March 17, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Across the centuries people always gather where beverages are available. Even today we sometimes call a restaurant or lounge our favorite “watering hole” because it’s the place where we go after work to unwind with our friends over a glass of wine or something. In fact, even the phrase “scuttlebutt” has similar origins from the maritime world of ships and sailors. If you “scuttle” a ship, it means intentionally cutting a hole into the bottom of the boat so it will sink. Also, on board old cargo ships, those big fifty-gallon casks or barrels that were once used to transport various goods were known as “butts.”
So if you “scuttled” a “butt,” you cut a hole in the top of one of those big barrels so that you could then fill the barrel with fresh water. Sailors could then gather at this scuttled butt and dip in their cups for a drink. While standing around and sipping their water, the sailors would also swap shipboard rumors. Hence, “scuttlebutt” eventually became a way to refer to gossip. (A latter day equivalent is “the water cooler syndrome” in which water coolers become the place where employees gather for a cool drink and a bit of office gossip.)
It was probably not a lot different at village wells back in Jesus’ time. It was the town watering hole where everyone gathered two times a day and so where people lingered a bit to tell some tales, catch up on news, and also stay current on all the juiciest town gossip. This Samaritan woman had no doubt long been a favorite subject of such scuttlebutt. Needless to say, when she used to show up at the well in person, a lot of conversation ceased, eyes were averted, maybe even a few dirty looks were directed her way.
So eventually she’d given up. She stayed home when everyone else was out, and she went out only when everyone else was home. In the past, we have maybe assumed that she got what she deserved. We’ve chalked her up as a sleazy, sinful woman. But she may have been a victim, too. Don’t forget that in Jesus’ day, women had almost zero social standing. They certainly could not be the initiators of divorce. All a man had to do was haul his wife out into the street and then say to her three times, “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you” and that was that. The women didn’t have much say in the matter. And so perhaps this woman was the kind of person who, desperate for some attention and affection, hooked up with all the wrong men who, in turn, used her and then discarded her like a dirty Kleenex.
We don’t know that this was so, but one thing becomes clear in the course of her conversation with Jesus: she is not a religious ignoramus. This woman knows some theology! This woman has thought about spiritual matters. She’s aware of the promised Messiah, knows something of the controversy between the Jews and the Samaritans about where God may (or may not) be appropriately worshiped. The town long since wrote her off as a bad sort of person, but inside her skin beat the heart of someone thirsty for God.
But long before any of that becomes evident in this story, this woman first has to overcome her shock at having Jesus talk to her at all. As I indicated a few minutes ago, her heart no doubt sank when she saw that on this particular day, her plan to avoid all contact was failing. Someone was there. Worse, it was a man. Doubly worse, it looked like a Jewish man. You didn’t see too many Jews in Samaria most days. Jews rather assiduously avoided that area, willingly adding a few extra days to their journey so they could take the long way around that greasy stretch of land called Samaria.
Jesus had opted against that (as is clear in the first four verses of John 4, though the Common Lectionary skips those verses) and so cut straight through the heart of Samaria. So when this woman saw him, she perhaps averted her eyes, grit her teeth, and hoped to get through this as painlessly as possible. But then the man cleared his throat, and she no doubt thought, “Here it comes!” But no, there is a kind timbre to his voice. He even asks her for some water, instead of barking out a demand to her. Probably she should have kept her mouth shut but she is so taken aback that she blurts out, “What in the world is going on here!? You, a Jew, are not supposed to talk to me, a Samaritan!”
Jesus was indeed breaking with convention to engage this woman, which is why the disciples will shortly be so scandalized to witness this. After all, consider these pieces of conventional wisdom that were current in Jesus’ day: “A man shall not talk with a woman in the street, not even with his own wife, on account of what others may say. He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself. If any man gives a woman a knowledge of God’s Law, it is as though he had taught her lechery.”
But Jesus not only speaks with this woman, he speaks the words of life to her. He uses the well as an occasion to introduce the memorable image of living water–a new spring of water that would well and bubble up into all eternity. Needless to say, this woman wants to buy stock in the company that produces this wonderful libation. “OK,” Jesus says, “but let’s bring your husband into the deal, too.” Why did Jesus say that? To shame her, the way the other residents of Sychar would do by mentioning this? No. To embarrass her, condemn her? No, but probably as a reminder to her that she had been trying to slake her thirst in all the wrong ways. It wasn’t sex or meeting Mr. Right or finding companionship that was going to drown her thirst.
Eventually she catches on to what Jesus is saying. Unlike Nicodemus in the previous chapter of John’s gospel, we know how she responded: she raced back to the village and began knocking on doors whose doorsteps she had not darkened in years. Somehow she forgot that she was supposed to avoid these people. Instead she rather quickly becomes a member of the community again. Before this story is finished, villagers are actually speaking to her again (and speaking gratefully at that).
If I ever were going to make a short movie of this incident for a Sunday school class or something, I know what I would want my final image to be. It emerges from a tiny yet telling detail in verse 28 when we are told this woman left her water jug behind. That’s quite an image! Later in verses 39-42 as the Samaritans happily urge Jesus to stay in their village for a while, I picture the whole jubilant crowd hustling Jesus and the disciples back into town.
As the noise of their laughter fades and as the dust from their feet settles in the noonday heat, I would have a camera slowly zoom in on that abandoned water jug next to Jacob’s well. She had come to that well more thirsty than she knew earlier that day. She left sensing she’d never be truly thirsty again. To encounter Jesus is to find life–a stream of living water that wells up in us now; a stream of water that will mount up over time until it becomes finally a mighty tidal wave of cleansing that will wash over the entire world, making us and all things new.
That’s the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God!
In “The Lectionary Commentary” (Eerdmans, 2001) Mary Margaret Pazdan points out that the story of Nicodemus in John 3 and the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 form a diptych of contrasting models of discipleship and so provides a vital lesson this early on in John’s gospel narrative. The dichotomies and contrasts are clear: Nicodemus is an esteemed religious figure who comes to Jesus at night to cover is tracks; this Samaritan woman is a despised person on the fringes of her village who comes to the well in daylight. Both need a new birth and both wonder about how this will go. Among other things, it’s a fine reminder that no matter who you are, Jesus is the cosmic Word made flesh who alone can give to us what we need. Academic learning and fine religious credentials no more help get you into the kingdom than a tawdry reputation can keep you out!
Among other things, the Samaritan woman at the well was a spiritual seeker. Some years ago, writer Eugene Peterson found an analogy for modern spiritual quests in, of all things, a Winnie the Pooh story. In one of the many tales from the Hundred-Acre Woods, Christopher Robin and company decide to set out one day in search of the North Pole. At one point along the way, young Roo falls into a stream and needs to be rescued. Pooh Bear eventually uses a long pole to fish his friend out of the water. Once this emergency had passed, the animals stand around and discuss what had just happened.
As they are talking, Christopher Robin notices that Pooh is standing there with the rescue pole still in his paw. “Pooh, where did you get that pole?” “I just found it earlier,” Pooh replies. “I thought it might be useful.” “Pooh,” Christopher Robin says excitedly, “the expedition is over! You have found the North Pole!” “Oh,” says Pooh, “I did?” Eventually Christopher Robin sinks the pole into the ground and hangs a flag on it with this message: “The North Pole, Discovered by Pooh. Pooh Found It.” Then they all go home again, satisfied that this quest was successful.
This story, Peterson suggests, bears some resemblance to the way many people in recent years have gone about their various spiritual quests. Everyone knows that despite early-twentieth century predictions that spirituality would retreat as technology and science advanced, quite the opposite proved to be true. The very generation of people that was raised in a technological world of computers, Blu-Ray players, the Internet, and cell phones proved to be one of the most spiritually hungry generations in recent times. In fact, people today use one of the most dazzling of all technological innovations, the Internet, to explore spirituality by visiting the startling array of religious websites that exist in cyberspace.
People are in search of something quite grand but, like Christopher Robin and company, they seem quite willing to label the first thing they find as being “it.” They are hungry and thirsty for something more, so they go to Barnes & Noble, stumble on some Thomas Moore book called The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, and they think they’ve arrived at their destination. They see that someone has slapped a label of spiritual authority onto this work–you can, after all, always find someone with a “Rev.” in front of his name or a “Ph.D.” after her name, to write glowing blurbs for such books. And suddenly, like Christopher Robin’s flag, people think this label authenticates the books of dozens of best-selling writers who produce pop pabulum like The Celestine Prophecy, Touched by an Angel, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and Conversations with God.
One estimate claims that there are nearly 10,000 different books currently in print that dole out spiritual advice. Many of these have been best-sellers over the years, which means that some of the same people are buying different books all the time. But that only means that the spiritual pole they confidently labeled as “the North Pole” six months ago must not have turned out to be the end-destination after all. If it had been, they wouldn’t have made yet another expedition to the bookstore in search of newer, fresher, different answers.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
When we are children, we sometimes need to be ordered to kiss various people and then do so only grudgingly. “Give your Aunt Louella a kiss, Jimmy!” But the day may come when we grow up and find ourselves standing next to a beloved one at a wedding ceremony. At that time a minister may also order you (or at least invite you) to give a kiss, but in that case you are only too eager to do it!
So also with God’s law: before having the love of Jesus cascade over us by grace, the law looks like a set of grim duties as well as a pack of reminders of how lousy we are. After God’s love comes to us, we see in the law a joyful opportunity to live in exactly the way we were created to live. Exodus 17 has something to do with understanding God’s Law. This is not obvious to see, but Terrence Fretheim’s commentary on this chapter opened my eyes to this perspective.
A casual reading of Exodus 17 seems to yield no more than yet another story about the people of Israel getting hot and thirsty in the wilderness, and so complaining to Moses about their lack of libations. In that sense, this looks like a mirror image of any number of stories. But Fretheim highlights one little word that is easy to miss but that may distinguish this story of Israelite complaint from other similar incidents: it is the word “Horeb” in verse 6. The so-called “rock of Horeb” on which Yahweh said he would stand when Moses and the elders of Israel arrived is apparently a reference to the region at the foot of Mount Sinai. Horeb is the same place where Moses was said to have been in Exodus 3 when God appeared to him in the Burning Bush. It is the same place to which at that time Yahweh told Moses he would return one day with the people of Israel in tow. And it is the location where ultimately God will give his law, chiefly the Ten Commandments. Horeb is, in short, a key location freighted with meaning.
In truth, this reference to Horeb in Exodus 17:6 creates a textual problem. We are not entirely clear about any of the precise desert locations referred to in Exodus. We don’t fully know exactly what constituted the Desert of Sin, the region of Rephidim, and other such places. What we do know is that Exodus 19 will tell us that the people will have to journey some distance from Rephidim (where they are when chapter 17 opens) to Mount Sinai. If that is so, then how can the place that eventually got dubbed “Massah and Meribah” also be Horeb? If the people don’t get to Horeb/Sinai until chapter 19, how is it that Moses gives them water in that same place in chapter 17? In the end we’re not sure, though some have proposed that maybe “Horeb” was the name of that entire region–perhaps the whole area of foothills and mountains in the Sinai range was broadly referred to as the region of Horeb. That is a plausible enough explanation for the geography of this chapter.
But the geography is less vital here than the theology. The fact of the matter is that “Horeb” is a theological shorthand for the mountain of God, for the place where God revealed himself to Moses in the Burning Bush and the place from which God will definitively dispense his laws, commandments, and statutes very soon. Yet in this chapter Horeb also becomes a place of grumbling and testing. As we read in verse 7, the people are looking for an answer to the question, “Is Yahweh among us or not?” As proof that Yahweh is indeed among his people in also this desert and dangerous place, God once again graciously provides the people with life-giving water from the rock.
God causes streams of water to flow in the desert, not only proving his presence to the people but preserving their lives again as well. But why, as I have been hinting, might it be significant that this living water flowed from the rock called Horeb? Because listen: this means that when the law of God also “flows” out from that place called Horeb, that law will likewise be a sign that God is among his people.
What’s more, it will mean that all things being equal, the people should eventually be able to see in that law a blessing that is every bit as much about bringing and preserving true life as are streams of water in a desert place. The water gives life, the law gives life. The water shows God’s love, the law shows God’s love. Whatever flows from the Rock of Horeb, whether it is water or laws, is to be seen as a sign of God’s presence and blessing.
Ah, but neither the Israelites nor contemporary people see things quite that way, do they!? When was the last time you heard someone pray something along the lines of, “O Lord God, if you truly love me and want to reveal yourself to me, send me some rules to follow!” In truth what most people want from God is on a par with streams of water in a wilderness place. We want health and wealth, we want good food and drink, we want to get a meaningful job that allows us maybe to buy a nice house, take some nice vacations, and sock some money away for our retirement years.
Although I don’t watch too much religious television on cable, I’ve seen enough over the years to know that when those televangelists get rolling in promising people this or that great blessing of God–this or that sign that God is really present in their very lives–the kinds of things that get mentioned tend to be material blessings and not the great joy that can be found when God hands you a list of rules to follow. The Ten Commandments are things to post in public schools, according to some people, as a way to make kids behave, shape up, and get serious. And if showing people this list of rules really does manage to make a difference in how they behave, then that’s wonderful but even still we would not see that on a par with having God answer our prayer that we can get that promotion we put in for at work. Rules may whip you into shape, but a promotion is a true blessing of God.
Yet despite the geographical problems it introduces, Exodus 17’s reference to these streams of water flowing from Horeb is a clever way to remind us that there are more ways than one by which God can show his presence and more ways than one by which to perceive just what constitutes a true blessing of God. But already by the time you get to Exodus 19-20 when God gives his law from Mount Sinai, from the Rock of Horeb, you know right away that the people of Israel did not see law and water as being at all similar.
When God begins to thunder his law, the people stop up their ears and run for cover, telling Moses to go fetch the law in private. Once Moses does this, and then takes a good long while doing it, the people get impatient, conclude Moses is dead, and so revert to pagan revelry around a golden calf. When waters flowed from Horeb, the people lapped it up gratefully and happily. When the law flowed from Horeb, the people were alternately bored and scared and finally also impatient.
But by telling us that the waters of Meribah flowed from the same place as the law of God, the author of Exodus is reminding us to recalibrate our perceptions. Eventually in the Hebrew and Judaic tradition, this happened. The Torah or Law of God was later viewed by Israel as indeed a great gift. It is finally a loving thing that God did by giving Israel a heads-up as to how life operates the most smoothly. When my father taught me how to drive the tractor and run the manure spreader on our farm when I was young, he was very careful to warn me about the dangers of the power-take-off shaft, about being careful not to jackknife the spreader when backing up the tractor, and other key safety rules for operating the machinery. It was first and last a loving thing he did. Obviously it would have been not just careless but very unloving had my Dad cut me loose with potentially dangerous equipment yet without giving me a clue as to what the dangers were and how to avoid them.
So also for Israel in the wilderness: when God told them how life works as reflected in his list of Do’s and Don’ts, he was trying to protect them from the harm that could come were they ignorant of life’s pitfalls and dangers. But this aspect of law is something many people forget about, not just these days but all through history.
When God lays down some universal absolute, it is a reflection of the ways things are, the way the world works, and that’s a good thing for us to know. And if the good Lord takes the time to let you know about all that, then it is finally a loving and life-giving thing he does–just possibly as loving and life-preserving as streams in the desert.
The Israelites were like little children who define worthwhile things rather narrowly. When I was in Kindergarten, I remember going trick-or-treating on Halloween. At most of our neighbors’ houses I got exactly what you would expect: candy bars, suckers, milk duds, and M&Ms. But I vividly recall the one house we went to. This man was very well-meaning but ultimately highly disappointing to a 6-year-old. After opening the door in response to my “trick or treat,” he began not to give me candy but rather a small lecture on needy children in other parts of the world. I found this to be merely odd and not a little boring even as it delayed my getting at other houses. In the end what this man dropped into my little pumpkin bucket was not a piece of candy but a brochure telling about the work of UNICEF.
As a little kid, I no more saw a blessing in that UNICEF brochure than Israel perceived initially any blessings coming from God’s catalogue of laws, rules, and regulations. Candy in your bucket and streams of water in the desert are one thing, discourses on life are a rather different thing.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Archbishop William Temple once wrote, “If you have a false idea of God, the more religious you are, the worse it is for you – it were better for you to be an atheist.” It’s a sobering warning for anyone who plans and/or leads worship or teaches Scriptures such as Psalm 95. After all, while this psalm invites worshipers into the presence of the living God, it also indicates that God is a “great God” who is not to be trifled with. This psalm also serves as a kind of warning against corporate worship that tries to divorce itself from daily life.
Psalm 95 is one of a group of psalms (Psalms 93, 95-98) that focuses on God’s reign over all of creation. Part of the scope of God’s reign is humanity, which is naturally resistant to God’s reign. So those who want to worship God in “spirit and in truth,” as Jesus calls us to do, learn to “bow down” and “kneel before the Lord” (6).
Yet such calls to worship the Lord who “is the great King above all gods” (3) sound strange to most 21st century western ears. After all, the concept of a monarchy with any real authority has largely died in the west. To the Israelites, however, the idea of a monarchy was far from strange. They believed God formed them at Mt. Sinai and established three kinds of governing offices: prophet, priest and king.
Yet at their best the Israelites also recognized that their God, Yahweh, ruled over all those offices and officers. As her King, God defended Israel and her territory, authored and enforced federal and civil law and maintained civil and economic stability. So while human monarchs helped Yahweh with that work, they were expendable, replaceable and subject to God’s sovereign commands.
Of course, all too often Israel’s leaders failed in their calling. Most didn’t follow in God’s ways or submit to God’s reign over their personal and national lives. Many did great damage not only to the nation of Israel, but to also God’s kingdom. In fact, some scholars suggest the first 89 psalms in many ways document Israel and her kings’ persistent failure to follow the Lord. Yet Psalm 95’s poet asserts that while human kings may fail to do their God-given duties, Yahweh the divine King won’t.
Of course, Yahweh had a special covenantal relationship with the nation of Israel. What’s more, few true monarchs remain, at least in the West. Yet Psalm 95 still has implications for modern human leadership. Presidents and prime ministers may not be kings. But the New Testament especially insists God has a special interest in their work and in them. God not only gives them the authority they have. God also expects even leaders who don’t recognize God as King to lead in accordance with God’s plans and purposes. So Psalm 95 serves not just as a call to worship. It also serves to call worshipers to faithful prayer for those whom God has made leaders.
Psalm 95 offers a pattern of summons, then reasons for obeying those summons. So, for example, in verses 1-2 the poet invites God’s people to worship Yahweh. Verses 3-5 then offer reasons for offering that worship. The psalmist calls us to worship God because God is such a great God. God, after all, holds in God’s loving hands the “depths of the earth” and “the mountain peaks” (4), as well as both the “sea” and the “dry land” (5). Yahweh also deserves worship because God has made himself “our God,” so that God’s vulnerable children are “the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.”
Of course, even God’s children aren’t naturally enthusiastic about such a description of humanity. People naturally think of ourselves as the figurative centers of the universe. We treat the mountains and depths of the earth, the seas and the dry land as if they were our playgrounds with which we may do as we choose. Few of us like to think of ourselves as relatively dumb, helpless sheep. So Psalm 95 poses a challenge to modern assumptions about the nature of people. It rejects our “human-centric” view of the world and reminds us that we live, move and have our being in God’s world at God’s pleasure.
Yet verses 7b-11 remind worshipers that humanity hasn’t changed much. They recall Israel’s wilderness failure to believe the God who’d miraculously parted the Red Sea’s waters could also miraculously give them water to drink in the wilderness. Moses, of course, took the perhaps same staff with which he’d struck the Red Sea and struck Meribah’s rock so that God sent life-giving water flowing out from it. Yet while this temporarily averted disaster for Israel, Israel’s hard-heartedness resulted in a far greater disaster for her. God exiled her to wander in the wilderness until the Israelites died there.
Why, then, would the poet end such a glorious call to worship that is Psalm 95 with such a grim reminiscence of rebellion? Sandra Richter suggests it’s the poet’s call to her Israelite contemporaries to show the confidence in and loyalty to God that their ancestors hadn’t. This psalm warns that as surely as God had barred Israel’s ancestors from the land of promise, God could also show the psalmist’s contemporaries God’s wrath.
This ending also presents those who preach and teach Psalm 95 with an opportunity to reflect with hearers on their concepts of God. Relatively few modern worshipers conceive of God as a God whom even rebellion angers. The god of the 21st century caters to humanity’s whims and doesn’t get angry about sin. So those who lead and plan worship and other forms of discipleship do well to help God’s people remember warnings such as Hebrews 3:12’s: “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” and Hebrews 4:7’s: “Today if you hear [God’s] voice, do not harden your hearts.”
Yet the season of Lent for which the Lectionary appoints this psalm insists that God doesn’t let God’s anger have the last word with God’s children. In Romans 5:8-9 the apostle Paul reminds worshipers: “God demonstrates God’s own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through” Jesus Christ.
Psalm 95 suggests a certain etiquette for approaching Yahweh, “the great King above all gods.” Worshipers approach the Lord with joyful singing, loud shouting, thanksgiving, music and song. They approach Yahweh on their faces or knees.
Tom Ryan has posted an article entitled, “What Is Etiquette for Greeting Royalty?” http://www.ehow.com/about_6512955_etiquette-greeting-royalty_.html. Christians might infer from his piece that greeting modern royalty is, in some ways, far more restrained than the “etiquette” for approaching the Lord.
He notes that bowing to another country’s royalty isn’t required, though dignitaries may choose to bow as a sign of respect. Ryan also points out that people should never touch royalty without first being touched or given permission to touch.
It’s also important, Ryan adds, to address royalty with the proper respect. People refer to England’s Queen first as “Your Majesty,” and then, “Ma’am.” What’s more, Ryan suggests, people should be aware of specific etiquette for addressing royalty. In Malaysia, for example, those who greet the king put their hands together and raise them to their foreheads.
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
On this third Sunday of Lent, we continue to focus on the benefits of Christ’s death. For Paul the key benefit is justification. He has just explained justification using two quite different metaphors: acquittal in a courtroom (Romans 3) and payment of debt in a commercial transaction (Romans 4). Now in Romans 5 he takes his explanation of salvation through Christ’s death (and life) a step deeper by exploring the benefits of justification. It is not just a cold legal verdict or formal commercial transaction. It changes life in every way.
To put it crassly, when God declares a sinner innocent and pays her debt, he doesn’t snarl, “OK, you’re not guilty. Now get out of my sight. You disgust me.” God doesn’t bark, “Your debt is paid. Now get out of town before I clobber you.” Rather, God says, “Not guilty. Debt paid. Now come to Daddy.”
The word Paul uses to summarize the ultimate benefit of justification is reconciliation. Before we encounter that word in Romans 5:10, we hear some of the loveliest, most poetic theology ever penned by this allegedly stern apostle. Some of what follows is adapted from my previous explanation of Romans 5:1-5 in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.
Paul begins with that quintessential Hebrew word for salvation, shalom, peace. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” There is a textual issue here reflected in some modern translations. The NIV translates “we have peace,” while other versions say “let us have peace.” That’s because some ancient manuscripts have an omicron and others have an omega in the Greek word have. So the first translation is in the indicative, the second in the subjunctive.
Though the textual evidence seems to lean toward the subjunctive, and though no less an authority than Calvin thought Paul was talking about cultivating peace of mind, I think the indicative makes more sense. I say that primarily because of the way Paul ends this sentence. He is not calling us to develop a peaceful conscience; he is telling us that we already stand in the grace of God. In other words, this peace is not a feeling of contentment when we think about God. It is the new status we have with God. We have a new standing with God because of this justification. We now stand in his grace; we have peace with God.
This is no minor point. Not only are our sins pardoned, but the one against whom we sinned is completely at peace with us. It is well between God and us, from God’s side. It’s not a shaky, uneasy peace either, like the peace that sometimes prevails between, say, the Israelis and the Palestinians. That’s because peace with God is not the result of negotiations, with each side giving a little and taking a little. No, this peace with God is a firm and settled peace, because it is based on the total giving of Christ, which we simply receive through faith.
So firm and settled is peace with God that Paul speaks of standing in God’s grace. What a remarkable phrase! Usually grace is spoken of as a gift. Here it is like a force field. All fans of Star Trek and Star Wars know what a force field is. It’s what keeps the Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon safe when alien life forms attack with a death ray. Well, says Paul, God’s grace is the determinative force field in the life of a believer. Your entire life is determined, dominated, not by the force field of sin, but by the peaceful grace of God. No matter where you are, no matter what you are doing, no matter what mess you are in, you are surrounded, securely held in the totally underserved and unconditional grace of God.
That leads to the third benefit of justification—hope for the future, “we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” Paul is talking our hope of the glory of God. That could mean two things. He might be talking about the beatific vision, about that day when we are privileged to see the full glory of God. Verse 11 seems to point in this direction; “we… rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” After walking by faith, seeing through a glass darkly, we will see God in all his glory. Even now we rejoice in that hope.
Or Paul might be talking about the completion of our salvation, when we finally receive the glory God intended when he created us in his image. Earlier in Romans, Paul has said that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. As C.S. Lewis so memorably pictured it in The Great Divorce, we are so much less that we are meant to be. In Divorce, those who end up in hell are mere carbon smudges, vague insubstantial shadows of their former selves. Those who end up in heaven are so beautiful and solid and, well, human that the hell dwellers barely recognize them. Paul is talking about the hope that we will one day become the glorious creatures God created us to be. We will share in the glory of God. As a result of justification by faith, we are not just forgiven sinners, miserable ex-cons with no hope for a bright future. We are children of God destined for glory.
Here’s another benefit of justification. We know the meaning of our suffering; “we also rejoice in our suffering, because we know that suffering produces perseverance….” We may not know the meaning of a particular instance of suffering, but we know its overall meaning. So, we can rejoice in it. Note that Paul says, “we rejoice in our suffering,” not because of it. We don’t have to like suffering; that would be sick. No, we rejoice in the midst of it, because as we stand in the midst of our pain, we are standing in the midst of God’s grace.
God’s grace will use that suffering redemptively. We must preach this carefully. Paul does not say that God sends us our suffering, though he may sometimes. He does not say that God has a purpose in our suffering, though he undoubtedly does. We must be very careful about drawing a straight line between our suffering and the will of God. If the book of Job teaches us nothing else, it teaches that the relationship between our suffering and the God of love is complex. So, don’t say too much about that. Paul says that God is able to use our suffering, wherever it comes from, to accomplish a glorious result, “the glory of God.”
That does not mean that God is glorified by our suffering. In some mysterious ultimate sense that will undoubtedly be true, but that’s not what Paul means. Our suffering will contribute to our growth in glory: “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; and character hope. And hope does not disappoint us…..” Paul says we know about this chain of hope, but, in fact, we often forget it in the midst of our suffering. Who of us hasn’t wondered about this Christian hope? Who hasn’t wearied of having our perseverance tested and our character developed? And who hasn’t said, how do I know I won’t be disappointed in the end? How do I know that life isn’t going to be one series of sorrows after another, “one damned thing after another,” as the popular cynicism puts it?
Well, says Paul, “hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom he has given us.” Here’s the final benefit of justification. Paul says that the Triune God has not only declared us innocent on the basis of the perfect work of Christ, but has also lavished his love on us by giving us the Holy Spirit who will change the dross of our suffering into the gold of glory. The Holy Spirit in our hearts is God’s deposit on our future, a down payment, an initial investment that guarantees we won’t be disappointed in the end. Or to pick up on Romans 8 and Galatians 4, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of adoption through whom and by whom we cry “Abba, Father.” From condemned criminal to beloved children—that’s the full effect of justification by faith alone apart from works of the law.
That’s clear and lovely, but Paul knew that not everyone would hear that as blessed good news. His Jewish critics would have said, “That’s not right! How could a holy God, a perfectly righteous Judge not only declare sinners innocent, but also adopt them into his family?” How could God “justify the ungodly,” as Paul says in Romans 4:5? Paul answers those reasonable questions in verses 6-11. “You see….” There are four parts to Paul’s reasonable answer.
First, he points out that God did not justify us because we were basically good or because we contributed to our justification. In a crescendo of condemnation, Paul says we were “powerless” (verse 6). We were too weak and sick and disabled by sin to be able to help ourselves. Not only that, we were “ungodly” (verse 6). He doesn’t mean that we lacked a bit of piety or that we fell a little short of godliness. No, we were “sinners” (verse 8) who missed the mark completely. Indeed, we were “enemies” (verse 10) of God. Read that last one carefully. We were the enemies, not God. God is not our enemy. God is our loving Father.
So, in the second place, Paul points out that this whole justification business was driven by the love of God. He takes pains to distinguish God’s love from ours. When we humans sin against each other, we become mutual enemies, and we won’t do anything good for each other. We might do good for someone on our side, but there are limits to that. God’s love has no limits. “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man; though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love in this, while were still sinners, Christ died for us.” It isn’t that Christ died to make God love sinners. Rather, it is that God loved sinners, enemies, and sent his Son so that we could be saved to the uttermost.
Third, the death of Jesus was at the heart of this justification/reconciliation business. The only way a righteous Judge could justify sinners was if someone paid for those sins with the punishment God had declared at the very beginning of human history. Many modern readers may quail at the thought of God punishing his own Son, but over and over Paul insists that our salvation depended on Christ’s death. “Christ died for the ungodly.” (verse 6) “While we were sill sinners, Christ died for us.” (verse 8) “We were reconciled to him through his death….” (verse 10) Paul even ventures into the messy realm of blood atonement in verse 9; “Since we have now been justified by his blood….” The ancient people of God knew that the wages of sin is death. Now Paul has explained that God can justify he ungodly because Jesus died for us.
Fourth, Paul summarizes the poetic theology of verses 1-5 in four clear words: justified (dikaiothentes), saved (sothesometha), reconciled (katellagemen), and rejoice (kauchemenoi). Having explained justification, Paul now spells out the results of justification in our lives. We don’t have to worry about God’s wrath coming down on us in the future. “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s (not in the Greek, but clearly implied) wrath through him.”
It is theoretically possible that future sins could undo justification. A criminal might be cleared of one charge, but then commit many more crimes and become liable for further judgment. That’s not possible with God, says Paul. Christ’s death took care of all your sins. Now he lives to make intercession for you (ala Heb. 7:25). His resurrection life guarantees that he will rescue you from whatever sin you might commit in the future. “For if when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life.”
The ultimate result of justification is reconciliation to God. That reconciliation is complete and final: “we were reconciled… having been reconciled… we now have received reconciliation.” Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, those who believe in Christ are completely restored to a perfect relationship with God that nothing can damage or destroy.
Because we have been justified, saved, and reconciled, we can rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ. The word rejoice is kauchomenoi, which means to exult, glory, celebrate, even boast. Paul has forbidden boasting earlier in this letter, but here he says it is the natural result of complete salvation. We must not boast in ourselves, but it is perfectly appropriate to boast in God, to celebrate what he has done for us, to rejoice in his complete salvation. Since Genesis 3, we humans have lived in guilt and shame and fear, as we have hidden from and rebelled against God. Now through Jesus we can live before God with unbounded joy and peace and hope and love. All has been restored by the death and resurrection of Christ.
Paul talks about the difference between being justified and being reconciled—the first is legal, the second is personal. An incident from fairly recent history may help to make that clear. On the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, the bombardier on the US plane that dropped the bomb wanted to visit that city and apologize to its citizens. The city officers refused the offer. That bomb had killed 70,000 people and devastated the city. “We understand his sentiments,” they said, “but there are many atomic bomb victims who are still suffering and who do not wish to meet this man.”
Legally, there is peace between the US and Japan. The war is over; we are allies, even trading partners. But the personal pain continues, and the people of Nagasaki didn’t want to be friends with their former enemy. They aren’t ready for such reconciliation, where there is peace between the man who dropped the bomb and the people who suffered from it.
A recent news article said that 2013 was a record year for exonerations of prisoners in the United States. Some 87 people who had been found guilty in a court of law and sentenced to time in prison have now been found not guilty. They really had not done what they were accused of doing. They had been declared guilty even though they weren’t. Now they have been exonerated.
That is the exact opposite of Paul’s doctrine of justification. We have been declared innocent, even though we are totally guilty. We have not been exonerated; we have been acquitted, pardoned, forgiven, even though we are, quite literally, as guilty as hell. And only because Christ died for us.