Pharisees of chapter 1 were charged with committing the very sins that they were condemning in others: They were doing the same things in their hearts! This they do because the problem of desire is an inward problem that cannot be fixed outwardly. We shall say more about this when we get to Romans’ great chapter on the problem of desire, namely chapter 7.

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3.2 Habit 2: Pompous Presumption (2:4-6)

 

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Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will render to each one according to his works:

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The second characteristic of the highly religious crowd in Romans 2 is “pompous presumption”. Theirs is the sin of “presuming” on God’s kindness, forbearance and patience.

How does one do that? And how is it connected to being “religious”?

It is noteworthy that the people addressed in the passage are experiencing “God’s kindness” whilst having “hard and impenitent” hearts at the very same time. Note again verses 4 and 5:

Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

One has to agree that this is a strange combination. We do not usually associate a hardened sinner with someone experiencing God’s kindness! We think that the “good guys” receive God’s blessings and the “baddies” don’t. If it goes well with sinners, then the devil must be responsible for their prosperity. If it does not go well with the righteous, we wonder about their righteousness. Like Job’s friends, we try and find some sin in their lives to explain why they are not being blessed.

The pattern is clear in our minds: God’s kindness is a sign of his approval, and when it is not there it means that he does not approve.

3.2.1 The Error of Tit-for-Tat Thinking

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 3.10.33 PMThe type of thinking described above is intuitive to the human race, which is perhaps the biggest reason why we should be suspicious of it.

It is also the single factor that influences our grasp of “religion” the most. As you will see, all religious effort flows from the idea that there is a direct correlation between God’s favor and our works.

We can call this the tit-for-tat principle (TFT for short), which is derived from the words this for that.

TFT is a philosophy that says: “Payback is equal to performance.” It springs from the curse of Genesis 3 (“From now on you will have to work to eat!”) and is endemic to the human race. It describes the economy of this world, the basis of fallen human relations and the dynamic of man-made religion.

The world revolves around TFT statements. Here are just a few:

“There is no such thing as a free meal.”

“He doesn’t deserve to be loved.”

“This is mine. I worked for it.”

“Revenge is sweet.”

“You deserve what you get.”

“My life is falling apart. God must be mad at me.”

It is important to understand that TFT governs the fallen world, and that much of our present day reality, even as Christians living and working in this world, is subject to it. The Bible confirms this when it says, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Genesis 3:19), and If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

3.2.1.1 God’s Economy: Grace

Whilst this may true be for our lives in this present age, the TFT principle was never intended to be part of our lives. It is absent in the Kingdom of God, and it will be absent in the new earth. God does not deal with us according to this fallen principle, and he does not want us to do so in our dealings with one another.

Note the words of Jesus:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:43-48

The operating principle in God’s Kingdom is not TFT but grace, as is clear from Jesus’ words above. God is a God of grace, and His economy is a grace economy. Herein lies the key to understanding Jesus’ reference to God’s “perfection” and our calling to be “perfect” in the passage above.

3.2.1.2 Religious TFT

When TFT is applied to our relationship with God we get something called “works based religion”. The underlying assumption is that God is just like us, and that his payback is equal to our performance. If I do enough “good deeds”, God will have to notice and reward me accordingly. Likewise, if I fail to live up to his standard I will infuriate him and suffer the consequences.

You may interrupt me at this point and say: “Hey, the whole Bible is full of people who did not live up to God’s standards and who infuriated him in the process!” This is a valid point, but as you will promptly see, God’s judgment is subject to his mercy. This means that he is patient and kind towards us and that he gives us time to repent. This is something that TFT does not allow for. Furthermore, when God does finally act, he does so in loving discipline, not as a display of vengeance – hardly the attitude that accompanies the TFT principle.

The point here is that there is much more to God’s seeming habit of rewarding the righteous and condemning the sinner than what meets the eye. The verses that may suggest this are not TFT verses. They are something wholly different!

3.2.1.3 God’s Love: Patient and Kind

Why does GRACE instead of TFT rule in the Kingdom of God?

The answer is simple: God’s grace is a manifestation of his love. As we read in Jesus’ words above, God shows his love and goodness to the just and the unjust, and he expects us to do the same. To show grace is to love. To love is to show grace. You cannot separate the two. “God is love,”[9] and grace is the natural expression thereof.

One of the primary characteristics of love is “patience”. Another is “kindness”. In Paul’s legendary “love chapter”[10] he explains the nature of love in an astounding manner, and he does so by starting off with these two very specific characteristics: “Love is patient and kind!”[11]

When we see life from a grace perspective, we see God’s patience and kindness as an expression of love. When we see life from a TFT perspective, we see God’s patience and kindness as a reward for something we have accomplished.

In the grace scenario God’s patience and kindness do not tell us anything about our “accomplishments”, or the lack of it. In the TFT scenario patience and kindness becomes the evidence that we have accomplished something and that we are deserving of a reward.

The blinding effect of such a superstitious and pagan view of God cannot be overstated, and explains why the religiously-minded people in Romans 2 were guilty of presuming on the riches of God’s “kindness and forbearance and patience.”

This habit of reading one’s own righteousness into God’s mercy is directly linked to the first of our six religious habits, namely the idea that some of us impress God more by performing morally better than others.

In fact, judging others for their “sins” and interpreting God’s kindness as proof of our “sinlessness” are two sides of the same coin of self-righteous entitlement.

The one flows from the other, and both are equally wrong.

3.2.2 The Sin of Impenitence

When we misinterpret God’s kindness in our lives, we become blind to its real purpose. As a revelation of God’s love, God’s patience and kindness are related to his work in us, and his ultimate purpose for us.

In the passage above, Paul explains this by saying that “God’s kindness is meant to lead us to repentance.” This is completely opposite to the idea that God’s kindness is an endorsement of one’s lifestyle. According to Paul, God is patient and kind because he wants us to repent (change our minds), not because we have already repented!

This raises an important question: What is this change? And how is it possible for an extremely religious person to “repent” beyond the extraordinary religious commitment that characterized the religious Jews and Pharisees? The answer to this question is what the book of Romans is all about, and it is first explored towards the end of chapter 2 in Paul’s reference to a “heart-circumcision” (Habit 6).

3.2.2.1 As it was in the Days of Noah…

It is a disturbing thought that the very thing that offers an opportunity for repentance might become the greatest hindrance to it. Yet this idea is not foreign to the rest of Scripture.

An example of it is found in the judgment that came on this wicked world through the Noahic flood. According to Peter, ”God’s patience waited in the days of Noah.”[12] Peter expounds on this truth in his second letter by saying that God is not slow in fulfilling the promise of his second coming, but that “he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”[13]

One cannot help but note the similarity with Romans 2:4, which we are presently discussing. “Our Lord’s patience means salvation”, Peter continues, and even adds “just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you.” [14] It seems that Peter was referring to Romans 2!

The correlation between God’s patience and our repentance is so strong that Peter even goes as far as saying that we can “speed” the coming of the “day of God” by living holy and godly lives.[15] This explains what Jesus meant when he said that it will be “as it was in the days of Noah” before the second coming: “For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark.”[16] (Matthew 24:37-38).

The point is that God‘s “patience waited in the days of Noah”, but that it was misinterpreted. Instead of seeing it as a gracious opportunity to repent, people used the opportunity to live the good life. They did not expect judgment, but presumed that their trouble-free past was the ideal criterion by which to judge the future.

As you can see in The Two Turkeys comic strip, this is a serious mistake!

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 3.31.57 PMAs we have seen in chapter 1, humans are most egotistical and idolatrous when they imagine what their own futures are going to look like (Remember SuperMe?). It is not our photo albums or mirrors that inspire self-worship, but our projections of an idealised future self. Our past and present selves are simply too real to be worthy of deification, and so we use the future to shape and mold the image of I. And, of course, we use our experiences of the past to do so.

It is noteworthy that this fallen human tendency is so obviously irrational that it has caught the attention of scholars in the field of cognitive psychology, many of who are unbelievers, agnostics and even atheists![17]

3.2.2.2 The Certainty of Judgment…

The passage closes with a stern warning. In verse 5 we read that those who “presume” on God’s kindness are “storing up wrath” for themselves that will be revealed on the Day of Judgment.

Like the turkeys in the comic strip, they remain oblivious to the fact that their peace of mind is in fact actively working against their ultimate destiny!

The religious deception inherent in this type of thinking cannot be overstated. As Jesus warned:

On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ Matthew 7:22-23

There can be little doubt that these people suffered from the very same religious illusion as the ones mentioned in Romans 2, although the source of their misplaced comfort was slightly different. They were led to believe that God was using them mightily in works of ministry, and they naturally presumed that this was a sign of God’s favor.

To be busy with the things of God, and to presume that this impresses God, is what Habits 4 to 6 are all about. But before we get there, we first need to expose one more religious lie: The idea that God shows favoritism based on race, culture, tribe or denomination.

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3.3 Habit 3: Biased Beliefs (2:7-11)

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to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor 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. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality.

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3.3.1 The Impartiality of God

As we will see when we get to Habit 6, true “Jewishness” has to do with the state of the heart, not the bloodline or genes.

This truth is thoroughly expounded in Chapter 4 where Paul famously reinterprets the significance of “Father Abraham,” setting the scene for his exposition of true salvation.

In verses 6 to 11 Paul introduces his readers to this truth and prepares them for the explanation that is to follow.

Note that the statement in verse 6, “He will render to each one according to his works,” does not contradict his later statements that we are not saved by works but by faith. Paul is not referring here to dead legalism, but defines “works” as “well-doing” or “doing good.” In verses 8 and 9 he contrasts such works with a “self-seeking” attitude, disobedience to the truth, obedience to unrighteousness and doing evil.

It is important to note that Paul is speaking hypothetically, and that he is not suggesting that it is in fact humanly possible to live up to this ideal of doing good works to the effect of pleasing God. The issue of a godly “lifestyle” (See Overview: Cultivating a New Lifestyle) is later discussed in Romans, where it is presented as the inevitable outcome of saving faith, and certainly not of human efforts.

In these verses Paul is making the point that God judges all people by the same criteria, and that their ancestry does not influence his judgment. By doing so Paul challenges the assumption that God shows partiality based on a person’s race, culture or tribe.

Note his words in verse 11, in reference to the “Jews” and the “Greeks:” “For God shows no partiality.”

This is no self-evident statement. In his letter to the Philippians Paul lists the things that he used to trust in and boast about as a religious Pharisee. Out of a list of seven, three concerns race and tribe! “…of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews…” (Philippians 3:5)

Saul the Pharisee was not unique in this understanding. In John 8:33 the Jews who were debating with Jesus said: “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone.”

Interestingly, whilst Jesus acknowledged their physical descent from Abraham (verse 37: “I know that you are offspring of Abraham”) he denied that this fact had any godly spiritual significance (verse 44: “You are of your father the devil.”)

3.3.2 The Origins of Religious Tribalism

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 3.55.49 PMWhere did this idea of religious supremacy based on nationality come from?

Firstly, in the case of the Jews, it stemmed from the standard Jewish interpretation of the Abrahamic covenant. The Jews believed that they were God’s chosen people as a result of their physical descent from Abraham.

Indeed, during the time of the Old Covenant they were intended to believe this, and so no one can accuse them of any error in this regard. The problem arose when Jesus came to fulfil the Law and the Prophets and reveal the anticipated “Kingdom of the Jews” as a spiritual kingdom accessible to both Jews and Gentiles, provided they enter it by faith.

By refusing to look beyond appearances to the spiritual significance of the Old Testament shadows and types, they failed to:

  • recognize Jesus Christ as their King and promised Messiah
  • understand the term “people of God” as those Jews and Gentiles who would repent, believe and enter the promised kingdom
  • see the cross as the ultimate final sacrifice
  • see the “body of Christ” as the rebuilt temple indwelt by God
  • see the outpouring of the Spirit as the writing of the Law on the hearts and minds of God’s people
  • see the ministering saints as God’s spiritual priesthood.

Simply put, their sin was a repetition of the one their forefathers committed when they said to Samuel: “Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations“.

This was no small thing. God responded by saying to Samuel: “For they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.”[18]

Note that the desire for self-governance is portrayed in the words “as all the other nations have”. The desire for self-governance was firstly characteristic of the nations, and thereafter of Israel rejecting God as King.

The issue of self-governance is what the book of Romans is all about, as we have seen. Here we are dealing with one particular manifestation of it, namely the desire to identify with a body of people who resemble a corporate image that embodies what we feel we are all about. In this way we can satisfy our primal needs to have something greater than us that we can belong to, believe in, hope in and ultimately find security in.

Sounds familiar?[19] The following picture will reveal why:

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 3.59.07 PMIt is important to remind ourselves that the spirit of self-governance originated with Satan. We referred to this in chapter 1’s “I Am” versus “I Will”: From Beholding to Visioneering,[20] where we saw that Satan transferred the seed of self-governance onto humanity in the Garden of Eden, and that this was expressed collectively in Babel with the building of the city and tower. Note how the people’s words apply to that which we discussed above:

Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.[21]

The desire for a building and a name is significant, as it has characterized so many religious enterprises throughout history. Also, as with the Babel builders, it has contributed to countless schisms and splits (The “I follow Paul,” “I follow Apollos” syndrome).[22]

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 3.4 Habit 4: Proudly Possessing the Law (2:12-18)

 

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 4.02.29 PM12 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. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. 17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God 18 and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law;

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3.4.1 Hearing and Doing

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 4.08.57 PMIn verses 12-18 Paul addresses the error of thinking that there is some merit to being “instructed from the law,” “relying on the law,” “knowing God’s will,” “approving what is excellent,” and, as a result, “boasting in God.”[23]

Again, the error is not a strictly Jewish one but a general religious one. Paul points out that God’s law is not restricted to the law of Moses, but that it is in fact written on the hearts and consciences of even the Gentiles.[24]

Thus, everyone is in the same boat as far as the “advantage” of having the law is concerned!

The way in which Paul refutes the idea that “possessing the law” buys favour with God is by stating emphatically that it is “not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.”[25]

This principle is stated in a number of Bible passages. Some examples are:

  • Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. James 1:22
  • But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do. James 1:25
  • Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Matthew 7:21
  • Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. Matthew 7:24

3.4.2 Two Types of Knowing

The error of thinking that there is some merit to “knowing God’s will” is a subtle one. One of the primary reasons why people fall into this trap has to do with our understanding of the term “knowledge” as it is used in the Bible.

As mentioned in our commentary of Romans 1:21 (Rejection), to “know” is to “know God,” not to know about the “things of God.”

What religion does is to exchange the Biblical idea of “covenant knowledge” with the pale counterfeit of “intellectual knowledge”. When this happens we are led to believe that a doctrinal “understanding” of God’s truth is meritorious in some or other way.[26]

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3.5 Habit 5: Pretentiously Preaching the Law (2:19-24)

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 4.12.29 PM19 and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth — 21 you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. 24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

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3.5.1 Preaching for Points

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 4.13.13 PMVerses 19-24 build on the previous section and go one step further.

The person who “relies on the law” are here referred to as being sure that he/she is a “guide to the blind”, a “light to those who are in darkness”, an “instructor of the foolish” and a “teacher of children.”

Furthermore, because such people have in the law the “embodiment of knowledge and truth”, they now put their privileged position into practice by “teaching others” and “preaching” against all kinds of sins.

It goes without saying that “working for God” in this way certainly seems meritorious. By telling others how to live one seems to be siding with God and his truth!

The verses quoted in the previous section, Matthew 7:21 and 24, apply here. But note what verses 22 and 23 of Matthew 7 have to say:

“On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

3.5.2 When Prophets do not Practice what they Preach

The fact that they knew about the things of God but that they did not know God, or were known by him, applies to the fourth habit. But here we see that their incorrect grasp produced inadequate “works.” Amongst these was the fact that they “prophesied” in his name.

Many people associate the New Testament usage of the verb “prophesy” with prediction or “foretelling,” such as the Old Testament prophets regularly did. But in fact the Greek refers to a “speaking forth” in a “divinely-empowered” way.[27] Thus we are dealing here with inspired speech or preaching in the name of Jesus (note the words “prophesy in your name”), but all to no avail.

Why? Because the preachers were not putting Christ’s words into practice!

Paul’s response to the preachers of Romans 2 is remarkably similar. He says that while they “boast in the law” they “dishonour God by breaking the law.”[28] This he illustrates by asking a number of rhetorical questions, implying that they themselves steal, commit adultery and rob temples whilst preaching against these things.[29]

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3.6 Habit 6: Outwardly Obeying the Law (2:25-29)

 

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 4.20.01 PM25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

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3.6.1 The Mystery Resolved

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 4.20.24 PMVerses 25-29 conclude chapter 2 by providing us with the conclusive answer to the mystery of Paul’s accusation against his Jewish readers. [30]

Why does Paul accuse people, who dedicated their lives to keeping the law, of breaking the law? We have already briefly alluded to this in our discussion of Habit 1: Equivalent Evil and will now touch on it again.

Simply put, the problem of Paul’s Jewish audience, and all religious people for that matter, is that they do not understand the fundamental principle that is clearly stated in verses 28-29:

For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

3.6.2 Why Circumcision?

In the preceding verses, Paul makes the point that the external sign of circumcision is only valuable if a person can manage to keep the whole law. Thus, God intended circumcision to be an expression of the ability to live up to God’s holy law, just like a policeman’s uniform is intended as a sign that the policeman has the authority and ability to enforce the law. To put on the uniform does not make one a policeman. Being a policeman enables one to put on the uniform.

Circumcision is thus intended as an outward sign of the removal of the flesh from the heart of the person, enabling the person to keep the law. The religious Jews of chapter 2 have failed to keep the law, and so their circumcision becomes null and void. In fact, it is as though they have never been circumcised!

3.6.2.1 The Hopeless Situation of the Human Heart

But why have they failed to keep the law? Here Paul is drawing his teaching in chapter 1 to a logical conclusion. The problem of sin is a heart problem, an inward problem, caused by the corruption of selfish desire. To observe the law outwardly does nothing to cure this heart condition. The Old Testament’s diagnosis of the human condition is as true as when it was written:

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.[31]

…for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.[32]

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?[33]

The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead.[34]

For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.[35]

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.[36]

Of course religious people are oblivious to the fact that the problem is not with their deeds, but with the underlying wickedness of their hearts. This is the whole point of Romans 2! Those who manage to align their deeds and general outward behaviour with the demands of the law, are oftentimes worse off than those who have no faith in their own abilities to keep the law. In the process of outwardly conforming to the commandments, they end up convincing themselves that they have done well and earned God’s favour.

3.6.3 The Teaching of Jesus Christ

During Jesus’ earthly ministry, he addressed the devastating error of such religious thinking a number of times. These passages are so important that we will deal with each of them separately.

3.6.3.1 The Pharisees

In his famous rebuke of the Jewish religious leaders, the Pharisees, Jesus said the following:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and pall uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.[37]

Note that Jesus ignores the fact that the Pharisees lived perfect lives as far as their outward behaviour was concerned. He points to that which was inside of them, and diagnosis it as “greed” and “self indulgence.”

Having followed Paul’s argument in Romans, we could have predicted these words of Jesus! Note how they correlate with verse 8 of chapter 2:

..but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.

Jesus also accused the Pharisees of being “full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” Here we are dealing with the same question as above: How is it possible that a people who were historically renowned for their obsessive efforts to keep the Mosaic Law, are charged with “lawlessness?”

Jesus himself provides the answer in the passage that directly precedes his accusation:[38]

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing ia camel!

The problem of the Pharisees was not that they had no desire to keep the law. It was that they misunderstood the real purpose of the law. The “weightier matters” of the law had to do with mercy, justice and faithfulness – the exact opposite of “greed and self-indulgence.”

These are the matters of the heart that are mostly invisible to the naked eye. The Pharisees neglected them, whist excelling in the external demands of the law, down to their finest detail! According to Jesus, such a perversion of the true intention of the law amounts to lawlessness!

But what about the other word: Hypocrisy? Interestingly, the word was commonly used at the time to refer to actors on the Greek stage, that is, ”a performer acting under a mask.”

Jesus was saying that the Pharisees were not who they pretended to be on the outside. Under the facade of righteousness, hid people who were just as wicked as those whom they were judging.[39]

3.6.3.2 The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

In Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax collector[40] we are confronted with exactly the same principle.

Two men, both aware of God’s holy standard as it is revealed in his law, pray in the temple. The Pharisee believes that he has lived up to the demands of the law, and he thanks God for this. He also looks down on the tax collector whom he clearly diagnoses as a “sinner.”

The tax collector, on the other hand, knows that he has broken God’s law, beats on his chest, and cries out: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Ironically, he agrees with the assessment of the Pharisee!

The striking conclusion of the story is that it is this man, the tax collector, who is justified by God, and not the Pharisee.

What is the point of the parable? Surely not that God delights in those who break his law whilst despising those who don’t? No, the point is that the purpose of the law was met in the life of the tax collector and not in the life of the Pharisee.

This purpose is clear to see in Romans 3:20:

“Therefore no-one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.”

What God looked for in the temple prayers was consciousness of sin, not observance of the law, and he found it in only one of them. More about this later.

3.6.3.3 The Lost Son[41]

In Luke 15 we read the following words:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:[42]

People oftentimes miss these introductory words to the parable that followed. The parable, of course, is a parable about lost possessions and the attitude of the owner when he/she finds them. In the parable three lost “items” are mentioned: A lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son.

The reason why the introduction above is important, is because the parable was told to address the self-righteous attitude that the Pharisees were displaying towards the “tax collectors and sinners.” If we miss this, we will miss the central point of the parable.

Much can be said about the parable, but for our purposes we will simply look at the attitude that the “older son” displayed when his younger brother eventually returned home and was welcomed by their father. In verses 28-30 we read the following:

But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!”

Remember that the older son plays the part of the judgmental Pharisees in the parable, while the lost son represents the “tax collectors and sinners.” With that in mind, note again the words of the older brother: “…these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command.”

The older brother typifies the attitude of the Pharisees, namely the conviction that they always keep God’s commandments, and that they are much more entitled to God’s blessings and provisions than the “sinners” who so obviously disobey God.

Yet, if one reads between the lines, it becomes clear who is the bigger sinner. The older brother, in spite of his outward obedience to the father, clearly lacked mercy. There was no gratitude over the return of his brother, only anger that the father had received him back with compassion.

His attitude can rightly be described as “self-indulgent.” Instead of a willingness to share from his own resources, he wanted the little that had been given to his younger brother. Thus, he reveals himself to be a “taker” rather than a “giver.”[43]

Clearly the older brother was suffering from the “TFT” disease referred to in our discussion of the “second habit!”[44]

3.6.3.4 The Rich Young Ruler

In the story of the rich young ruler[45] we find an interesting exchange between Jesus and an extremely successful, religious man.

The first thing that we need to note is the young man’s use of the adjective “good,” and Jesus’ correction thereof.

In Matthew’s version the man asks Jesus what “good deed” he must do to have eternal life, to which Jesus responds: “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.”

In Luke’s account the man addresses Jesus as “Good Teacher,” with Jesus replying: ”Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

It is clear that the young man thought of goodness as a thing that could be possessed by doing certain “good deeds.” Jesus corrects him by pointing out that goodness is not a “thing” that can exist apart from God, but that it is the very nature of God. Hence the young man’s own religious nature along with his misunderstanding of God’s nature is clearly revealed at the beginning of the story.

Jesus’ further interaction with the young man teaches us a lot: He tells the man to “keep the commandments,” which of course is just another way of saying “keep the law.” The young man asks, “Which ones?” Jesus answers by quoting five times from the Ten Commandments (commandments 5-9) and adding the great commandment to “love your neighbour as yourself.”

As we would expect, the man responds in the exact self-righteous manner that typified all the religious men referred to in our previous examples. According to Luke, the young man replied: “All these things I have kept from my youth.”

Jesus then adds one more instruction, a seventh one: “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

People oftentimes assume that Jesus was negotiating salvation with the young man and that he merely added another commandment that the two of them hadn’t yet covered in their conversation, encouraging and expecting the man to comply and “inherit eternal life.”

But that is hardly the point of the story. The young man could not comply, and Jesus knew this. This is clear from Jesus’ response to the young man’s unwillingness to accept the offer of salvation, namely that “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,”[46] and also from his response to the question posed by his startled disciples, “Then who can be saved?”

As we know, Jesus answered: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Jesus clearly knew all along that this was the case, and did not conclude it on the spot as a result of the rich man’s unwillingness to do what Jesus had told him to do. Hence, we can conclude with certainty that his invitation to the rich man was extended to prove a point, and not to try and win another convert.

The problem raised by all of this is obvious: Why would Jesus give an impossible instruction to a man in order to get him into his kingdom?

But the problem is easily solved if we consider the difference between the six “commandments” that Jesus first listed and the seventh one that he added at the end. The six commandments all came from the law – five of them from the Ten Commandments and the one to “love your neighbour” from the book of Leviticus.[47] Furthermore, they were all “possible” commandments that depended on sheer human will and effort, and thus proudly kept by the young man. Lastly, they were commandments that required an outward conforming to a moral code.[48]

The final instruction is different in every aspect. It does not appear anywhere in the law, it is revealed as an “impossible” command for humans to keep, and it required a change of heart from the young man.

As you may have noted, he was required to become a “giver” rather than a “taker!”

Once again, the self-indulgence of the heart was at stake here. Once again, the power of religion was dismally insufficient to do anything about it.

3.6.3.5 The Pharisees who complained about unwashed hands

We read about yet another showdown with the Pharisees in Mathew 15 and Mark 7.[49] As you would guess by now, the issue is exactly the same one as in all the above examples.

In this event, the Pharisees were criticizing the disciples for breaking the “traditions of the elders” by eating their food with unwashed hands. Jesus immediately responds by charging them with being the real lawbreakers (nothing new here), citing an example from the way in which they twisted the obvious meaning of the fifth commandment to “honor your father and mother” for the sake of upholding their “traditions.”

The implication of the matter?

Jesus calls them “hypocrites” (again, nothing new here) and then says the following:

‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

It could not be clearer. The Pharisees’ religion was an outward performance void of any real substance. They were play-actors on a stage, and their “hearts” were far from God in spite of all their religious rhetoric.

But it is Jesus’ next statement that most powerfully summarizes the entire problem of “outward religion” and our “Habit 6” that we are presently discussing:

“Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person. …Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”

Yet again, the message is clear. What is needed is not a washing of the hands, but a washing of the hearts!

Jesus and the Fulfilment of the Law

The last instructions of Jesus that we will look at, and that concerns this matter, comes from the famous “Sermon on the Mount.”[50] It is singularly Jesus’ most important teaching on the subject, and essential to our understanding of the book of Romans.

The passage begins with the following well-known words of Jesus:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.[51]

These words are important as they clearly illustrate the aim of Jesus’ mission. It was not to “take away” from the law, but to “add” to the law. The law needed to be “fulfilled,” which implied that something was lacking in the law.

What was this lack? Paul presents us with an answer in Romans 7 and 8, which is so important that we need to pause and consider it before we return to Jesus’ statement.

Paul and the Tenth Commandment

In Romans 7 and 8, Paul explains that the problem has never been with the law itself, but with our inability to keep it (once more, nothing new here).

He explains this by telling us that the “law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.“[52] He also tells us that “the law is spiritual,” but then adds “but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.”[53] Later he says that the law is “weakened by the flesh.”[54]

This fact incapacitated Paul in his striving to keep the law, and so he describes the experience of his legalistic failure in the following well-know (and oftentimes misunderstood) words:

For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.[55]

Note that Paul is referring here to his past efforts to keep the law of God, not to a present struggle to live the Christian life, as is often assumed.[56] He is emphasising, in a most dramatic way, exactly what Jesus has been saying in each and every example mentioned above: Those who religiously claim to keep the law are in fact the worst breakers of the law!

This raises an important question: How did Paul transition from self-righteous Pharisaism to a place of devastated brokenness because of his inability to keep the law?

If we study Paul’s references to his past, we see a remarkable similarity between Saul the Pharisee and the religious people referred to in our previous examples. Like them, he once claimed an ability to keep the law. Note his own autobiographical words, taken from his testimony in his letter to the Philippians:

I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.[57]

As to righteousness under the law, blameless… Here Paul (or rather, Saul) sounds remarkably like the rich young man (“all these things I have kept from my youth”), the lost son’s older brother (“I never disobeyed your command”) and the praying Pharisee (“God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers…”).

Yet again, this raises the question: What had happened to the self-righteous Saul to bring him to a place of despair because of his own disability to keep the law?

The answer, believe it or not, is right before our eyes in Romans 7. The very law of Moses that tricked Saul (and every other religious Pharisee) into believing that he was keeping it, showed him that he was in fact breaking it!

Note verses 9 to 11:

I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.

This provides the source of Paul’s insight: It was the Law itself!

But it deepens the mystery by presenting a new question: What on earth did Paul discover in the law that convinced him that he was in fact a lawbreaker?

Verses 7 and 8 reveal a most astounding answer:

What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead.

The implications of Paul’s statement here is so profound that it leaves one numb.

Paul refers to one single commandment in the law, and confesses that he found it impossible to keep. In fact, it had the exact opposite effect on him to what one would expect. Instead of providing him with yet another opportunity to be morally superior, it strengthened the very thing in him that it was forbidding him to do!

With this in mind, let us read verses 9 to 11 again, for now they make perfect sense:

I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.

The “commandment” referred to here is none other than the prohibition to “covet,”[58] that is, the tenth commandment. Amazingly, Paul’s entire struggle with “sin” portrayed so dramatically throughout Romans 7 has to do with his inability to live up to one single commandment!

What is it about this commandment that caused Paul to stumble, in total contradiction to his impressive record of keeping the law “blamelessly?”

The answer is simple: While the first nine commandments prohibit certain actions, the tenth commandment prohibits the intention that precedes those actions. Note that the seventh commandment tells a person not to “commit adultery,” but that the tenth commandment tells the person not to “covet your neighbor’s wife.” Also note that the eighth commandment tells a person not to “steal,” but that the tenth commandment tells the person not to “covet your neighbor’s ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Clearly we break the tenth commandment every single time before we break any one of the other nine. And the reason is clear: We first desire to do something before we go ahead and do it.

Put differently, we first do it in our hearts before we do it in our deeds.

Amazingly, the spiritually astute Paul could keep himself from doing any deed that was prohibited by the law, but he could not suppress the inclination of his heart that yearned to do them!

The tenth commandment tells us that God is concerned with more than an outward allegiance to his law. What he wants is an inward desire to please him. We should stop sinning not because we have to, but because we want to. And the only way in which that can happen is if we have a change of heart.

Coveting can best be described as an appetite, and so an analogy might be helpful here: Imagine a restaurant owner puts up a sign behind his restaurant that reads: “No scratching in garbage cans allowed. Offenders will be prosecuted.”

By having made a “law” against garbage scratching, the man has solved the problem of homeless people gathering at the back of his restaurant and causing a disturbance. Yet he has not solved the underlying problem that is causing the unwanted behavior: Hunger. But this does not bother him, for his law is not telling people not to be hungry, but to stay away from his leftovers.

Unfortunately, most people think God is like that. He prohibits us from doing those things that make us happy. And so we think of him as a celestial spoilsport, and of the Bible as a handbook that says “do this, don’t do that…”

But we are wrong, and the tenth commandment proves this. The prohibition to covet is like a second sign behind the restaurant that says, “You shall not be hungry.” This reveals that the owner is not only concerned about himself, but also about the people to who he has given his “laws.” By forbidding them to be hungry, he is in fact commanding them to be full. By commanding them to be full, he is in fact preparing them for an invitation to come to him for food that is much better than the leftovers in the garbage!

That is the point of the tenth commandment. Sinful desire is the human awareness of God’s absence, and the urge to compensate for it by finding some or other God-substitute. The prohibition to experience this urge is God’s invitation to us to come to him to be filled.

Our final Life Exchange Graphic in the commentary section of Chapter 1, clearly illustrates that all actions of human beings can be traced back to one of two roots: Love or desire. And so, as you would remember, we pointed out that there is a “great commandment” along with a “great prohibition” underlying all “lifestyle choices.”

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You may remember that the last paragraph of Chapter 1: A Pagan Party concluded with the following statement:

Romans is designed around this principle. The “great prohibition” underlies the first half of Romans (chapters 1-11) and is clearest revealed in chapter 7. The “great command” underlies the second half of Romans (chapters 12-16) and is clearest revealed in chapter 13. There it is presented as the “fulfilment” of the great prohibition and the lifestyle that results from our inability to obey it.

The Fulfilment of the Law

This brings us back to Jesus’ words: “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.”

Clarifying the statement, Jesus added: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”[59]

This statement must have sounded strange, for the Pharisees were as righteous as was humanly possible. But Christ’s message was clear: The law was not yet fulfilled, and the party who gained notoriety for keeping the law was not as righteous as they could be; in fact, not even righteous enough to enter the kingdom of heaven.

The riddle is solved in the next few verses, with Christ quoting from the law six times, each time emphasising the obvious external requirement of the law, and each time pointing to a much deeper spiritual principle behind the words, thus clarifying the “fulfilment of the law!”

The first two statements confirm what we have just discovered in our discussion of Romans 7, namely the division between the first nine commandments and the tenth commandment!

Note that Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” In other words: You have heard the seventh commandment, but now I am telling you to keep the tenth commandment.

Similarly, Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said…”Do not murder…” (sixth command). “…but I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.”

Anger, of course, corresponds with covetousness, albeit a negative form thereof, and is well defined in the Oxford dictionary as “hot displeasure.”[60] It is a desire for revenge, for payback, and as such the motive that precedes the sin of murder – the very motive forbidden by the tenth command.

It becomes clear then, that the righteousness of the Pharisees was one based on their observance of the first nine commandments, as well as all the other external requirements of the law, and not of the tenth commandment. As such the Pharisees were not “righteous enough.”

Also, it explains what Christ meant when he spoke about fulfilling the law without abolishing it. By enabling people to adhere to the underlying spiritual requirements of the law, the law shall be fulfilled, and by doing so the external commandments shall never be broken, and so the law is not abolished!

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[1] Verse 17

[2] This is vital to understand lest we think that Paul’s instructions here are aimed at notorious hypocrites, and not at us or any religious people whom we may like or respect. The fact that some of the Pharisees look quite “evil” in our illustrations is because they are caricatured, not because they were exceptionally vile specimens of religiosity.

[3] Wars II, 162-1 66; cf. Antiquities XIII, 171

[4] Ant. XIII, 294

[5] Ant. XIII, 297-98

[6] Ant. XVIII, 12-15

[7] Verses 28 and 29

[8] See Romans 7:14

[9] 1 John 4:16

[10] 1 Corinthians 13

[11] Verse 4

[12] 1 Peter 3:20

[13] 1 Peter 3:9

[14] 1 Peter 3:15

[15] 1 Peter 3:11

[16] Matthew 24:37-38

[17] I am indebted to Nassim Nicholas Taleb for the turkey analogy. Taleb borrowed it from the philosopher Bertrand Russel and used it in his provocative book The Black Swan to illustrate the folly of predicting the future by using the past as a point of reference. Along with scholars such as Daniel Kahneman (Fast and Slow Thinking) and Daniel Gilbert (Stumbling on Happiness) Taleb points out that humans are outrageously irrational when they try their hand at forecasting the future.

[18] See 1 Samuel 8:5-7

[19] If not, see the comic The Story of I on page 66

[20] See page 68

[21] Genesis 11:4-5

[22] See 1 Corinthians 1:10-13 and 3:4-23. Here Paul addresses both the “name” and the “building” issue from a Kingdom point of view rather than a tribal or religious one.

[23] Verses 17-18

[24] Verses 14-16

[25] Verse 13

[26] See footnote 75 on page 81

[27] See Strongs Concordance, 4395: prophéteuó

[28] Verse 23

[29] Verse 21-22

[30] Or at least a prelude to the answer. Romans 7 is devoted in its entirety to addressing the problem of keeping the law outwardly whilst having an unregenerate heart, as we will see. There the 10th commandment is introduced as the “spiritual” commandment that prohibits not a series of deeds, but the intention behind those deeds. Thus it is the impossible commandment for the person whose heart has not been “circumcised.”

[31] Genesis 6:5

[32] Genesis 8:21

[33] Jeremiah 17:9

[34] Ecclesiastes 9:3

[35] Mark 7:21-23

[36] Psalm 51:5

[37] Matthew 23:25-28

[38] Matthew 23:23-24

[39] See Strongs Concordance, 5273: hupokrités . The word is derived from hypo (Strongs Concordance, 5259) which means “under” and krínō (Strongs Concordance, 2919) which means “judge.” Therefore one who “judges under.”

[40] Luke 18:9-14

[41] Better known as the “prodigal” son. The word “prodigal” appears nowhere in the Bible and is a rather silly adjective to use for describing the son. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a synonym for “lost” or a reference to someone who goes away and eventually returns home. The word derives from the Latin prodigus which means “wasteful,” and appears in the Latin Vulgate from where it is believed to have slipped into our English translations as a heading. Whilst the son was certainly wasteful, wastefulness is hardly the point of the parable in any one of its three examples. Thus, it is much better to speak of the “lost son.”

[42] Luke 15:1-3

[43] See the Life Exchange Graphic on page 82

[44] See page 96

[45] Matthew 19:16-30; Luke 18:18-30

[46] Jesus is referring to the loop of a sewing needle here. The popular suggestion that the “eye of the needle” was a small gate in Jerusalem’s wall, that forced a camel to stoop and shed its baggage in order to pass through, is entirely mythical. No such gate is known to have ever existed and history provides not a shred of evidence thereof. In fact, if this were the case Jesus’ next statement would have been false, for then it would indeed have been “possible” for people to be saved, provided they knew how to squeeze themselves into the kingdom. Furthermore, the metaphor of a huge animal being pushed through the eye of a sewing needle appears in Jewish Talmudic literature predating the ministry of Jesus. E.g. “They do not show a man a palm tree of gold, nor an elephant going through the eye of a needle (Babylonian Talmud, Berakoth, 55b), and “… who can make an elephant pass through the eye of a needle” (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Mezi’a, 38b). Whilst the camel was the largest animal in Israel, the elephant was the largest animal in the regions where the Babylonian Talmud was written. Hence Jesus’ statement was a perfect cultural translation of a known Jewish metaphor. For more information, see The camel and the eye of the needle, Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25 at http://www.biblicalhebrew.com/nt/camelneedle.htm. The purpose of this lengthy footnote is to establish the exact intention of Jesus’ words beyond a shadow a doubt: It is impossible for men to be saved through any effort of their own, no matter how religious or noble they may be. Religion has tried to downplay the stark reality of this truth for millennia, hence the invention of a mythical gate to soften Jesus’ words.

[47] Leviticus 19:18

[48] The command to “love your neighbor as yourself” does not fit into any of these categories, if rightly understood. In fact, the entire book of Romans is a build-up to the towering presence of these words amongst all the other commandments, so much so that they are ultimately identified as “the fulfillment of the law” in chapter 13. But there is no contradiction here. Jesus clearly illustrated in Matthew 6:43-48 that the great command to love one’s neighbor had succumbed to the power of religion in the Jewish and Rabbinical mind, and so it was interpreted to mean “love your neighbor and hate your enemies,” which is clearly a very different command to the one Jesus had in mind. We can safely assume that it is this religious version (TFT if you wish) of the command that was communicated by Jesus and understood by the young man. Jesus’ additional instruction to “sell all” rectified the erroneous understanding of the words and confronted the young man with their real meaning. By not being able to adhere to them, the young man proved himself to be a lawbreaker.

[49] Matthew 15:1-20; Mark 7:1-23

[50] The term “Sermon on the Mount” does not appear anywhere in the Bible, but is generally understood as referring to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5-7.

[51] Matthew 5:17

[52] Romans 7:12

[53] Romans 7:14

[54] Romans 8:3

[55] Romans 7:15-23

[56] Note his statements: “I agree with the law…I delight in the law…” This is not the regenerate Paul who taught that we have been “released from the law.” The reference is clearly to an experience that he had had whilst being “under the law,” yet not able to keep it.

[57] Philippians 3:4-6

[58] “Covet” is an old English word for “desire.”

[59] Matthew 5:20

[60] p48, Fowler, H W & Fowler, F G 1964. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English. Great Britain: Oxford University Press

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Romans 1:18-32: A Pagan Party

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Scene 2: The Pagan Party is Underway

1. Overview

Once Paul has told us about himself, his readers and his message, he devotes the rest of chapter 1 to presenting us with humanity’s “problem” in four stages. These stages are fundamental to our understanding of Romans, as they reveal what happened in the heart of humans at the fall that took place in the Garden of Eden. We shall refer to them as the “4 R’s:”

  1. Revelation (1:18-20)
  2. Rejection (1:21)
  3. Religion (1:22-23, 25)
  4. Retribution (1:24, 26-32)

2. Characters
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3. Commentary

3.1 Revelation (1:18-20)

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18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 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.

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 6.33.10 PMImagine walking into someone’s home and seeing a most magnificent painting. You will, most probably, ask: “Who did that?”

3.1.1 God Speaks Through Creation

God reveals His existence to us in the same way, through that which he has created. Theologians speak of God’s “general revelation”. By this they mean God’s revelation of himself in such a way that it is evident to everyone regardless of his or her beliefs or convictions.

Paul Arden’s little book God Explained in a Taxi Ride[1] presents all kinds of arguments for and against the existence of God, but concludes towards the end of the book that there must be a God because someone must have made the sunset!

In the verses quoted above, note the words “plain”, “clearly perceived” and “show”. Also note that only that which God has “shown” us about Himself is plain and “perceptible” to us.

This means that we can only know God to the degree that He reveals Himself to us. Without God’s revelation our ideas about him are pure speculation. Knowing God is something that starts with God, not with us. As the famous Swiss theologian Karl Barth said: “God is only known by God.”

3.1.2 The Mystery of God

The following verses confirm how impossible it is for us to comprehend God without his aid:

“No one has ever seen God…” John 1:18 (Also in 1 John 4:12)

“…you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” Exodus 33:20

“God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see.” 1 Timothy 6:15-16

“How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord…?” Romans 11:33-34

“No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” 1 Corinthians 2:11

This does not mean that God wants to hide himself. Rather, it has to do with the vast difference between God and us.

We shall say more about this at a later stage. For now, let us remind ourselves that God compensates for our inability to see or comprehend him by revealing himself to us, such as he has done through creation.

Throughout history God has also revealed Himself in many other ways: through angels, prophets, dreams, miracles, Scripture and, of course, ultimately through Jesus Christ. This is what we call “special revelation” (supernatural as opposed to natural revelation).

Special revelation is distinct from general revelation in the sense that it is given only to certain people at certain times. Yet it is similar in the sense that it is intended to provide human beings with an “image” of who God is.

3.1.3 Only God can Faithfully Represent God

The second of the Ten Commandments forbids us to make “images” of God. Such images are first formed in a person’s “imagination” (image-ination), and then sculpted or fashioned out of wood, stone, gold or whatever material the image-maker may choose.

Sometimes the images remain in the imagination, such as the many ideas that people hold of who God is and what he is like. Note that these mental images can be just as misleading as their sculpted counterparts!

We can now understand why God forbids us to make images of him. Because “God is only known by God”, God is the only who knows how to present himself accurately. And so any visible presentation of who God is, can and must be made by God alone.

Put differently, God is the only one who is allowed to present us with an “image” of himself. Romans tells us that he did this through creation, and that he did it so well that his “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived”. This was God’s chosen “image” to make himself, his nature and his power known.

Creation, indeed, is God speaking to us. As the psalmist David wrote:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the works of His hands. Day by day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. (Psalm 19:1-4)

Reading the above, it is clear why we should rather not try and compete with God when it comes to portraying him through some or other image. The world’s greatest scientists cannot even make a small flower, let alone a rainforest, a star or the Milky Way!

[1] Paul Arden, God Explained in a Taxi Ride, Penguin Books, London, 2007

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3.2 Rejection (1:21)

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21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

 

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The section to follow is one of the most important ones in our study of Romans. If we fail to understand what God had in mind when he created humanity, we will fail to understand what happened to us when we rejected God.

Here we will see what God’s eternal purpose with us as human beings has been from the beginning, and how we removed ourselves from this calling.

Humans were created to be carriers of God’s image and life as his sons. Herein is our identity, security, destiny, and, above all, our instinct to love, adore and worship God as our Father. Choosing against God leaves us with an aching void within, and an irresistible urge to discover or create some or other substitute on whom we can lavish our inborn urge to love and worship, and in whom we can trust for security and a sense of identity.

As the readings below and the rest of chapter 1 reveal, once the image of God was removed from our sights, the vacuum was filled by the “image of man” – an illusory idea of a deified super-self that is intended to satisfy our longings for wholeness, life, power and a certain future or destiny.

This idea, that a created being can be “as God” (in the sense of taking God’s place), originated in the heart of Satan (Isaiah 14:14), was injected into the human race in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:5) and has characterised the fleshly offspring of Adam and Eve ever since.

The results of this “exchange” were devastating:

Firstly, the worship of God was replaced by the worship of self. This shift took place in the heart of human beings.

Secondly, our foremost and most divine human characteristic, namely the impulse to love, was replaced by desire. This shift took place in the cognition and emotions of human beings. Whereas love seeks to give to others what belongs to the self, desire seeks to take for the self that which belongs to the other. These two forces are diametrically opposed, representing the difference between the character of God and the character of Satan. The book of Romans documents this shift and is dedicated in its entirety to God’s gracious intervention, through Jesus Christ, to deliver us from the curse of desire and to restore us unto himself and his character of love.

Thirdly, our behavior conformed itself to our desires. We began to live and act in accordance with the irresistible demands of our selfish desires. This shift took place in our actions, that is, the deeds done in the body.

3.2.1 The Purpose of Revelation: Knowing God

In order to understand what happened when we “rejected” God, we first need to consider an important question: Why “on earth” did God reveal himself to us?

We have already referred to the answer in our Revelation section (Romans 1:18-19). In verse 19 we read: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.”

Note that “showing” precedes “knowing. The reason why God “shows” himself to us is so that we can “know” him. Verse 21 confirms this by saying that humanity “knew God” after he revealed himself to us.

From the beginning, God’s purpose with humanity has been to establish a relationship with us. But there was a problem: Verse 20 tells us that God’s attributes (characteristics) are invisible. You do not need to be a rocket scientist to realise that a relationship with an unseen being with an imperceptible nature is highly problematic!

But God overcame the problem by allowing the mystery of his power and beauty to be embodied in the created order, and so his characteristics were “clearly perceived!” Humans now had an “image” that they could look at, revealing God’s “nature” to them, and thus a relationship with God became a possibility.

3.2.1.1 What it Means to “Know”

To appreciate the weight and wonder of this word “know,” as it is used in Scripture, we merely need to turn to the first recorded acts of intimacy between humans. Note the following references:

Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain… Genesis 4:1

Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. Genesis 4:17

And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth… Genesis 4:25

Similarly, when the angel appeared to Mary, and told her that she would conceive and bear a son, she responded by saying “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34 KJV)

When the Bible speaks of “knowing” in these verses, it clearly has more in mind than merely knowing a few (or a lot of) facts about a person. To “know“ is to become one with another person in the act of marriage, to share his or her being to such an extent that the two understandings are merged in a single consciousness – a unity of soul that far surpasses intellectual knowledge.

As Genesis 2:24 puts it: Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

This “oneness” is so central to the relationship that God has designed it to be expressed in a physical form, namely the birth of a single human being whose design is as much a product of the father’s as it is of the mother’s – a perfect composite of both parents’ DNA in a single person with a single consciousness.

In each of the verses from Genesis 4, quoted above, two people came together in the covenant unity of marriage, and one person was the result.

Adam + Eve = Cain

Cain + his wife = Enoch

Adam + Eve = Seth

Thus, the metaphor of “one flesh” is given a physical form in the birth of a child, the product of the parents’ covenant love, oneness and “knowing” of one another.

As Malachi 2:15 puts it, in reference to a man and his “companion” and “wife by covenant:”

Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union?

3.2.1.2 Knowing God

The exception to the rule is the fourth reference to marital “knowing” mentioned above, that of Mary. In her case it was not Joseph + Mary = Jesus, but God + Mary = Jesus.

Indeed, Mary never “knew” a man, and so she was rightfully befuddled by the words of the angel. But the angel clarified this by telling her that the Lord was “with her” and that he had “favored” her. Her pregnancy he explained by saying: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1:28,30,35)

This was a different type of union, a different type of “knowing,” and the result would also be different: “…the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (verse 35b).

Whereas Cain, Enoch and Seth represented the union between two human beings, Jesus Christ represented the union between God and humanity. Thus, he was called the Son of God as well as the Son of man.[1]

God “knew” Mary, and Mary “knew” God. Of course this “knowledge” had nothing to do with romance or sexuality, as we would think of it in human terms. Rather, it had to do with oneness – the merger between the divine and the human. In Christ the consciousness of God was fused with the consciousness of humanity, representing a new type of “knowing” and revealing an age-old mystery to humanity.

3.2.1.3 The “Great Mystery” of Marriage

The idea of God entering into marriage with human beings was not a new one. For your husband is your Maker, Whose name is the LORD of host,” God said to Israel in Isaiah 54:5. Many other passages in the Old Testament expound on this theme,[2] laying the foundation for the New Testament teaching on the subject.

Ultimately the church would be known as the “bride of Christ.” In Ephesians 5:32 Paul tells his readers that the correlation between human marriage and the relationship between Christ and the church is a “profound mystery.” He devotes verses 21 to 33 to unraveling the mystery, illustrating the many parallels between the two relationships, and even quoting Genesis 2:24:

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

This is the heart of the mystery, and it “refers to Christ and the church.”

The parallel is obvious: Christ left his Father for the sake of finding an earthly bride and becoming “one” with her. This is the imagery we find right from the start of Christ’s public ministry.

As John the Baptist explained:

‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. John 3:28-29

Jesus himself said: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son” (Matthew 22:2). Speaking about his departure, he said: “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15).

Similarly, Paul told the Corinthians: I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:2).

It should come as no surprise that the New Testament culminates with a great wedding feast where the marriage of the “Lamb” and his “bride” is celebrated (Revelation 19:6-9). This event closes the final chapter of the greatest love story ever told.

3.2.1.4 Eve: A Type of the Church

The eternal marriage between Christ and his bride has been God’s purpose from the beginning, and herein is the “mystery” of Genesis 2:24 revealed.

Adam’s preceding words in verse 23, “This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man,” were prophetic. The formation of Eve was more than a mere provision of a companion for Adam. It was a stunning picture of the birth of the church.

Eve was “in Adam,” only to be taken “out of him,” with the express purpose of being united to him again, this time around in a loving and conscious relationship of reciprocal “knowing.”

Why was the separation necessary?

Even though the woman was “in the man” in the beginning, a relationship between them was impossible. He was regarded as being “alone”, which was “not good” (Genesis 2:18). The only suitable helpmeet, it turned out, was one that had not been “formed out of the ground” (2:19) but from Adam’s own bone and flesh. The woman had to come “from man” in order to be suitable “for man.”

Throughout all of the above, the mystery is revealed. The church, who was chosen “in him, before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), is presented “to himself glorious” in Ephesians 5.

The refrain of Ephesians, of course, is the term “in him.” The church is born from the spirit, not the flesh. She has her origin in Jesus Christ himself, making her the only suitable companion for him out of all creation. She was taken out of him, as it were, in order to become one with him.

Paul underscores this in his statement to the Corinthians:

Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” (1 Corinthians 6:16-17)

3.2.1.5 Knowing Jesus Christ

With the above in mind, the word “know” takes on a whole new meaning. The Bible uses it to depict the covenant knowledge between two lives who have blended together as one. In such a relationship there is a reciprocal “revelation” of each to the other, a full disclosure, an “unveiling” without shame.

Indeed, this is what God had in mind with humanity: “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25)

Of course this openness was hampered after the fall, but God’s intention with the covenant between the sexes did not change. Whilst the relationship between the husband and the wife was frustrated, their covenant remained sacred. They would still become one in their “knowing” of each other.

In the same way, that which was symbolized and foreshadowed by their relationship remained intact. The ultimate aim was that humans would be known by God, and know him in return. They were to become recipients of his divine life, partakers of his nature, and sharers in the knowledge of who he was.

“Knowing God” was never intended to be a heady systematic knowledge of propositional statements “about” God. Rather, it was to be enlightenment, reserved for those who were joined to God in a loving union of covenant loyalty and intimacy, regardless of their intellectual abilities.

This was the “knowledge” referred to by the prophets, Jesus Christ and the apostles. From them we learn the following:

  • The covenant between God and humanity cannot exist without it.[3]
  • Salvation is a practical impossibility without it.[4]
  • Motivation to live the “Christian life” is an absurd idea without it.[5]
  • “Spiritual warfare” is misdirected if it is not aimed at it.[6]
  • Prayers for fellow believers are inadequate if they do not include it.[7]
  • Knowledge of the Scriptures is insufficient without it.[8]
  • “Eternal life” cannot be understood apart from it.[9]
  • On the great Day of Judgment, it will serve as the criteria for judgment. Those who do not know God, and are not known by him, will be shown away from God (even if they did many fantastic things for God).[10]

Thus, we are dealing with a great and glorious eternal truth when we speak about God “knowing” us, and us knowing him in return.

And remember: All of it could only happen as a result of God revealing himself to us!

3.2.2 Responding to God’s Revelation

This brings us to our next important question: How does God expect us to respond to his revelation? Put differently, what does it mean in practice to know him?

Verse 21 goes on to tell us: We were to honor Him with thankful hearts.

Our eternal calling can therefore be described by the following 3 words:

  1. Relationship (knowing God)
  2. Reverence (honoring God)
  3. Contentment (thanking God)

Graphically, we can portray it as follows:

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 2.26.46 PMThe first thing we learn from this that humanity’s calling was a responsive one. Each of our 3 terms above implies a human response to a divine initiative:

  1. I see God’s glorious magnificence in his creation, and so I learn about him.
  2. I see God’s power and sovereignty in creation, and so I honor him as the divine Origin of everything.
  3. I partake of the goodness of creation, and so I experience delight and satisfaction, and I thank God (More about this in a moment).

The relationship that God intended between Himself and humanity can thus be depicted in the following illustration, which we will simply refer to as “The Natural Order” (The symbol θ represents God, and is derived from the Greek letter Theta that is used to spell “Theos”, which is Greek for God):

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To emphasise the principle that God’s activity must always precede and inspire human actions, we can also depict the difference between God as “Creator” and humanity as “creation” as follows:

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This principle, that God must be first in everything in order for us to function optimally as human beings, is found throughout Scripture.[11]

3.2.2.1 The Essential Aspect of God’s Revelation: Life

This brings us to another question: What was at the heart of God’s revelation? What was its essential component or element, and how did it communicate to us that God was “No. 1” and that we were “No. 2?”

The answer is not complicated. God did it by revealing himself as the source of life. The aspect of creation that turns it into a “picture” or “image” of the invisible God is life.

Creation teems with life, and this life can only be sustained if it is passed on from one “life-carrier” to another. Creation itself testifies to the fact that it cannot create its own life, but that it needs to receive it. Similarly, it cannot create another’s life, but it has to pass its own received life on.

So obvious is this principle that we have even made up a word that describes what happens when this chain of receiving life and passing it on is interrupted: Extinction.

The life force that sustains a species must be uninterrupted for that species to survive. The moment that a life-carrier is no more, the species ceases to exist. The Dinosaurs are a case in point.

Of course all of this raises a profound question: Where did the first life come from?

The Bible answers by telling us that life came from God, and that God did not get it from anywhere because he himself is life. Life is not something that God has, but hat he is.

This also means that he cannot loose it. God’s life has neither beginning nor end, and the adjective that the Bible uses to describe this quality is “eternal.”

Thus, the life force that we see operating around us, and inside of us, is something divine. No human has ever been able to replicate it. Scientists can build space rockets, but they cannot make a single little flower. The force of life is a mystery, and it can only be understood in the light of God’s pre-eminence and “eternal power.”

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The graphic above portrays what happened in the Garden of Eden, with the creation of the first human. God “breathed” his life into Adam, who was a mere vessel of dust without it.

The New Testament Greek word for “spirit” is pneuma, and it means “breath.” Similarly, the Old Testament Hebrew word for spirit is ruach, and it also means breath. Thus, the “spirit” of a person is in reality nothing but the living breath of God residing inside the body of flesh.

From this point of view, the Holy Spirit can be understood as the “Holy Breath” of God that “fills” a person and unites him/her to God and his essence.

This combination of the dust of the earth and the living breath of God is described in Genesis as a “living soul,” a composite of created matter and the uncreated life of God.[12]

3.2.2.2 Humanity’s First Response: Honor

The reason why the magnificent display of God’s life in its infinite variety of colors and species was intended to elicit a response of “honor” from humanity is self explanatory. Through it all God’s preeminence was revealed, along with our dependence.

The word “honor” in Greek is doxa, and it is oftentimes translated as “glory.” In its verb form (to “glorify” or “give honor to”) it literally means “to ascribe weight by recognizing real substance or value.”[13]

This should come as no surprise. Doxa refers to a manifestation of quality that evokes a good opinion. Thus, to “glorify” is to recognize and acknowledge true worth that has been discovered. It is to side with the “revealer” of the glory and to admit the real value of that which is revealed.

3.2.2.3 Humanity’s Second Response: Thanksgiving

But what about thanksgiving?

Remember that God expected us to honor him, but also to be thankful in response to his revelation. These two actions lie at the heart of “knowing God,” and both are required.

To honor and acknowledge God, in response to the startling revelation of his preeminence in the chain of life, makes perfect sense. But how does that make one grateful?

The answer is as astonishing (if you think about it) as it is delightful: The Bible tells us that God not only displayed his life-force through creation, but allowed us to become partakers of it!

We have already alluded to this in our reference to Adam having “received” the life of God, but we have only done so to illustrate that God is “No 1” and that we are “No 2.” Yet there is more to receiving and partaking of God’s life than becoming mere symbols of his preeminence.

“Goodness” in Genesis 1

We see this when we consider the difference between the first and second chapters of Genesis, and the way in which the word “good” is used in them.

Genesis 1 narrates the revelation of God’s preeminence, and reveal him as “the beginning” or “origin” of everything that is alive, including the first humans. The chapter is all about God’s sovereignty and splendor, and it leaves the observer awestruck. It is here that one is moved to “honor” God and acknowledge his power and might.

We have seen that the Greek word for “glory” or “honor” refers to a manifestation of quality that evokes a good opinion. And indeed, throughout Genesis 1 we read that “God saw that it was good.” God’s glory was made known, and the first to affirm its superior quality was God himself. To “glorify” or “give honor” to God simply means to agree with God’s assessment that creation was indeed “good,” and to acknowledge him as the sovereign creator thereof.

The problem with the word “good” is that we tend to think of it in the light of its superlatives “better” and “best.” And so, when we hear it, it does not exactly conjure up images of pefection or utmost quality.

If someone says “Mike is a good mechanic,” or “That was a good burger,” we understand it as a statement of quality, but we also understand that there are better mechanics and better burgers around.

However, in the Bible the word is often used not as a degree of comparison but as a statement of incomparable quality, such as when Jesus said “No one is good except God alone.”[14]

It is in this sense that we should understand its use in Genesis 1. Here we are confronted with a type of goodness that is so unique that it stands in a class of its own, a goodness that cannot be understood by grading it against other levels of lesser or greater goodness.

Certainly one cannot descibe creation in terms of “better” or “best,” for that would imply that there are other creations around to compare it with. But God does not compete, for there is simply no one to compete with. And so he uses descriptive terms that cannot be understood by comparing them to other descriptive terms. God’s adjectives are in a class of their own.

This is exactly why God referred to himself as “I am” and “I am the great I am,” when asked by Moses, “Who should I say has sent me to you?”[15]

From these words we learn that there is no description sufficient to define God, and that God can only be compared to himself.

And, as we have seen, even in those instances where a word such as “good” is used to refer to God, it has a meaning that is infinetely different to our understanding of goodness as a mere degree of quality amongst others.

“Goodness” in Genesis 2

When we turn to Genesis 2, we run into the word “good” again, but with a difference.

The first reference is negative: God saw that it was “not good for man to be alone.”[16] But then it becomes positive: God responds by creating a partner for Adam, and thereafter we read that “God saw that it was very good.”[17] Thus marriage is created as something good.

Secondly, we read that all the trees in the garden were “good for food.”[18]

Whilst the fruit-bearing trees and the marital union between the sexes were already created in Genesis 1, and included in the references that “God saw that it was good,” Genesis 2 goes deeper into these stories and expand on the implication of their goodness.

Here the goodness of God is not just observed but experienced. Marriage and food were created for the man and the woman, and through them the objective goodnesss of God became a subjective and experiential reality.

As we find in Genesis 1, the core aspect of this revelation of God’s goodness has to do with life, but here it is not just a revelation of life that is at stake, but a participation in life. The only way that the man and the woman could sustain the sovereign gift of life breathed into them by God, was to continue partaking of it as it had been deposited into creation.

We can say that the life in the trees had to be continuously deposited into the man and the woman to keep them alive, thus reinforcing the truth that they were not only dependent on God for their birth but also for their survival. God was both creator and sustainer, and the point had to be reinforced on a daily basis.

The same principle applies to the “goodness” of marriage. The survival of the species was as dependent on the marital union as it was on nutrition. Marriage also has to do with a “transfer of life,” and through it the received life of God could be passed on to the rest of humanity, reinforcing with every single birth the truth that life is a gift that is traced back to God.

Thus, the two symbols that would continue the revelatory work of Genesis 1, for all of Adam and Eve’s progeny, were food and marriage. Through them we could all participate in God’s life and pass it on to others. The very parents who were responsible for the birth of a child were responsible for feeding the child, thus becoming an image and a model of God the Father who birthed us and sustains us.

This means that the goodness of God was no longer a theological abstraction or a mere “absolute truth.” We could now “taste and see that the Lord is good.”[19] The greatest satisfaction and ecstacy experienced by humans were reserved for the adventure of participating in the life of God, and joining him in passing it on to others.

This association is so strong in the human psyche that most people, when asked to describe their idea of a “perfect evening,” would do so by making food and romance its central themes (“a candlelight dinner with the woman of my dreams,” or something similar).

Indeed, the imagery reaches its final conclusion and ultimate maturity in the great wedding feast described at the end of Revelation. Here we find the two life-symbols combined in a single term. A marriage that is celebrated by eating and drinking!

Revelation ends where Genesis begins: In the garden of God’s life, where we will know as we have been known, and where all the prophetic dreams will find their ultimate fulfillment. Here marriage will be an everlasting reality,[20] and fruit will be yielded each month.[21] Thus life will be eternal.

The Irresistibility of our Desire for Life

The word that best captures these two experiential encounters with God’s life is “delight.”

In the Hebrew Old Testament the term “to delight in” is closely associated with the concept of “desire,” namely an all encompassing yearning for that which has been identified as having greater value than anything else.

Thus, desire is an anticipation of the delight of life, and can rightly be described as an appetite. This overwhelming urge to become partakers in the divine cycle of God’s life, and to experience satisfaction as the primary signal that life has been transferred and received, is an irresistible force in the human constitution.

God designed us in this way, and the reason is simple: We were intended to partake of his divine life and to share in his nature. Honoring the supremacy of life, and enjoying our participation therein, is what we were created for. This design manifests itself as a hungering and thirsting after him, with an intuitive anticipation of the satisfaction and contentment that will follow once we are filled with his life.

Anthropologists and psychologists refer to humanity’s most basic need as our need for survival, which manifests itself in two primary ways: The need for air, water and food, and our so-called “sexual instinct.”

Even here the pattern repeats itself. We are “breathers” by nature. Every moment of our existence is a simulation of our creation, with the breath of life entering into us. Every hunger pang is a confirmation that we need a continuous impartation from the God of life to exist. Every yearning for romance is a reminder that we were never intended to enjoy our God given life by ourselves, but to share it with another and pass it on to others.

The force of our desire for God is irresistible. We may not link our most basic human instincts to our need for God, but that is exactly what they are telling us. Even when we reject God, our passion for him will not be affected. Whilst we may deny him intellectually, our passions for him will rage on within us and clinch the debate with every breath, every meal and every romantic notion.

And so we see how “glory” (the manifestation of that which has true worth) and “goodness” (the immeasurable quality of that worth) inspire “honor” (the reverential awe in the atmosphere of glory) and “thanksgiving” (the gratitude that flows out of the delight that comes with partaking in the goodness of God’s life).

The conclusion of our “revelation triangle” above is therefore quite simple: True worship can only take place where there is both “honor,” inspired by awe, and “thanksgiving,” inspired by delight. To have the one without the other would not do. Awe without delight leads to dread, and delight without awe leads to sensuality. But when both are present, God’s revelation of life is appreciated exactly as he intended it to be.

Corrupting the Message of Life

If this is true, and if we are dealing with the great mystery of what it means to be “human” here, then it should come as no surprise that the great enemy of God would do everything in his power to destroy this message proclaimed by God’s two primary “life symbols.”

And indeed, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul told Timothy that a demonic deception would infiltrate the church of Jesus Christ and pose as the real thing:

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. 1 Timothy 4:1-5

Note the references to food and marriage, and note how Paul sets the record straight by identifying them as God’s “creation,” calling them “good” and linking our involvement with them to “thanksgiving.”

It is here that we find our first definition of religion as a false form of spirituality: It always underplays the role of God’s life in us, and always overemphasizes human ingenuity. And so it portrays allegiance to God as duty instead of delight, as a “taste not, touch not”[22] code instead of a loving response to a God that has been identified as infinitely good, both in his creative initiative and delightful dealings with us.[23]

3.2.3 The Eternal Purpose: Sonship

This brings us to God’s “eternal purpose” with humanity, and to the ultimate “life-symbol” chosen by him to accentuate all of the above and bring it together under a single overarching theme: Sonship.[24]

In Luke’s gospel Adam is referred to as “the son of God.”[25] Thus, the idea of sonship coincided with the creation of Adam, and preceded the mandates to eat the fruit of the trees and to become fruitful and fill the earth.

But it was even older than that. God’s purpose, that he should have many sons and daughters, originated in eternity past and predates the creation of the world. And so we refer to it as the eternal purpose.

The two books in the Bible that expound this theme are Romans and Ephesians. In both letters we find the words “purpose” (Ephesians 1:9, 11; 3:10; Romans 8:28) and “predestined” (Ephesians 1:5, 11; Romans 8:30). Both books reveal the mystery of humanity in an astounding way, clarifying God’s eternal purpose with us along with our eternal pre-destiny:

He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will. Ephesians 1:4-5

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. Romans 8:28-29

3.2.3.1 Created in His Image

As we have seen, the “responsive” nature of humanity is evident from the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2. There we read that God created the first human beings in his own “image” and “likeness” (verse 27).

This correlates with the passage from Romans 8, quoted above, where we read that we were “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.”

But what does this mean?

Note that these two words are generally used to refer to photographs, portraits, statues and mirrors. What they have in common is that they all depend on and point to an original model.

From this we learn that God created us for the purpose of being seen in us. It may sound slightly impersonal, but the relationship between God and humanity could very well be described as that of the “master” and the “mirror”. Like a mirror, our reason for being was to be found in the act of reflecting the glory and pre-eminence of our master.

It was for this reason that all humans were created, and it ties in perfectly with our discussion of honor and thanksgiving. We were intended to experience God’s eternal power and authority, to find our delight, enjoyment, pleasure, satisfaction and contentment in him and him alone, and to worship and love him as a result.

The reverential obedience of humanity is the greatest evidence that God’s authority has been perceived and understood, and the accompanying delight, expressed in gratitude, is the greatest evidence that God’s goodness has been tasted.

Thus, the peace and wholeness experienced by the creature is nothing but a reflection – a testimony – of the harmony and perfection that exists in God alone. Put differently, the ultimate way to perceive God’s wholeness and be aligned with it, is to experience it as a subjective personal wholeness – a deep sense of emotional security and joy in the knowledge of God and his sufficient provision. And so we can say that God’s perfection is best expressed in humanity’s contentment.

This is how we were to reflect God’s “invisible attributes.” God revealed himself to us in order to further reveal Himself through us! As the crown of God’s creation, we were intended to be an extension of God’s self-revelation through nature. His life was intended to be lived through us and so made manifest.

God could be “seen” through that which He had created in day 1 to 5, but that was nothing in comparison with the way in which he would be seen through that which He had created in day 6!

3.2.3.2 The Son as the Image of the Father

This brings us back to the issue of “sonship.” To be a “son” is to carry the image of the father, and to let the father be “seen.”

But it also encompasses the other life themes that we have explored thus far: To be a son is to be a living manifestation of the covenant knowledge that dissolves two lives into one. It is to be a primary life-recipient of the father, to carry his life within, and to possess the ability to pass it on to others.

And, of course, the 3 callings of humanity that are outlined in verse 21, are all included in “sonship”:

  1. The child learns from the father’s instruction and get to “know” and love the father.
  2. The child “honors“ the father by obeying and respecting him.
  3. The child enjoys the father through his presence and provision and is “thankful”.

As you will notice, in the context of a loving father-son relationship, these are not duties but spontaneous responses to the goodness of the father!

God’s purpose has always been to have an offspring that would be born from his seed, carry his life within them, live by that life, resemble him as his image, be sustained and provided for by him, be instructed and trained by him, obey him and learn from him, be protected by him, call him “Father,” love him and be loved by him (most important of all) and ultimately inherit his riches and glory.

3.2.4 Choice: The Two Trees in the Garden

3.2.4.1 The Tree of Life

The imagery of life-conveying trees culminated with a single tree that stood in the middle of the garden – the tree of life. What set this tree apart from the other trees was the nature of the life imparted by it. Its fruit could make one “live forever.”[26]

What we learn from this is that God had an aim with his creation that went beyond the joys of eating, drinking and marrying, and even beyond the honor and thanksgiving that were inspired by them. As wonderful as these gifts were, the life imparted through them was physical and provisional – a mere sample and foretaste of the unchanneled spiritual life that was to be found in God himself.

Likewise, the intended responses of honor and thanksgiving were mere shadows of the worship that would accompany the discovery of, and participation in, the pure unmediated life of God.

Even marriage between the sexes was intended to be temporary, a shadow and type of an eternal marriage between God and humanity.[27] The day would come when the life of God would no longer be mediated, but poured into humanity by God himself.

As mentioned before, this would be the day when the marital act of “knowing” would no longer take place between a man and a woman, but between humanity and God. Thus, the glorious revelation of God in and through creation would be superceded by an unveiling of God that would trump all previous “knowledge” of God.

To understand this, consider a statement in the gospel of John’s opening verses: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”[28] Here we see that “life” comes with its own understanding, which happens to be a lesson taught by creation itself: None of God’s species had to be technically “schooled” in order to learn how to be who they already were. God’s life force would implant it in them, leading to an instinctive grasp that would defy intellectual understanding or education.

This was what the tree of life symbolized. It represented a participation in the nature of life that would lead to an inner revelation and enlightenment. Two awarenesses would become one in a covenant union of reciprocal knowing.

As said before, to “know“ is what happens when two lives come together as one and share their being to such an extent that the two understandings are merged in a single consciousness – a unity of soul that far surpasses intellectual knowledge.[29]

This was God’s intention, to pour his life into us and unite us to him as “partakers of the divine nature,”[30] and here was a tree that symbolised this intention.

3.2.4.2 The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

But there was also another tree: The tree of the knowledge of good and evil. From this tree they were forbidden to eat.[31]

Note that whilst the tree of life represented “knowing God,” the other tree represented “knowing good and evil,” thus moral knowledge.

It is clear that this tree was not intended to convey life, for God said: “The day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” This was not only a tree that represented the absence of life, but also a definite choice for that absence, along with the disastrous and permanent consequences of the choice, namely death.

The reason why it was called the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” and not simply the “tree of death,” lies in what has been said above: God never intended humans to live by rules alone, that is, a code of conduct that is externally enforced and that can be categorized in neat categories of “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not.”[32]

Such a necessity would be a sure sign that the “light of life,” referred to by John in John 1:4, was sadly absent in the interaction between God and humanity. Jesus himself said: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”[33] To the Pharisees he said: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”[34]

The point is that a mere objective standard of moral conduct, no matter how profound in its distinction between what is “good” and “evil,” is insufficient without the revelational life of God. Thus, once the life of God is removed from the equation, the only thing that is left is a dead system of “do’s” and “don’ts,” a legalistic code of conduct that has an appearance of wisdom and moral superiority, but with no divine substance.

Knowledge without life would be like the body without the spirit. This is what God was saying through the symbolism of the two trees.

The one principle that remains clear through all of the above is that we were created to utterly depend on God. He is the source of both our being and our understanding. To the very degree that our physical existence depends on a continuous life impartation from God, our cognitive functioning depends on a moment-by-moment revelational impartation from him.

In this way the divine “will” is transplanted in us, so that we will as he wills, even if we do not always possess perfect clarity of understanding as to the why of God’s will.

Indeed, this is what it means to be led by the Spirit, and not by the written code, as we will see later.

3.2.5 Rejecting God’s Life

The moment that the first couple decided to choose for the wrong tree, they willingly chose against God’s life-giving power, and death entered the world in a devastating way.

As one would expect, the force of death immediately manifested itself in the very symbols that God chose to portray life: Food, marriage and even creation itself.

The free gift of God’s life as manifested by the trees in the garden became inaccessible. In the place thereof, the man now had to produce his own food “by the sweat of his face”[35] and his eating would henceforth be “in pain.”[36] Life no longer flowed naturally and unhindered from God to humans.

Similarly, the marital union that was intended to serve as a channel of God’s life and produce an offspring, was severely affected. The “giving of life” through the birth process, leading to the infant’s first “breath,” would also take place “in pain”[37] and became something dreadfully difficult.

Again, life no longer flowed naturally and unhindered.

And then there was creation itself, the magnificent display of God’s life in all its diversity. The ground was “cursed” and would produce “thorns and thistles.”[38] Botanists generally understand thorns to be manifestations of “stunted growth.” And, of course, thorns are notorious for causing pain.

Here, too, the flow of life had become obstructed, with painful consequences.

But most of all, the ultimate symbol of God’s divine life, namely the tree of life, given for the nourishment, sustenance, revelation and delight of humanity, was made inaccessible:

Therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. Genesis 3:23-14

The man and the woman would be reminded of the tragic implications of their choice for the remainder of their lives. The greatest blessings that God had bestowed on them was now felt to be a curse, and the reason was obvious: The man and woman had chosen to take responsibility for their own life by rejecting God’s free gift of life.

The two trees in the Garden of Eden were symbolic of two lives: The life of God, and the life of humanity independent from God. A choice for the one meant a choice against the other, for the two stand diametrically opposed.

This means that Adam and Eve’s choice for “self” was an active choice against God. In choosing against God, they chose against their origin. They chose against the notion that they were dependent for their life on a source outside of themselves. They chose against their beginning, and so they chose for independence.

And, of course, they chose against the joy and delight of being filled by the life of God.

If the “natural order” of creation is depicted in Fig. 1 below, and man and woman’s choice against God and for the self in Fig. 2, then the outcome of that choice could not be depicted in any other way than in Fig. 3:

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The man and woman were now “independent”, and at this point something happened that would alter their self-consciousness (their sense of self) forever. At the very moment that God was “erased” above the line, the man and woman no longer viewed themselves in the light of, or subject to God.

And so we read that “they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (verse 21b). Having lost the life of God, they lost the light of life, and began to walk in darkness. They could no longer see or know God, and so their humanity was no longer defined by God’s pre-eminence.

The disappearance of God’s life and light had a further consequence: Humanity no longer reflected God in the way that they were intended to, and so they no longer fitted the description of “image and likeness”. In this way they lost their “glory” and “radiance”, as we shall promptly see, and also their sense of identity as a “son” and a “daughter” of God.

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The serpent’s words “you will be like God” were indeed fulfilled, but with a nasty twist. Humanity became like God in the sense that they no longer had an origin.

Being without an origin or beginning works perfectly for God, as he is indeed the divine origin behind everything. But it did not and could not work for humans, as they were designed to be dependent on God!

The first “life exchange” had now taken place: Humanity exchanged the life of God for their own lives. With reference to our Life Exchange Graphic, we can portray this cataclysmic shift as follows:

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[1] The term “Son of man” regularly refers to Jesus Christ in the New Testament. See Matthew 16:27; 24:30; 26:34, Revelation 14:14, etc.

[2] See, for instance, Jeremiah 3:20 and 31:32, Hosea 2:7 and the entire Ezekiel 16.

[3] “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Jeremiah 31:31-34

[4] And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. John 17:3

[5] Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish… Philippians 3:8

[6] We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,… 2 Corinthians 10:5

[7] I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him… Ephesians 1:16-19

[8] You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. John 5:39

[9] And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. John 17:3

[10] On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ Matthew 7:22-23

[11] For example:

  • Abel’s offering, which was the first acceptable offering ever made to God, came from the firstborn of the flock (Genesis 4:3-5).
  • Proverbs tells us that we are to honor the Lord with the first fruits of all our increase (Proverbs 3:9).
  • The Israelites were to bring a sheaf of the first fruits of the harvest to the priest (Leviticus 23:9-10.
  • The Lord told Moses to consecrate all the firstborn among the children of Israel to him (Exodus 13:1-2).
  • Every firstborn male from among the Israelites’ animals was to be set aside for the Lord (Exodus 13:12).
  • The first city that the Israelites invaded was Jericho, and so God told Joshua that all the silver and gold, and every vessel of bronze and iron, were holy to the Lord and should go into the treasury of the Lord. Later on they were allowed to keep some of the plunder, but Jericho was seen as a “first fruits” city (Joshua 6:19).
  • Joshua made it clear that Jericho was not to be rebuilt, and that God would punish the person doing so by taking his firstborn – thus reinforcing the principle in the life of the one disregarding it (Joshua 6:26). The prophecy was fulfilled when Hiel of Bethel decided to rebuild Jericho during the time of King Ahab’s reign in Israel (1 Kings 16:34).
  • Israel was called God’s “firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22).
  • The Egyptians, who did not acknowledge the pre-eminence of God, had their firstborn taken from them as the last and ultimate sign of God’s sovereignty (Exodus 12:29-32). This was a fulfilment of the words ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son’” (Exodus 4:22-23). Here, too, the principle was reinforced in the life of the one disregarding it.
  • Jesus Christ is referred to as the “firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15), the “firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:18, Revelation 1:5) and the “firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29).
  • Believers are referred to as the “assembly of the firstborn” (Hebrews 12:23.
  • Jesus rose on the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1-7).
  • The early Christians gathered and broke bread on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7).

[12] Genesis 2:7

[13] James Strong, Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), s.v. “glorify.”

[14] Luke 18:19

[15] Exodus 3:13-14

[16] Genesis 2:18

[17] This sentence actually appears in Genesis 1:31, but only after it is mentioned that “God created them male and female” in verse 27.

[18] Genesis 2:9

[19] Psalm 34:8

[200] As opposed to earthly marriage that is temporal. See Mark 12:25.

[21] Revelation 22:2

[22] Colossians 2:20-23 refers to this distortion of spirituality. The whole passage reads as follows: If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

[23] Of course Romans turns this caricature of spirituality right around by devoting its first 12 chapters to the restoration of God’s life in us before telling us how to behave.

[24] The term “son” and its derivative “sonship” are used inclusively for both sons and daughters, as this is the way in which the Bible uses it.

[25] Luke 3:38

[26] Genesis 3:22

[27] Mark 12:24

[28] John 1:4

[29] This does not mean that “truth” has no objective or absolute character, and that it depends entirely on the subjective sensibilities of a person. The accusation that references to “inner enlightenment” is a sure route to a dangerous type of “mysticism,” “existentialism” or “New Age” spirituality, as well as to moral relativism, is false. God gave his spoken and written word “outside of us, ”along with his living word “inside of us,” and the one cannot exist without the other. Many of the greatest schisms in the history of the church can be traced back to a refusal amongst Christians to acknowledge that revelation is both objective and subjective.

[30] 2 Peter 1:4

[31] Genesis 2:16-17

[32] Genesis 3:22 makes it clear that God possessed the knowledge of good and evil. The reason why this is not a problem can be explained as follows: If God alone is good, then it follows naturally that God alone knows goodness. The absence of goodness is what we call evil, and so it also follows naturally that God alone knows evil. Hence, the knowledge of good and evil is restricted to the very being of God, which means that all moral authority resides in God alone. Furthermore, God himself is life, and so the relationship between life and knowledge is indissoluble in the nature of God. The knowledge of good and evil was prohibited, not because it is something bad or corrupt, but because it is intrinsically sovereign and thus off-limits. Satan knew this, and so he offered the knowledge of good and evil as the charm that would make the humans “as God.” This was not a lie, for God confirmed after the fall that they had become “like one of us, knowing good and evil.” However, without the life of God the stolen godhood was nothing but a delusion of grandeur and independence, and herein was the deception.

[33] John 8:12. The “light of life” is also referred to in passages such as Psalm 56:13 and Job 33:30.

[34] John 5:39-40

[35] Genesis 3:19

[36] Genesis 3:17

[37] Genesis 3:16

[38] Genesis 3:17-18

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3.3 Religion (1:22-23,25)

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22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things… 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.

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In spite of the devastating consequences of death, humanity’s reason for being did not change, and neither did their most basic inclinations. Human beings were still:

  • dependent on an image of God that could reveal God’s divine power and invisible attributes to them, such as creation had done,
  • designed to hunger and thirst after God and experience the satisfaction that results from being filled with God’s life,
  • designed to conform to the image and likeness of God, or, as we put it, to function as a mirror for their master,
  • designed to be a part of God’s family as sons and daughters of God, and as brothers and sisters of one another.

3.3.1 The Great Exchange

This explains the message of verses 22-25, namely that humanity’s “rejection” of God involved much more than simply denying or dismissing him. Rather, it had to do with an exchange. Something was given up in order to gain something else, in the same way that one would exchange an unwanted gift for cash at the return counter of a department store.

In this case, the “glory of God” was exchanged for “images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles,” and the “truth about God” was exchanged for a “lie.” In short, worshiping the Creator was exchanged for worshiping the creature (verse 25).

We learn the following from these verses:

  • The human need to honor something or someone remained intact.
  • The human need to believe in something was not affected.
  • The human need to worship remained exactly as it was before the fall.

The “fall” of humanity should thus not be understood as humans rejecting the idea of a god, but rather as humans exchanging one god for another. Humanity did not become less spiritually minded. They simply changed the object of their spirituality. Whilst they became “Godless,” they certainly did not become “godless.”

As we have seen, humans were created to love and worship God in response to his goodness revealed through creation, and through their participation therein. Thus, they were designed to be worshipers, and that is what they remained throughout the ordeal described in the previous section. Their spiritual inclinations did not disappear, but were redirected to a different object of worship: Themselves.

Why themselves?

In viewing themselves as beings without an origin, source or beginning, the man and woman no longer fitted the description of “image” and “likeness,” and their actions were no longer “responsive”. Thus, the only way that they could make sense of themselves, and, in the process, answer all the great philosophical questions, namely “Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going?” was by beginning with themselves, and using themselves as a frame of reference.

According to Paul, humanity’s focus shifted from the glory of God to themselves and their environment, that is, the created order. Note again verse 25: “…they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”

The place that was reserved for God alone was usurped by humanity. Whereas God was the object of worship, knowledge, reverence and gratitude, humanity became that object. Our “God-awareness” was replaced by “self-awareness”. God was no longer on the throne of our hearts. We were.

Through the lenses of their own independence, the man and woman could do nothing but conclude that they were their own beginning and their own end, their own alpha and omega.

In choosing against their origin they themselves became their origin, and so stole not only the place of God but also the functions and titles of God: Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 9.28.33 PM

3.3.1.1 The Birth of the Idolatrous Self

The impact that this shift had on our understanding of God was monumental: Whereas we were intended to understand ourselves in the light of God, we now understood God in the light of ourselves. Once we no longer had access to God’s self-revelation, the only resources that we had left for comprehending God were ourselves and our own imagination.

Ironically, whereas we were created in the image and likeness of God, we now created God in our image and likeness. Our gods became nothing but projections of our own sensibilities, and so we assumed the role of creator and our gods became our creations. Hence we fashioned them to look like us.

As the prophet Isaiah famously commented on the folly of idolatry

The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” He feeds on washes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” Isiaiah 44:12-20

Isaiah explains how humanity reversed the “natural order” of God’s creation. Graphically, we can portray this sad state of affairs as follows:

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This is exactly what the serpent had in mind when he said to Eve: “You will be like God” (Genesis 3:5). The tree of the knowledge of good and evil symbolizes autonomous knowledge (I can choose for myself), whilst the tree of life symbolizes God’s knowledge revealed to us (God knows what we need and provides it).

The result was devastating. Instead of knowing God relationally, we were left with something called “religion”: The worship of a god or gods based on our own intellectual understanding, moral aptitude and “mediatory efforts” (interpreting and approaching God through the mediation of people as a direct result of the reversed order depicted above).

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Humanity no longer knew God “immediately”, but “mediately”. The image of a human being, along with his/her ideas and efforts, became the path to God. The work ethic that infiltrated the world through the curse (“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread”) also became the basis of religion.

“Finding God” now became a matter of human ingenuity. As it is often said: “Religion is humanity’s search for God, but Christianity is God reaching down to humanity.”

3.3.1.2 Human Relationships Destroyed

Not only was the communion between humanity and God destroyed, but also between human beings. This is evident from Genesis 4 onwards. Our inability to relate to God, coupled with our obsession with self, made it impossible to live in harmony with fellow human beings. We will say more about this later.

3.3.1.3 When the Son Loses the Image of the Father

The comic strip “The Story of I,” on the next pages, explains in a nutshell how the “great exchange” influenced our eternal purpose as sons and daughters of God.

This “exchange” was never God’s will, and it explains why Romans is all about a “life exchange.” The “life exchange” that was spoken of by Jesus Christ and Paul is nothing but a correction of an earlier “life exchange,” effected by us as humans.

We rejected the life of God, which was symbolized by the tree of life, in exchange for human autonomy. This “life of I” is no life at all but death, and was symbolized by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

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The implication of all this is quite astounding: The gospel of Jesus Christ challenge us to “lose our lives.” What this actually implies is that we must come to terms with the fact that our “real” lives have already been lost in Eden. What we are called to “lose” for Christ is not something substantial, but really an illusion that we created to cope with the unimaginable horror of our own mortality and the power that death has over us.

In the absence of the Father’s life, we are forced to either turn back to him or create some or other “counterfeit life” that will enable us to effectively deny death.

That is what the following comic is all about:

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3.3.2 “I Am” versus “I Will:” From Beholding to Visioneering

There is one extremely important implication to the shift from the “image of God” to the “image of l” that we need to look at before we can move on to our “fourth R.”

As you have seen above, humans are most egotistical and idolatrous when they imagine what their own futures are going to look like. It is usually not our photo albums (representing the past) or mirrors (representing the present) that inspire self-worship, but our projections of an idealized future self.

Our past and present selves are simply too real (and oftentimes embarrassing!) to be worthy of deification, and so we use the future to shape and mold the image of I. This is the only place in the human make-up where we can have complete artistic license and autonomy, and where we can apply our imaginations free from those things that have cast our past and present experiences in concrete. And so we use it to create an idealized future inhabited by an idealized self.

All of this becomes rather interesting if we consider where the “imagining” of a future, improved “self” began. It started in Eden, and note who inspired it: The first “motivational speaker” in the history of the universe was a serpent!

Satan convinced Eve that she could be more than what she was. (You guessed it: SuperEve!) By doing so he managed to divert her gaze from what she was and had in God to what she could have and be in herself, and thus from the present to the future. “Eve, you can maximise your potential. Eve, you can fulfill your destiny.”

The difference between Eve as God made her, and “imagined Eve”, was monumental. The first was real, the second was a fantasy. The first existed in the now, with everything that she needed to simply “be.” The second existed as an idolized projection of the future, with a need for an intervention of sorts to bridge the gap between the “I am” as God made me and the “I will” of the autonomous, egotistical self. The first was created for contentment and thanksgiving, the second was infested with desire.

Ever noticed that God identifies himself as “I am”, even in His self-declaration in Christ, but that Satan identifies himself as “I will”? Note the contrast between these words…

  • I am who I am. Exodus 3:14
  • I am the bread of life. John 6: 35, 48
  • I am the light of the world. John 8: 12, 9:5
  • Before Abraham was, I am. John 8: 58
  • I am the door. John 10:9
  • I am the good shepherd. John 10:11
  • I am the resurrection and the life. John 11:25
  • I am the way, the truth, and the life. John 14:6
  • I am the true vine. John 15:1

…and these ones:

“How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart,

I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God

I will set my throne on high;

I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north;

I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;

I will make myself like the Most High.’

But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit. Isaiah 14:12-15

Reading Isaiah 14, it is clear why John tells us that “the devil has been sinning from the beginning.”[1] The seed of the serpent was forged in eternity before time, when the contentment and perfection of “I am” was replaced with the desire of “I will”.

And so “being” was replaced with “becoming”, beholding with visioneering, the Creator with the creature, rest with striving, contentment with anticipation, the now with the then, the “thank you” with “if only”, the treasure of having with the emptiness of wanting, and, ultimately, love with desire.

Of course there was only one way in which the toxic seed of the serpent could be injected into God’s creatures, made in his image and likeness, birthed into his rest, partaking of his identity of life, enjoying the abundance of his provision. They too were to utter the venomous “I will…”

And so the serpent whispered to them: “You will… be as God.”[2]

The moment they believed the promise, and acted on their newfound faith, they too were brought down to Sheol.[3] Note that the first sin was in fact the second sin, but that it was like the first sin.

The enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent began here. The “I will” became a collective in Genesis 11, when an entire nation aspired to penetrate the heavens and found a name, an identity and a dwelling for themselves. “I will” became “we will”, and so the seed of the serpent that had become the seed of humanity became the seed of the kingdoms of this world. We will return to this in Romans 2’s “Habit 3: Pompous Presumption.”[4]

3.3.3 Two Seeds, Two Births, Two Confessions

The enmity continues throughout Scripture and finds its ultimate manifestation in two births. The first came into the world and restored our understanding of the “I am” identity, the partaking in that which is and cannot become, for how can perfection be more than what it is?

This was the one who defied the arrogance of the serpent and his offspring, by saying “not my will, but yours be done.”[5] This was the one who defined divinity in his “I am” statements, quoted above. This was the one of whom was said that he, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.”[6] In each and every way he contradicted the aspirations of the serpent and his offspring. [7]

Of course the serpent tempted him in the traditional, tried and tested way that had successfully led the whole word astray: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”[8]

Note the underlying transactional and graceless philosophy that has governed all human relationships and marriages since the fall: “I will, if you will.”

But Christ resisted. As he would later say: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.”[9] In the same manner, he taught us to pray “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”[10]

The first birth manifested the seed from heaven, and revealed its nature as that which is and cannot become, which has and cannot want, which beholds and does not imagine.

If the first birth was God’s Messiah and a revelation of his perfection, then the second birth is Satan’s messiah and a revelation of his imperfection and subsequent striving to “become.” As the seed of the woman brought Christ into the world, the seed of the serpent brought forth the exact opposite and antithesis of Christ, aptly referred to as “Antichrist”.

Naturally, the Antichrist is the incarnation of the human will and its striving, and so, in accordance with the first and second sin, and all the sins since then, he is made manifest in one way only: He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.[11] Indeed, for his coming “will be in accordance with how Satan works.[12]

These insights reveal why it is futile and sinful to obsess about “tomorrow”, and why God has a habit of only providing enough manna for “today”.[13] They also should prompt us to rethink the contemporary hallowed usage of the word “destiny” amongst Christians. As the prophet Isaiah warned:

But as for you who forsake the Lord and forget my holy mountain, who spread a table for Fortune and fill bowls of mixed wine for Destiny, I will destine you for the sword.[14]

[1] 1 John 3:8

[2] Genesis 3:5

[3] With reference to Isaiah 14:15. Sheol is the place of the dead and represents Satan’s punishment and eternal destiny. God said that Adam and Eve would “surely die” if they ate of the tree, and in Romans 6:23 we read that “the wages of sin is death.” Thus, Adam and Eve suffered the same destiny as Satan, and God’s words were fulfilled.

[4] See page 65

[5] Matthew 26:39

[6] Philippians 2:6

[7] We are getting slightly ahead of ourselves by discussing the work of Jesus Christ here. As you will see, Romans culminates with the example of Jesus Christ whom we are called to emulate (chapter 15:3-12). The reason we discuss his work here is to provide a comprehensive picture of the demonic “I will”, birthed from worshiping the image of self, versus the divine “I am”, birthed from the contentment and rest that is to be found in beholding the Father’s image.

[8] Matthew 4:9

[9] John 6:38

[10] Matthew 6:10

[11] 2 Thessalonians 2:4

[12] 2 Thessalonians 2:9 – Note that the Satanic attitude is a composite of pride and rebellion. 1 Samuel 15:23 calls it the sin of “witchcraft,” in reference to Saul who disobeyed God and set up a monument for himself (verse 12).

[13] A focus on “tomorrow” is an inevitable invitation to idolatry, and so we are warned:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13-16

Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring. Proverbs 27:1

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6:31-34

Give us today our daily bread. Matthew 6:11

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions… The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed. Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.” However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them. Exodus 16:4, 17-20

[14] Isaiah 65:11-12

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4. Retribution (1:24, 26-32)

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24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves… 26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 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. 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. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

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We now come to a fascinating development in Romans’ first chapter, and one that is often overlooked by Bible students.

To appreciate this, consider the following question: What do you think of when you hear the word “sin”? Murder, theft, adultery, lying?

Most of us do. Yet, up to this point, we have not heard a single word about such sins.

What we have come across is one big sin: The refusal of human beings to know, honour and thank God. There has been no mention of any other “bad deeds”.

4.1 God’s Wrath Revealed

This insight is vital for our study. Remember that the “Revelation” section of our commentary (Romans 1:18-20) begins with a reference to God’s wrath?

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth”.

What is this “wrath of God” that is unleashed because of humanity’s rejection of him?

The verses that we are presently looking at provide the answer: It is God “giving people up” to do “what ought not to be done.” (See verses 24,26 & 28).

At first, this may sound a little strange. Why would God cause people to sin? Surely God is more against sin than anyone else?

When God “gives people up in the lust of their heart,” it simply means that he takes that which is already inside the heart (by choice) and allows it to become the governing force in that person’s life.

This means that the heart of that person is permanently handed over to its own choices. Once this has happened, any outward show of good deeds is useless, for the motives behind such deeds remain self-driven and corrupt. It is here that we deal with one of the most profound themes of Romans.

4.2 Heart Exchange Causes Lifestyle Exchange

Humanity’s great sin is an inward one, a sin of the heart, namely to reject God in favor of self. As we have seen, humans rejected God’s “Natural Order” (See The Great Exchange), and so God allowed their behavior to become “unnatural” so as to visibly portray what happened in their hearts.

To use those two very important terms that we spoke about earlier, their “life-source” was corrupted and so their “lifestyle” adapted itself accordingly, i.e. the tree became rotten, which obviously affected the fruit:

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In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he makes the point that the relationship between a husband and wife represents the relationship between Christ and the church. It should come as no surprise that he interprets humanity’s choice, to reject God in favor of self, as finding expression in a negative metaphor of the same truth: “Women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature” (verse 26).

Men did the same. They “gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another” (verse 27). This is Paul’s way of simply saying: “We chose ourselves, our own kind, instead of that which God had ordained.”

Here, too, he makes the point that the “exchange” that took place in the visible realm was a “due penalty” for the exchange that took place in the spiritual realm. It was a visible manifestation of a spiritual choice: Humanity did not choose God. Humanity chose humanity – the creature rather than the creator.

4.3 Sin and Sins

This brings us to one of the most important distinctions running throughout the book of Romans: The difference between “sin” as an inward force of continuous self-choice and self-exaltation, and “sins” as the visible expression thereof through constant selfish behavior.

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If we read through Paul’s list of “sins” in verses 24 to 31, the common denominator is embarrassingly obvious: Self.

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The dominance of “self” is clear from Paul’s list of “sins”. Take a moment and look again at the above characters and what they represent in the Characters section for chapter 1:18-32. You will see how murder, arrogance, envy, disobedience to parents, strife and gossiping are all bound together and inspired by one single principle: The rule of self.

4.4 The Birth of Selfish Desire

The last observation that we need to make in this passage is the recurrence of the term “desire”. Unless we understand this little word, we will not and cannot understand Romans, nor it’s teaching on sin and the Law.

Note what Romans 1 has to say about this little word:

  • God gave people up in the lusts of their hearts. (verse 24)
  • God gave people up to dishonorable passions. (verse 26)
  • Men were consumed with passion for other men. (verse 27)
  • People were filled with all manner of covetousness. (verse 29)

These passages reveal that the connection between “sin” and “sins” took place through something called “lust”, “passion” or “covetousness” (covetousness means desire). The way in which God gave people up to do “what ought not to be done”, was very simple: He handed them over to their sinful desires.

The selfish motivation that prompted humanity to choose for themselves, rather than for God, became a strong and irresistible force of lust within their hearts. Humanity became a slave to selfish desire, and this led them to indulge in selfish behavior.

It is for this reason that Peter refers to “the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire”[1] and Paul to the “old self which … is corrupt through deceitful desires.”[2]

As you will promptly see, sinful desire was not something born out of the blue, but rather a redirection and corruption of the appetite for God that had been implanted in humanity as a design to drive them to God. This desire for God is irresistible, as we pointed out, and so it remains, even in its corrupted form. We were created to lust for life, and in its absence we will satisfy our craving by trying to fill ourselves with all kinds of life-substitutes.

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We can now expand our definition of “sin” and “sins” to include the presence of desire:

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This pattern, that sinful desire precedes sinful action, is confirmed by the Genesis account of the fall of humanity. The woman “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise.”[3] The desire then overcame her and she ate the fruit.

Similarly, James tells us that each one is tempted when he is dragged away and enticed by his own “desire”. Then, when desire is conceived it gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is full grown, gives birth to death.[4]

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The pattern is clear: Desire functions as a strong, selfish appetite that manifests in the heart, and it then gives birth to sinful behavior. This leads to death, the “wages of sin.”[5]

The reason is simple: The act of desire, as mentioned above, is nothing but the redirection of the heart to “God-substitutes.” This may temporarily feel like the real thing, but it can never provide the life that is in God alone. Thus, misdirected desire traps one with an expectation of life (“You will not surely die.”[6]) but always fails to deliver (“The wages of sin is death.”)

The startling implication is just as clear: The only way to eradicate sinful behavior is to get rid of the underlying desire that produces it. The problem is not with our deeds, but with our hearts!

As we will see in chapter 2, the circumcision that is required is not physical, but spiritual, namely a “circumcision of the heart”. The only way that the “flesh” can be removed from humanity is to have desire cut out of their hearts.

4.5 Desire as Self-Directed Love

The curse of sinful desire can only be understood against the backdrop of God’s eternal purpose with his children. As mentioned earlier, human beings were created to be loved by God and to love him in return. Indeed, “we love because he first loved us”.[7] Our love is the ultimate “responsive” act. It is out of God’s fullness that we are filled, creating in us the capacity for “freely giving” what we have “freely received”.[8]

The foundation for all sacrificial giving is therefore to be found in the fullness of God. To understand this, let us consider for a moment the three main “attributes” that the Bible assigns to God: Life, Light and Love.

Theologians have called these characteristics the three “eternal verities”, but we can simply refer to them as the three “L’s”. Their relation to God is clear from many verses in the Bible, such as in John 1:4 where we read “In him was life, and that life was the light of men”, and 1 John 4:8 where we read “God is love”.

The remarkable thing about the 3 L’s is that they all share a strong “emanating” or “radiating” quality. They all move outward and away from their own source towards some or other recipient. In this sense they all represent the action of “giving”, and so they are all manifestations of fullness.

When we are partakers of the divine nature, these attributes apply to us. And so Christ calls his followers “the light of the World,”[9] the very description that he used for himself.[10]. Similarly, he says that the living water that he will give people will become in them “a spring of water welling up to eternal life[11]. Finally, he tells his disciples that they are to love one another just as he has loved them.[12]

The point is that the nature of Christ will emanate or radiate from us when we are filled with him. This has nothing to do with effort, and everything with the “life-source” within. These attributes are manifestations of fullness and contentment, and they remind us of the words of David in the world’s most famous Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…my cup overflows.”[13]

Graphically, we can portray the process as follows:

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In Fig. 1, God is represented as Life, Light and Love, with these qualities emanating out of him.

In Fig. 2, God creates humanity and breathes his Spirit of life into them. Humanity is “filled” with the fullness of God and becomes a partaker of the divine nature.

In Fig. 3, humans emanate the very qualities of God that they have been filled with, and fulfil their creative purpose of being “image” and “likeness”. God’s seed of life now dwells in humanity, and so the first man is called a “son of God.”

Herein is the single greatest descriptor of the “life of Christ” that we referred to in Chapter 1, and that we are instructed to “find”. Simply put, it is a life that contains the fullness of God.

As Paul wrote to the Colossians:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.[14]

As noted above, the fullness of God’s life was not reserved for Christ alone, but also intended for us. Paul goes on to say:

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him…[15]

This has been God’s purpose from the beginning: To have an offspring indwelt by the fullness of his life and emanating his glory. We can thus depict “the life of Christ” as follows:

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As mentioned earlier, the two trees in the Garden of Eden were given to represent two lives: The eternal life of God and the autonomous life of humanity apart from God. When Adam and Eve chose for the latter, they forfeited their life source and were no longer recipients of God’s life. This left an aching void in the heart of humanity.

As Augustine famously wrote: Oh Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

To understand this, let us remind ourselves that human beings were created with a hunger and passion for God. When they rejected God the passion did not disappear but was redirected to all kinds of idols or “God-substitutes”.

Of course none of these idols could truly satisfy the longing of humanity. The wise Solomon wrote that God had put “eternity into man’s heart”[16], and so there was a deep part of the human heart that longed for something more than mere carnal pleasures. Human beings, in spite of their spiritually dead state, were longing for Eden.

The famous Christian author G.K.Chesterton once remarked: “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.” Chesterton’s statement might cause eyebrows to rise, but he was in fact merely pointing out that at the heart of all emptiness, and sinful efforts to overcome it, lies a yearning for God.

Having lost the fullness that they was designed for, humans began seeking for alternatives to compensate for the loss of God. Having lost sight of the heavenly realities, they only had the world and its provisions as a potential source to rediscover the lost treasure. This was the birth of “worldliness” and “lust”, namely a misdirected spiritual hunger that was doomed to last as long as humans remained disconnected from their only legitimate source of life: God.

Needless to say, the “natural order” picture that we looked at earlier now looks different. The moment the “inflow” from God ceased, the “outflow” from humanity ceased as well. Instead of being a channel of God’s life, light and love, human beings became seekers after some alternative that could still the hunger and thirst of their souls.

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In Fig. 1 God is rejected as “life source.” In Fig. 2 the absence of God creates the need for a substitute to replace the inflow of life. In Fig. 3 humanity looks for “God-substitutes” in their own environment (the “world”).

The sad outcome of this situation is clear from the last picture: The arrows are inverted. Whereas the man in the picture was a “giver” from a position of fullness and contentment, he now became a “taker” from a position of emptiness and need.

As the famous mathematician Blaise Pascal once quipped:

What is it then that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.

The 3 L’s now became the 3 D’s. Life was replaced with death, light was replaced with darkness and love was replaced with desire.

Indeed, this is precisely the sad scenario sketched by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians:

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.[17]

  1. The disappearance of “life” represents the disappearance of the divine nature, that which is symbolized by “partaking of the tree of life”.
  2. The disappearance of “light” represents the disappearance of the ability to “know” God. As we have seen, knowing God is related to intimacy with him, walking in his light, understanding him and knowing what his will for your life is. To be “darkened” in one’s understanding is to no longer see the glory of God, but to see only the world and the flesh, the very shift that made Adam and Eve see their own nakedness for the first time.[18]
  3. The disappearance of “love” represents the redirection of our passion and desire for God to the natural realm and created things. It is the direct result of the disappearance of those things that are experienced because of “life” and seen and understood because of “light”. When the heavenly realities are no longer comprehended, the only things that remain “to be seen” and thus appreciated are the things of the flesh and the world. [19] Thus the “love of the Father” is replaced by “the love for the world”, which is exactly what “desire” is. It is an appetite of lust that seeks to compensate for the loss of God and the things of God, and thus the “giving” vitality of the divine nature becomes the “taking” compulsion of the fallen human nature.

Note the words of 1 John:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.[20]

Note that “desire“ underlies the drive to compensate for the loss of God’s divine life and light. The “desires of the eyes” are related to “seeing”, the “desires of the flesh” are related to craving that which can give life, and the “pride of life” is related to the conviction that we can be “like God” in the sense of recreating those realities that we have forfeited with the fall.[21]

Our picture now looks as follows:

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 4.37.00 AM

Note that the energy driving the two men in the picture above is exactly the same energy: Love! The difference between the two pictures is the direction in which the love travels. Whilst the little green man is giving it, the little grey man is demanding it.

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4.6 A Final Word on “Desire”

The implications of the above are quite severe, if you think about it!

By recognizing the “self-life” (the life that Christ commanded us to “lose”) as a life under the power of “desire”, we have simplified the question of sin significantly. If this is true, then it follows that a deliverance from the power of “desire” would be a deliverance from sin, and the necessary prerequisite to gaining entrance into the “life of Christ” which is a life of contentment, thanksgiving and “love”.

But can we back up such a radical conclusion from the rest of the Bible? Is this a mere inference from Romans, or is it indeed the central theme of the gospel?

We have already pointed to two verses that confirm that desire precedes sinful actions. Here they are again:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight for the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate.[22]

But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.[23]

Yet these are not the only verses that confirm the picture that Romans 1 paints of desire as the force behind the sinful life. Note again what Peter and Paul have to say about this:

…he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.[24]

…to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires.[25]

The “old man” that Paul refers to here is related to the “former manner of life” of the believer, and thus to the “life that I need to lose” part of our Life Exchange Graphic. According to Paul, this old life is corrupt because of “deceitful desires”, and according to Peter it is exactly these desires that have ended up corrupting the entire “world”.

As we will see later, the instrument of execution for this “old man” is the cross of Jesus Christ. Note what Paul has to say about the work of the cross, and how it relates to the above:

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.[26]

It cannot be clearer than this. To summarise then, let us incorporate the two respective “fundamentals” of the self-life and the Christ life into our graphic:

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 4.39.47 AM

Note that the “great prohibition” to desire and the “great command” to love are not two separate instructions, but the two opposing sides of the same instruction. Desire is not a force apart from love, but love itself gone wrong and misdirected. To use the words of the Christian author Norman Grubb, desire is an “illicit love affair”.

This means that it is impossible to obey the great command without also obeying the great prohibition, for it is in fact the same command stated in two different ways. The one is stated positively (you shall) and the other is stated negatively (you shall not). Once we understand this, we understand the following statements:

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.[27]

If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.[28]

We can put this in another way: A person has only one heart, and that heart has only the capacity for a single overriding or primary allegiance. As stated earlier, the only motivating energy on planet earth is “love”, and we cannot do anything about it. The only freedom that we have is whether we are going to let that love travel from us to others, or whether we are going to demand that it travels from others to us. But it simply cannot travel in both directions at once!

Lastly, these insights are more than mere interesting or philosophical observations. They are vital to understanding the heart of true Christianity. If “desire” or “lust” is love gone wrong, then we cannot conquer it by fighting against it, for we shall be fighting against our very design as creatures who have been created to love. The only way to conquer desire is to redirect it back to its rightful object, namely God. Once that happens desire is conquered and can exist no more than a cake can exist on a plate after it has been eaten.

As you will see, Romans is designed around this principle. The “great prohibition” underlies the first half of Romans (chapters 1-11) and is clearest revealed in chapter 7. The “great command” underlies the second half of Romans (chapters 12-16) and is clearest revealed in chapter 13. There it is presented as the “fulfilment” of the great prohibition and the lifestyle that results from our inability to obey it.

More about this in the following chapters.

[1] See 2 Peter 1:4

[2] Ephesians 4:22

[3] Genesis 3:6

[4] James 1:14-15

[5] Romans 6:23

[6] Genesis 3:4

[7] 1 John :19

[8] Matthew 10:8

[9] Matthew 5:14

[10] John 9:5.

[11] John 4:14

[12] John 13:34; 15:12

[13] Psalm 23:1, 5

[14] Colossians 1: 19

[15] Colossians 2:9-10

[16] Ecclesiastes 3:11

[17] Ephesians 4:17-20

[18] According to John 1:2 “light” is a component of “life”: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” This means that “enlightenment” may never be sought apart from the life of God, as though it is something to be gained and possessed in itself and for its own sake. To “know” is a byproduct of participating in the divine nature, and so we can safely assume that Adam and Eve would have gained knowledge had they eaten of the Tree of Life. Yet this knowledge would have been intrinsically linked to their union with God. The yearning for “light” apart from the “life” of God defines the first sin, all witchcraft and occult practices since then, the rise of first century Gnosticism, and the unbiblical notion that God can be “known” through intellectual analysis. It is this idea that was severely rebuked by Jesus in his words to the Pharisees: “You diligently study the Scriptures, thinking that by them you have life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39).

[19] It should therefore come as no surprise that lust is related to nakedness.

[20] 1 John 2:15-17

[21] Note that this is exactly the way in which Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness. He “showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (the desires of the eyes), he incited him to “command these stones to become loaves of bread” (the desires of the flesh) and he suggested that Jesus throws himself down from the pinnacle of the temple so as to publicly display his own divinity (the pride of life). And thus Satan tempted Jesus with counterfeit light, counterfeit life and counterfeit love (i.e. love for self, the desire for prospective greatness).

[22] Genesis 3:6

[23] James 1:14-15

[24] 2 Peter 1:4

[25] Ephesians 4:22

[26] Galatians 5:24

[27] Matthew 6:24

[28] 1 John 2:15

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Romans 1:1-17 – Introduction

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Scene 1: The Meeting at the Arch of Septimius Severus

1. Overview

Our study of Romans begins with the author, Paul the “apostle”, introducing himself, his Roman readers and his message to us. We will discuss these three themes under the following headings:

  1. Paul’s Ministry (1:1-6)
  2. Paul’s Mission (1:7-15)
  3. Paul’s Message (1:15-16)

2. Characters

Our characters for this section look as follows:Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 4.38.45 PM

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Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 4.44.52 PM3. Commentary

3.1 Paul’s Ministry (1:1-6)

Paul1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ…

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Paul introduces himself by highlighting 4 different aspects of his calling in these verses:

3.1.1 Paul the ServantScreen Shot 2016-04-11 at 4.24.08 PM

He starts off by calling himself “a servant of Christ Jesus”. In the Roman world a servant
was a slave, and slaves were people who existed for the benefit of their masters. This is Paul’s way of saying that he belongs to Jesus Christ and lives to carry out his will.

Romans has much to say about the importance of becoming a servant. In fact, the entire second half of the book (chapters 12 to 16) is devoted to the art of servanthood!

3.1.2 Paul the ApostleScreen Shot 2016-04-11 at 4.24.18 PM

Secondly, he is an apostle. The word “apostle” means “sent one” and referred to an ambassador, a delegate, a commissioner or a representative of the emperor or king. It is derived from the verb “to send out‟, usually on a specific mission. This was Paul’s way of saying that he had been sent by God as an ambassador to the churches.

Note that the word “apostle” is never used in the Bible as a title for a person, such as we do when we say “Doctor” or “Professor”. As mentioned above, the word does not even exist in Greek as a special term. It simply refers to the calling of being “sent” by God for a specific task.

3.1.3 Paul the Preacher and Teacher of the GospelScreen Shot 2016-04-11 at 4.24.27 PM

Thirdly, he is set apart for the gospel, which means “the Good News”.

What is this gospel? The passage tells us that the gospel concerns Jesus Christ, who was declared to be God’s Son through his resurrection from the dead (verse 4).

As we will see throughout Romans, the centrality of God’s son Jesus Christ is the key to understanding the gospel. Romans explains in detail how we can also become sons and daughters of God by identifying with Jesus Christ and being found “in him.” Like Christ, this fact will be publically declared by our resurrection from the dead (See Romans 8:18-25).

You may wonder what the resurrection has to do with being declared a son or daughter of God: To be God’s child is to be born again or regenerated by the living, immortal and imperishable seed of God. This identity of a divine nature is invisible to the naked eye but will be revealed through its ultimate triumph over death.

In this sense Jesus was declared to be God’s son through his resurrection from the dead!

The core message of Romans is the life of Christ, and it is introduced in the first few verses. This resurrection life is not restricted only to Jesus Christ, but is also granted to those who “belong to Jesus Christ” (verse 6).

When we belong to Him, His life belongs to us! Herein is the “life exchange” discussed in Part 1: Introduction and Overview.

Paul was called to spread this good news of salvation, and he did so through preaching, teaching and writing to churches and individuals. Thus he also reveals himself to be a preacher and teacher of the gospel.Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 4.24.49 PM

3.1.4 Paul the Missionary

Finally, Paul was called to take this glorious message to the “nations”. This word was used to refer to gentiles, heathen and foreigners, and it included the Romans. Paul travelled extensively, as is confirmed in the book of Acts. Today we would refer to such a person as a “missionary.”

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3.2 Paul’s Mission (1:7-15)

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7 To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. 9 For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you 10 always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. 11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12 that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, 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. 14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

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Who were the original recipients of the letter to the Romans? Well, quite obviously, the Romans! In verses 7 to 15 Paul mentions this and provides us with some information about the believers in Rome, as well as his relationship with them. “Paul’s mission” had to do with his motives for writing to them and his desire to impart some spiritual gift to them.

3.2.1 Who were the Romans?

According to legend a horribly wicked king called Amulius ordered that his two cousins, the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, be abandoned on the banks of the flooding river Tiber. The waters never reached the brothers and a kind she-wolf rescued and raised them. They eventually built a city at the place where they had been rescued. Romulus later killed Remus and named the city after himself.

Tombstone RomeThe actual history is far less interesting. The earliest people who inhabited the famous Seven Hills of Rome were peasant farmers called “Latins”. Other people in the area were Etruscans and settlers from Greece.

Rome developed like any other city: out of these early settlements and over a long period of time. Rome became a republic in 510 B.C. and an empire 500 years later. It came to a rather nasty end in 476 with the revolt of Germanic mercenaries under their chieftain Odoacer.

3.2.2 Why was Paul writing to the Christians in Rome?

The growth of Christianity in Rome was a huge event. Everybody was speaking about it and Paul wanted to tell the Romans how grateful he was for their faith (verse 8).

Secondly, he wanted them to know that he was constantly praying for them (verses 8-10). We can learn a lesson from this. Any form of Christian ministry is powerless without prayer. One of the main characteristics of Paul’s ministry was that he always prayed for all the churches, and the Romans were no exception.

Thirdly, in verse 11 Paul says “I long to see you”. He cared deeply for the Roman believers, and he wanted them to know this. This is confirmed by his farewell at the end of the book, where we see how many people he knew and loved in Rome.

Yet Paul’s intention to visit Rome included much more than a friendly visit. In verse 12 he speaks of his desire for a “mutual encouragement” of one another. He wanted to impart to the Romans “some spiritual gift to strengthen” them (verse 11), and he expected them to minister to him in return.

This confirms one of the central messages of Romans. “Ministry” is not the unique privilege of a select few spiritual professionals, but the responsibility of each and every believer in the body of Christ. As incredible as it may sound, the spiritually astute Paul understood that he was deeply dependent on the rest of the body for his own spiritual strength and development. He saw himself as a mere member amongst other members, and knew nothing of the “super-apostle” syndrome that haunted the Corinthian church (See 2 Corinthians 11) and still haunts much of contemporary Christianity. This issue is discussed in greater depth in Chapter 12.

Lastly, he wanted them to know that he was under an obligation to preach the gospel to them (verse 15), and he anticipated to “reap some harvest” among them as a result (verse 13). Yet he says “I have…thus far been prevented.”

Why? The very existence of the letter to the Romans provides us with the likeliest explanation. Had Paul succeeded in his intention to visit Rome in order to strengthen the believers and preach the gospel there, he may never have felt obligated to write to them. His letter was written to compensate for his absence, and it contained the very preaching of the gospel that he had been prevented to deliver to them in person.

Truly, “for those who love God all things work together for good!”

3.2.3 When did Paul write his letter to the Romans?

Most scholars are in agreement that Paul wrote to the church in Rome between 55 and 57, and that he did so from the city of Corinth whilst staying with Gaius. The reasons behind these conclusions are not important for our purposes, and can be easily found online for those who are interested.

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3.3 Paul’s Message (1:16-17)

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 3.12.42 PM16 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. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”  

 

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In verse 17, Paul makes a statement that runs like a golden thread through Romans: “The righteous shall live by faith.” This is “Paul’s message”, and it is expounded on in the rest of the book.

3.3.1 The Story of Martin Luther

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 3.13.04 PMOn 31 October 1517, a German monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed a piece of paper to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. It contained ninety-five theses (statements) setting out his views on the selling of indulgences.

An “indulgence” was a type of religious fine that could buy remission of punishment due for any sins committed. A pompous Dominican monk, Johannes Tetzel, was peddling these indulgences shamelessly.

Tetzel even had a neat list handy which listed a price for each type of sin! Like a corrupt medieval televangelist, he went about saying silly things like:

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 3.21.35 PM

The idea is not a bad one, if you think about it. (Who wouldn’t want to buy time out from purgatory?) The only problem is that the whole thing never originated with God, and so it boiled down to nothing more than a grandiose sham to con guilt ridden souls out of their money and fill the coffers of the Pope in the process.

Luther realized this and so he protested vigorously (which is, by the way, where the word “Protestant” derives its name.)

There was a history behind this dramatic step. Something had happened that prompted Luther to challenge Tetzel. He was a monk himself and had a track record of trying to overcome his own guilt by striving to live up to an impossible ideal of holiness, praying and fasting until he looked like a skeleton.

It is alleged that Martin’s frequent failures made him so miserable that he developed a pathological habit of constantly visiting his confessor to confess his sins. This drove his confessor up the wall, causing him to tell Martin to do something worthy of being confessed, such as killing his father or mother!

Luther once said: “If ever a monk were to get to heaven by this monkery it would be I… I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, recitings, and other work!”

3.3.2 The Event that Changed Martin‘s Life

The event that revolutionized Martin’s life took place in 1512. He was sitting in his room (more like a cell) in Wittenberg, reading Paul’s letter to the Romans. When he got to Chapter 1:17, something extraordinary happened to him. This is his account of the event that would lead to the birth of the Protestant Reformation a few years later:

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Luther grasped the message of Romans! Righteousness (right standing with God) is not something that can be earned by either a system of good works, or money, or anything else. Rather, it is something that exists in God alone and is freely given by God alone.

The only thing that “unrighteous” people can do, is to put their faith in God’s remedy for sin, turn to him, acknowledge their own sin, and trust him to forgive them for their sins and deliver them from the power of sin.

This is the gospel, the “power of God unto salvation”. It is the message of Romans, summarized very aptly in chapter 1:16-17.

Luther was not the only person changed as a result of his revelation. Two weeks after he nailed his theses on the Church door, his message had spread throughout Germany. Soon, his statements were read in every country in Western Europe, sparking the Protestant Reformation.

To this day Protestants worldwide celebrate 31 October as “Reformation Day”.

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Outline and Chapter Divisions

1. 6 Levels of Bible Knowledge

A person who studies a book of the Bible can interact with it at 6 different levels:

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 12.02.29 PM

The first level of the triangle represents the most basic knowledge that one can have of a book of the Bible, and the sixth level the most advanced.

The single biggest secret of Bible study (apart from the illumination of the Holy Spirit!) is this: The triangle must always be accessed from the top. This means that the detail or parts of a book, such as a few loose standing verses, must always be interpreted in the light of the broader context, or the whole. This is essentially what we mean when we speak about the “Big Picture Principle.”

If we honour this principle, we will always interpret a specific level in the light of a higher level, which means we will first get a grasp of the higher level.

2. Dividing Romans

Level 1: As we have seen, the Theme of Romans is a courtroom drama during which a life exchange takes place.

Level 2: The Major Divisions of Romans (which we briefly referred to in Chapter 1) can be depicted as follows:

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Level 3: The Sub Divisions of Romans divide our picture even further:

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Level 4: The Chapters that are contained in the Sub Divisions can be summarised as set out hereunder. Note that each chapter “setting” or “event”, as it appears in our Big Picture, has its own name and unique character to help you remember the theme of the chapter and distinguish it from other chapters.

Sub Division 1: The Problem (Chapters 1-3)

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 2.44.16 PMChapter 1: A Pagan Party

Human beings were created for God, but exchanged their view of God with a focus on self. As a result, their instinct to worship God was replaced with a desire for self-empowerment, which in turn birthed a selfish lifestyle.

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Chapter 2: A Religious Riot

Religion cannot save us. An effort to keep God’s law may lead to prideful actions that appear righteous on the outside, but it can never change the heart.

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 2.46.22 PMChapter 3: An Incredible Indictment

The religious and irreligious have all sinned, and fall short of God’s glory.

Once Sub Division 1: The Problem is fully populated, it will look like this:

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Sub Division 2: The Solution (Chapters 4-6)

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 2.46.41 PMChapter 4: A Fatherly Faith

Abraham believed God and was declared righteous. We can also become righteous if we believe in this way.

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 2.46.52 PMChapter 5: A Radical Righteousness

The first outcome of saving faith is forgiveness. The blood of Jesus Christ pays the penalty for our sins and reconciles us to God.

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 2.57.11 PMChapter 6: A New Nature

The second outcome of saving faith is deliverance from the power of sin. Christ did not only die for us. We died with him!

Once Sub Division 2: The Solution is fully populated, our big picture will look like this:

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Sub Division 3: The Outcome (Chapters 7-11)

3.1 The Outcome for the Christian (Chapters 7-8)

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 2.47.22 PMChapter 7: An Impossible Instruction

We have not only died to sin, but have also died to the law. The tenth commandment points us to Christ, as it prohibits the sinful inclinations of the heart. No one can keep this commandment, and so it condemns all who are not in Christ.

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 2.47.29 PMChapter 8: A Glorious Guide

The believer is no longer guided by selfish desire and deeds, but by the Holy Spirit. Through him we become God’s children and heirs.

3.2 The Outcome for Israel (Chapters 9-11)

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 2.47.40 PMChapter 9: A People of Promise

God has called a people to himself made up of both Jews and gentiles. They are children of promise instead of physical descent, just like Jesus Christ.


Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 3.25.33 PMChapter 10: A Wrong Righteousness

Israel tried to establish a righteousness of their own, instead of submitting to God’s righteousness. True righteousness stems from believing with the heart and confessing with the mouth.

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 2.47.58 PMChapter 11: A Future Faith

Israel’s present unbelief does not mean that God has rejected them. God has preserved a remnant for himself that will come to saving faith at the appointed time.

Once Sub Division 3: The Outcome is fully populated, our big picture will look like this:

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 12.24.28 PM

Sub Division 4: The New Life (Chapters 12-16)

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 2.48.09 PMChapter 12: An Industrious Identity

Believers are “living sacrifices”. They have died, yet are alive. They belong to a new family, the body of Christ, and discover their identity therein.

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 2.48.17 PMChapter 13: A Loving Loyalty

Believers are no longer self-driven, and so they humbly submit to the authorities. They live by the law of love, which is the fulfilment of the law.

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 2.48.26 PMChapter 14: An Accepting Attitude

Believers do not judge fellow believers who differ with them on minor issues, but accept them in love.

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 2.48.48 PMChapter 15: An Excellent Example

The calling to relate to others according to the law of love is best understood by looking at the life of Jesus Christ.

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 2.49.01 PMChapter 16: A Gracious Greeting

Paul greets his readers and warns them against those who oppose the doctrine he teaches, namely the “revelation of the mystery”.

Once Sub Division 4: The New Life is fully populated, our big picture is complete (finally!) and will look like this:

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Levels 5 & 6: The bottom two levels of our triangle (Chapter Divisions and Verses) will be dealt with in the material to follow.

3. Aligning our Courtroom Drama with Romans

A question that may arise is this: How do I integrate the 6 “phases” of the courtroom drama with the chapters and “sub-divisions” of Romans? The graphic below provides a neat idea:

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Romans: A Courtroom Drama

1. Our Theme: A Courtroom Drama in 6 Phases

A careful study of Romans reveals an astounding pattern, namely that of a courtroom drama! The phases in this drama unfolds as follows:

  1. All humans have broken God’s law
  2. As a result, all humans are declared “guilty
  3. All humans are sentenced because of their guilt
  4. All humans are provided the opportunity of having their sentence “served”
  5. All humans are provided the opportunity of being “rehabilitated”
  6. All humans are provided the opportunity of a “new life” after rehabilitation

To begin then, we can think of Romans as a court case in ancient Rome. This idea gives us both the theme (a court case) and the setting (ancient Rome) of the book, which is why we have chosen it as a “map” for our study.

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 10.35.25 AM2. Our Setting: The Roman Forum

Do you have any idea where the Romans held their court cases? Think about it for a moment. As a clue, look at the picture below:

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This is a reconstruction of the ancient Roman Forum, or Forum Romanum, as it was popularly known. Today it does not look like this, of course. If you ever have the opportunity to travel to Rome, find your way to the Colosseum and take a leisurely stroll in a north-western direction. You will soon stumble upon the ruins of this once magnificent square.

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The Roman Forum as it looks today

The Roman Forum was a market place and business center, but it also served a number of other purposes, such as being used for the hearing of lawsuits. In his little book The Roman Forum and the Palatine Giuseppe Lugli explains what went on there:

In historic times the forum was at first the spot where the farmers and merchants brought what they wanted to sell and thus all around the square, shops were built for butchers, fruiterers and bankers. The central space and the Comitium were used for political and sacred functions, for the election of magistrates, the hearing of lawsuits, the publications of edicts, the principal religious ceremonies, the public games, and all those other ceremonies that formed part of civic life. [1]

Plautus (c. 254 – 184 BC), the great Roman dramatist and comic writer, gives us a vivid description of daily life in the Forum in his Curculio [2]:

Plautus

Quite a place, don’t you think? Plautus’ description makes the Forum come alive, and it also gives us a fascinating picture of what daily life looked like in ancient Rome. The letter to the Romans was written to Christians who lived in this world, and so the Roman Forum is the ideal symbol not only of Roman law but also of Roman life.

3. The Forum: Our Map for Studying Romans

We will use the Roman Forum as our “map” for studying Romans. Plautus tells us that the Forum was a busy place, and that is how we will depict it.

Starting in the right bottom corner we will systematically fill the Forum with different characters in a variety of settings, in a clockwise direction. Each of these settings will represent a chapter in Romans, therefore following the reverse design of our Life Exchange Graphic discussed in Chapter 1. In this way we build a “route map” of Romans, or, as we prefer to call it: A BIG picture!

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[1] Giuseppe Lugli, The Roman Forum and the Palatine, Bardi Editore, Rome, 1964

[2] Ibid, p8-9

 

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The Main Theme of Romans

1 The Main Theme of Romans1. Two Foundational Statements

We will start our study of Romans by considering two well-known statements from the pages of the New Testament. Jesus Christ made the first one:

Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:39)

We can think of this statement as the “ideal”. It is repeated in Matthew and the other gospels (See Matthew 16:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24,17:33 and John 12:24) and can be viewed as the most important statement Jesus ever made regarding salvation.

Paul made the second statement:

I live no longer but Christ lives in me. (Galatians 2:20)

We can think of this statement as the “accomplishment” of the ideal above. It is repeated in various forms all over Paul’s letters (See 2 Corinthians 5:14, Romans 6: 4-6, Colossians 2:20) and is the most important statement Paul ever made about salvation.

Graphically we could portray these two statements as follows:

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 9.23.31 AM 2. From Ideal to Accomplishment

The obvious question that arises is this: How do I do it? How do I get from the “ideal” to the “accomplishment”?

This is where the book of Romans comes in. The way in which to best understand Romans is to see it as the line or bridge that connects the ideal with the accomplishment:

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Romans explains:

  • WHERE your life comes from
  • HOW to lose your life
  • HOW to find Christ’s life

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 3. The Difference between Life and Lifestyle

A question that comes to mind is this: How can we say that Jesus’ statement “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” is the most important one that he had ever made regarding salvation? What about the great commandments to love the Lord your God and your neighbor? What about all the other commandments and prohibitions contained in Jesus’ teachings?

To answer this we need to distinguish between “life” and “lifestyle”. The great commandments to love God and neighbor, together with all the other “do’s and don’ts” of the Bible, fall into the second category, namely lifestyle. They deal with deeds, actions, habits and a general pattern of behaviour. They do not deal with the source of the behaviour.

We could therefore say that the “life-style” of a person springs from a “life-source” within that person.

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We oftentimes refer to this “life-source” as a person’s “nature”. The Bible regularly refers to it as the “heart”, such as in Proverbs 4:23:

Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life.

We can think of it as a force within that functions like a strong instinct, dictating and determining a person’s values, desires, thoughts and ultimately his/her behaviour.

Note that a person’s “lifestyle” reveals and describes the nature of the “heart” or “life” that is within him/her. This distinction is clear from many verses in the Bible, such as the following ones:

You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. Matthew 12:34

But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts – murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. Matthew 15:18-19

A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. Luke 6:45

Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. Matthew 17:16-20

These verses make it clear that any effort to obey God’s commandments or “law”, without first having had a “life-exchange”, will end up being futile. It also means that instructions to “do good” presuppose that one must first “become good”.

We can therefore say that Romans also explains:

  • WHY your life produces the lifestyle that it does

4. Cultivating The New Life

As the bridge between “My life” and “Christ’s life”, the book of Romans also bridges “My lifestyle” to “Christ’s lifestyle”:

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You may wonder about this, as we have just made the point that one’s lifestyle “flows naturally” from its life-source. Would that not mean that the “life exchange” is sufficient to produce a naturally resulting “lifestyle exchange”?

The answer, in fact, is NO. Due to the history and ingrained habits of the old lifestyle, the new lifestyle requires careful cultivation to survive and flourish. One could liken it to an old farm that has fallen into disrepair and has been taken over by weeds and pests. It is not enough to simply change the nature of the sown seeds and to expect a bumper crop! No, a careful process of cultivation is essential. This may include removing weeds, watering, fertilization, trimming, pest control and so on.

We can therefore say that Romans also explains:

  • HOW to cultivate the new life of Christ

5. The Responsibility Of The New Life

This relationship between “life exchange” and “life cultivation” is evident all over the New Testament.

For instance, in Colossians 2:20 we read that we have died with Christ (the “losing your life” half of the “life exchange” stage). Yet a few verses on, in 3:5, we read: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you…” (the constant “weeding out” that goes with “life cultivation”).

Similarly, in Colossians 2:1 we are told that we have been raised with Christ (the “finding your life” half of the “life exchange” stage), but in verse 12 we are told to “put on” a number of things that accompany this lifestyle (the essential additives of “life cultivation”).

Once we add these “applications” to each of our four quadrants, our graphic looks as follows:

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6. Where Does Romans Draw The Line?

As two distinct phases of Christianity, “life exchange” and “life cultivation” are both dealt with in the book of Romans. The graphic above makes this abundantly clear.

This brings us to our final question for this part of our discussion: “Which parts of Romans deal with “life exchange” and which parts deal with “life cultivation”?”

The answer is simple:

Chapters 1 – 11 deal with “life exchange” and depict it as something that God alone can do. We will therefore refer to Romans’ first half as “God’s Work” or “The Finished Work of Jesus Christ”.

Chapters 12 – 16 deal with “life cultivation” and depict it as something that we must do. We will therefore refer to Romans’ second half as “Our Work” or “The Unfinished Work of the Believer”.

Our final graphic now looks as follows:

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To summarise then, Romans explains the following:

  • WHERE your life comes from
  • WHY your life produces the lifestyle that it does
  • HOW to lose your life
  • HOW to find Christ’s life
  • HOW to cultivate the new life of Christ

7. A Course Map For Romans

If you understand the above, you understand the basic structure and anatomy of Romans. Without understanding these underlying principles one can never grasp the depths and intelligence of this letter, nor its practical application.

Our course map, which is discussed in Chapter 2, is designed to reflect both “journeys” above. However, to emphasise the fact that our “life exchange” journey goes against the grain of our desires and natural inclinations, and also against the “course of this world” (Ephesians 2:2), we will depict it as flowing from right to left, that is, as a reversal:

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Also, as a result of the fact that this journey is foundational to the “lifestyle exchange” or “life application” journey, we will depict it as such, namely at the bottom of our graphic. The structure and flow of our course map will then follow this path:

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The Dalmatian that is Not There

DalmatianSo where is the elephant? (If you think I’ve lost my mind, you may wish to refer to the previous post.)

To answer this, look at the picture on the left.

Do you see the Dalmatian? If not, take another look. If you still cannot see it, scroll down to the end of this post and look at the same picture, this time with the contours connected. Then return here. The dog should now emerge from the black blobs.

Once you “see” the Dalmatian you are confirming something that has both fascinated and puzzled scholars for a very long time, namely the human brain’s propensity to deceive its owner.

Why am I saying this? For the simple reason that THERE IS NO DALMATIAN in the picture. At least not according to the normal accepted definition of a pictorial representation of an animal. The contours of the dog are illusory, which explains why some of you had to have a kick start before you could see it.

So what do you see then if not an actual Dalmatian? You are in fact seeing an image that is inferred by your brain based on all its prior experiences with Dalmatians that were real. Your exposure to certain objective connections in time and space created neural pathways in your grey matter that now cause those very connections to be made when you see a mere few clues associated with them.

Compare the following two pictures:

Bird

Would anyone say that the lines in the left picture represent a bird? Surely not. Yet most people immediately see a bird in the picture on the right. Why? The lines in the two pictures are exactly the same, but in the picture on the right they are arranged in such a way that they recall the form of a bird that is stored in your mind.

This habit of the human brain may be fascinating, but it is hardly innocent. If you look at the picture below you will understand why:

Birdface

This is not a bird. It is a face of a man, drawn on the lines of the “bird” above. By connecting them in a way that does not conform to the strong associations of a little feathered creature in our minds, a completely different picture emerges. If I were to say a moment ago that the “bird picture” represented the face of a man you would have thought that I was a bit confused. Yet I would have been no more wrong or right than those who said it was a bird. I simply chose to connect the lines according to a different association.

Examples of these mind tricks abound. There is a triangle in the picture below, right? Wrong. There is no triangle. It is inferred based on a game your brain started playing when you first picked up those little red blocks in kindergarten.

Triangle

Instead of seeing a triangle I much prefer to see 3 angry Pac-Men attacking one of those little critters from the beloved eighties arcade game. Why not? It’s much more fun than a triangle that is not even there.

Triangle with Pac

(If you struggle to make the interfering triangle disappear, squint and focus on the top Pac-Man until the black in the picture becomes dominant over the white. The triangle will vanish and you will see a completely different picture.)

Memories…

We will get back to our elusive elephant in a moment, but before we do so, let us consider another way in which our brains employ the very mechanism above to make sense of bits-and-pieces information and turn them into cohesive wholes.

You may not be aware of it, but when you recall past experiences you are also joining dots. The human memory does not retrieve an entire file associated with an event in the same way that a clerk would retrieve a law office file containing all the information associated with a case. Rather, it dips into the file and selects the highlights of the event. “Highlights” typically include the beginning of the event, the end, and any extraordinary or emotionally high-impact occurrences in between.

This leaves us with the job of connecting the bits by filling in the blanks. As with the picture of the “bird” above, we tend to do so in the way that seems most obvious to us. The result is that we oftentimes reconstruct our memories according to our own biases and preferences instead of the way in which the actual events took place. We impose an “idea” of sorts on the bits of information our brains feed us, and in the process we become poor witnesses and excellent storytellers.

One of the best examples of the “connection” phenomenon is the illusion of motion that is created by looking at a movie. A series of separate pictures played at a certain speed on a projector causes the stationary images to disappear and to be replaced with a lifelike rendition of the events that were filmed. Few people actually pause to think how strange this is when they watch a movie. They don’t realise that they are, in fact, witnessing a powerful demonstration of the mind’s determination to connect loose bits of information into a cohesive and sensible whole.

The Principle of Gestalt

The habit of relying on some or other “big picture” in order to make sense of the information presented to us pretty much dominates our lives, and has been noted by scholars for centuries.

The line of study that is most commonly associated with these principles is known as “Gestalt theory” or “Gestalt psychology”, the German school of psychology that traces its origin to the early twentieth century and to the work of the Czech-born psychologist Max Wertheimer.

Gestalt is a German word for pattern, form or shape and is employed in the English language to refer to the concept of wholeness, especially in the sense that it is used in the Gestalt motto: “The whole is more than the sum of its parts”.

What distinguished the Gestalt school of psychology from its counterparts at the time was its insistence that perception is not a passive apprehension and mental storage of observable details, but an active and dynamic process of seeking some sort of order, pattern or form of which the details would only be a part.

As Wertheimer put it in the introductory sentence of one his famous papers: “I stand at the window and see a house, trees, sky. Theoretically I might say there were 327 brightnesses and nuances of colour. Do I have “327”? No. I have sky, house, and trees.”

The Sum, the Parts and the Elephant

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see how the predominant “gestalt” or “big picture” held by your mind can actually obliterate the intended message of a single bit of information.

Which finally brings us to our elephant (phew). The six men in Saxe’s poem each made the same mistake. They allowed a strong existing association to impose itself on their sensory experiences and so provide the illusion of a final understanding. Their existing insights, valid as they were, caused their exegesis to be “interrupted” and turned them into heretics.

Interrupted theologians are all around us, and it is not difficult to see why. The moment the brain detects a suitable pattern from its storehouse for making sense of the bits of information presented to it, it sees no need for further exploration. Needless to say, this illusion of a final insight is the breeding ground for heresy.

I may make myself unpopular here, but it is my firm conviction that Confucius’ tormentors all suffer from this malady. By allowing themselves the luxury of a preferred theological gestalt (a “pet doctrine” in plain English), they have shaped the entire gospel into a form that resonates deeply with them but that is in fact a caricature of the real thing.

This is why we need the “view from above,” the Big Picture. And this is why we may not reduce our understanding of the gospel to the mediation of some or other interpreter (or group of interpreters) of it, no matter how profound their interpretations may appear to be.

More about this to come. Until then, take some time and consider the following verses in light of the above:

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. Matthew 6:22-23

To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. Titus 1:15

A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions. Proverbs 18:2

He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Colossians 1:17

Dalmatian connected

 

(This post has first appeared on the natural church blog.)