June 23, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
“I have always relied on the kindness of strangers.”
That is the famous closing line spoken by the character Blanche DuBois in the play A Streetcar Named Desire. In Matthew 10 Jesus basically tells the disciples that they, too, must rely on the kindness of strangers when they go out to proclaim the good news of the kingdom. Jesus even went so far as to tell them earlier in this chapter that they were to set out on their first mission trip essentially under-packed. Today we would never send our youth group out on a service project without money, luggage, and extra clothing—many of us parents are familiar with the long packing lists youth group leaders send out ahead of a service trip–yet that’s basically the marching orders Jesus issues.
By so doing, Jesus put the disciples at the mercy of the hosts they would encounter along the way. If their message was worth hearing (and if the disciples presented that message with all the loving urgency it warranted), then people would take them in. As this chapter concludes, this theme crops back up through the now-famous image of someone handing out a cup of cold water to a disciple.
In some ways this is surprising. We tend to think that the reception of the gospel is such a spiritual matter. If someone “comes to Jesus” because of the preaching of an evangelist at a revival meeting, we expect the result of this conversion to be new patterns of thought, a new sense of morality, a new inward devotion to God. And indeed, those traits ought to be in evidence among the converted. But we don’t often imagine that the first result of someone’s new life in Christ would be inviting the evangelist over for supper!
But perhaps part of the reason we don’t think along those lines is because we tend to separate the message from the messenger in a way Jesus does not do. Throughout this chapter, and certainly in the concluding three verses, there is a snug fit between the person who talks about Jesus and Jesus himself. “He who receives you receives me,” Jesus says. He doesn’t say, “If they believe the words you speak, then my Spirit will move into their hearts.” No, he says that if people find cause to love the disciples enough as to welcome them into their homes, then Jesus himself will be present in all his fullness.
The reason “the kindness of strangers” receives such a high profile in Matthew 10 is because Jesus is not talking about a message to be heard but about the reception of a person, namely himself as he dwells inside the disciples. Among other things in this passage, there is a curious verbal triple play in the last couple of verses. In the history of the church, commentators have spent a lot of time wondering why Jesus mentions the reception of a prophet, a righteous person, and “little ones.” Do these three groups stand for certain people in the church? Some have wondered if maybe “prophets” were to be identified with the apostles, “righteous persons” with the clergy, and the “little ones” with lay people.
But that’s not the point, and if you think it is, you will probably miss the real scandal of this text. It’s not so important to decode just who Jesus may (or may not) have had in mind in listing those three groups. The main thing to see is that whatever group you happen to be in, the message is the same: people are to identify you with Jesus and Jesus with you!
This isn’t the only place in the New Testament where this personal connection to Jesus becomes evident. Recall, for example, a most startling such instance when the apostle Paul said that when a man sleeps with a prostitute, he drags Jesus into bed along with him. In a bold image, Paul suggests that a Christian man’s relations with a prostitute forced Christ to be there in that way, too, making Jesus “one flesh” with some streetwalker. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that warning goes a wee bit further than that song some of us learned to sing as children: “O be careful little hands what you do, for the Father up above is looking down in love, so be careful little hands what you do.” To Paul’s mind (and, in Matthew 10, to Jesus’ mind, too), the image of a Father “looking down” from some point “up above” is too remote a way of viewing things. Apparently, our link with Jesus is vastly tighter.
That is a thought at once glorious and daunting. Jesus once said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Who among us is brave enough to say, “If you receive me, you receive Jesus.” If anything, many of us have been taught to see Jesus as the goal to which we aspire (but which we will never attain in this life). So we mostly focus on the disparity, the gap, between who Jesus is and who we are.
We’d rather present the gospel as something outside of ourselves instead of suggesting that people need to meet Jesus through us. We’ve all heard the old phrase, “Please don’t shoot the messenger!” Just because I need to be the one who tells you the news that your son just flunked out of college, please don’t blame me! I’m only the bearer of the news, not the cause of it. But sometimes we seem to put some daylight between the gospel and ourselves, too: the shape of my life may or may not look a lot like Jesus but at least you can hear the message. Don’t let me get in the way! Don’t look at me as a role model or example!
Matthew 10 says it doesn’t work that way. There needs to be a radical consistency between the Jesus you proclaim and yourself. And perhaps these days it is well that we recall this. Christians who are offensive in the loud, mean-spirited, in-your-face way by which some have tried to fight culture wars in recent decades have not served the cause of Jesus very well. Who wants to believe the gospel’s content if the ones proclaiming that gospel are the very folks many people most want to avoid in life?! If Jeremy is such an uncouth, ungrateful, loud-mouthed fellow that no one would even want to have him over for dinner, then what difference does it make if Jeremy can reel off the Beatitudes from memory? Few people will ever be willing to receive Jesus’ presence into their lives if they are not willing to receive those who represent that same Jesus.
New Testament scholar Dr. David Holwerda has pointed out that underlying Jesus’ words in Matthew 10 is the core of God’s original covenantal promises to Abraham in Genesis 12 when God told the patriarch of our faith, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you, I will curse; all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Something of this fundamental covenant dynamic is on display here as Jesus assures the disciples that blessing and curse attend the reception of the disciples and the message/Christ they bring to all peoples. Indeed, there are other Old Testament stories (particularly the ones involving Elijah and Elisha) that display the coming of blessings to those who received God’s prophets well. In this sense, we can see a link here to the Old Testament lection for this Sunday after Pentecost in the Genesis 22 story. For more on Dr. Holwerda’s observations, see “The Lectionary Commentary: The Third Readings: The Gospels” Eerdmans, 2001).
On the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation there is a nightmare alien species known as The Borg. The Borg capture individual people of all races and backgrounds but then essentially wipes out their individual personalities, cultures, distinctive features. Through a kind of brainwashing, each person becomes just like every other person. Every single Borg looks alike, talks alike, thinks alike. If you meet one, you quite literally have met them all for they are all one in what is called “The Borg Collective.” A Borg never uses the 1st person singular pronoun “I.” Every sentence instead begins with “We . . .”
But baptism doesn’t have that effect on believers. Becoming a Christian does not make you less of an individual. We may lose our lives for Christ’s sake, but Jesus also promises in Matthew 10 that once you so lose your life, you get it right back again. You are still you after baptism.
So how can each of us be the unique individuals God made us to be and each also be Jesus? If you had 100 people in a room and then told them, “I want each one of you to imitate and be just like Jimmy Carter,” what would happen? Well, you’d likely see 100 people who started to speak with a soft Southern accent like Mr. Carter, who worked on smiling broadly and who would start to say things like, “Rosalyn and I would like to thank you for supporting Habitat for Humanity.” If all 100 would-be-Carters did a good job, you would expect a certain uniformity and sameness among them.
So what about imitating and being just like Jesus? Why doesn’t this result in an entire Christian community worldwide in which individual personalities are over-written in favor of a certain sameness? The answer has to do with the Holy Spirit. The answer has to do with what can be described only as a true miracle of grace. We are all different. God made us that way. Even so-called “identical” twins are not really identical. God loves variety, as Genesis 1-2 make so abundantly clear. The human face alone is one of the most amazing features to creation of which we know: each face has the same basic set of components, the same basic shape, the same basic make-up. And yet there appears to be an infinite variety of faces–like snowflakes, no two faces are ever truly alike. What’s more, the personalities behind such faces are likewise highly varied.
God is not interested in over-riding the uniqueness he himself created! But by a miracle of grace God is able to place his same Holy Spirit into each one of us. Somehow or another, over and above and even through our marvelous individual variations, God is able to make every last one of us like a window on the one and same Lord Jesus Christ.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Jews call this passage the Aqedah, Hebrew for “the binding.” Few stories in all of literature have inspired so much commentary, art, paintings, angst, discussion, and controversy. The central image of the tale–that of the father with knife upraised over his bound son–is burned deep into the consciousness of Jews to this day. I once heard author Chaim Potok being interviewed by another rabbi on the subject of Jewish identity, and it didn’t take too long before the Aqedah came up in their conversation. Curiously, this central and climactic event in the Abraham cycle of stories is scarcely ever referred to again in the Old Testament or even in the New Testament. Yet this is an event of such searing significance (and no small degree of also searing scandal) that it looms in the background of everything, whether or not it is specifically mentioned.
But why is this story in Genesis? One obvious answer is that it serves as the climax to what could be called “the education of Abraham.” Ever since his initial call in chapter 12, God has been leading Abraham along. But with grim consistency, Abraham has repeatedly failed the various tests put to him. Twice he passes Sarah off as his sister for fear he’ll be killed if he doesn’t. Several times his patience with God’s promise of a son wears sufficiently thin that he pursues alternative arrangements. He and Sarah both laugh at God’s promises at one time or another even as Abraham permits the mistreatment and ultimate banishment of his other son, Ishmael, and his mother Hagar.
Still, Abraham has also been growing, maturing, in the course of these many chapters. Seeing as Abraham is quite literally the father of the faith, the harbinger of cosmic blessing, Abraham needs to mature; both he and God (and maybe also we) need to see the power of the covenant at work in his life. And so Genesis 22 opens not by saying (as the NIV translates it), “Some time later . . .” but rather it literally says in Hebrew, “After these things, God tested Abraham.”
After these things. What things? Well, everything that has transpired since Genesis 12. That opening phrase clues us in immediately that we’re approaching a kind of narrative summit. The mountain Abraham climbs was a literal mountain but also metaphorically stands for our ascent to the pinnacle of this entire saga involving Abraham.
So how remarkable it is to arrive at this text only to see how far Abraham has indeed come.
Abraham asks no questions in Genesis 22, even though as we read the text, our hearts fairly scream out a bevy of questions.
Abraham walks resolutely and without stumbling on his way to Mount Moriah, but as we try to follow him, we find ourselves walking hesitantly, tripping over the multiple theological scandals we encounter.
The language of Genesis 22 is crisp and unwaveringly direct, yet we cry out for escape hatches, for something to explain this, for a way to get God off the hook for asking of Abraham so dreadful a thing.
What is striking about Genesis 22 is how wholly unconcerned it appears to be with the kinds of questions we want to raise. The author is not unaware of how difficult this test is for Abraham, but far from trying to nuance God’s command the author has crafted the text so as to sharpen the very difficulties we find nearly unacceptable. The hammering phrase “your son, your only son, whom you love,” makes this story heartbreaking to read.
Similarly the oft-repeated verbal picture of Abraham and Isaac trotting along “together” in verses 6 and 8 presents a Norman Rockwell-like portrait of father and son. This is Sheriff Taylor and his boy Opie walking together in the opening sequence to the old Andy Griffith Show: a classic portrait of father-son togetherness. But this time the father bears the knowledge that he will return from this outing alone.
Curiously, the text of Genesis 22 is not principally concerned with the emotional side of Abraham’s losing a son. Instead its focus seems to be that this particular sacrifice would jeopardize the future of the covenant. Isaac was the “laughter” of Abraham and Sarah’s old age, but he was also to be the cosmic laughter of all nations because from him sprang the promise of redemption. If Laughter died, then what would become of the covenant?
These questions of covenant and salvation loom much larger for the author of Genesis 22 than they typically do for us. But perhaps that is because what lies behind this hard text is the equally difficult notion that salvation is going to be a costly enterprise purchased in blood. The binding and near-death of Laughter–and the foreshadowing phrase that “God himself will provide” for the sacrifice–give early biblical clues that eliminating evil is going to require enormous effort and sacrifice.
Indeed, as Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis has noted, the Bible takes a great risk putting a story like this one so near the beginning of Scripture. If, naturally enough, you were to begin reading Scripture in Genesis 1, you would go a scant twenty-one chapters before encountering this story, replete with its potentially off-putting portrait of a God who commands so horrid a thing as child sacrifice. So why would the Bible run the risk of offending readers with a story so grim as to tempt them to close this book and never open it again? Perhaps because we need early on to learn something about the nature of God’s faithfulness and the salvation God brings through his grace.
“After these things” God tests to see where Abraham was at. But not just after “these things” in the life of Abraham but this story also follows the first eleven chapters of Genesis which detail humanity’s steady moving away from God the Creator. God and humanity had become alienated, estranged. But with Abraham the world was to begin again. This had to go just right because on this man’s faithfulness all depended.
In short, this was a unique test for a unique figure in salvation history. It was also an event that foreshadowed the death of the beloved son as the way to seal the covenant. Yet we tend to resist the notion of an evil so deeply entrenched that it requires even God to go to dangerous and shocking lengths of sacrifice to root it out. But Genesis 22 confronts us unstintingly with God’s view of sin and salvation–a point of view that is uncompromising on how dearly salvation will end up costing God.
If Genesis 22 introduces a scary element early on in the biblical picture of reality, Genesis introduces even earlier the notion of God as the giver and keeper of promises. It started in Eden. The dust from the first sin had not settled yet before God promised to send someone to crush the serpent’s head and bring a better day. Then comes the story of the Flood, which concludes with more promises. Then comes Abraham and the opening of the covenant and that grand promise of being a God to Abraham and to his descendants forever. The Israelites were a people of the promise. They headed for centuries toward the Promised Land. They lived for centuries more with the hope of the messianic promise that God would send his Anointed One, his Messiah, his Christ.
If you had asked the average Israelite which God he worshiped, you would have heard the reply, “I worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” That way of referring to God built a cumulative case for covenant faithfulness. God was associated with a string of past persons to whom God had been faithful, and that in turn generated hope that God would continue to be faithful. His proper name is “Yahweh,” which means either “I Am What I Am” or “I Will Be Who I Will Be.” Either way or both ways, it points to consistency, loyalty, a dogged determination to do what needs doing throughout all generations.
Faithfulness is God’s way with a fallen creation. God did a hard thing in redeeming this world. It killed the beloved Son. “God himself will provide the sacrifice, my son,” Abraham reassured a nervous Isaac. In the end God himself did provide what was needed and in the biblical long run it turned out to be God himself. It is not easy for even God to be true to his own promises in this world. It’s costly!
Of course, this particular story was no cinch for Abraham either, though the text spends virtually no time pondering Abraham’s emotional state. Abraham scarcely speaks at all. The main thing Abraham says in this story is contained in a single Hebrew word that is repeated in verses 1, 7, and 11: twice God and once Isaac call out Abraham’s name, and his simple response in Hebrew is hinenni, “Here I am.” The crispness of Abraham’s response, demonstrating that he was indeed standing at the ready, shows how far he has come since Genesis 12. He is not reported as being distressed before God intervened to stay his deadly hand nor is Abraham reported to have been mighty relieved once God stopped him. In fact, from the looks of things in verses 12-18, it is God who heaves a sigh of relief, God who is only too glad that this is over and his main man Abraham has passed this grim test.
As a sign of God’s relief and joy, the covenant receives its last re-affirmation in the lifetime of Abraham. The words about stars in the sky and sand on the seashore will not be repeated again. There are a few incidents that remain before we read of Abraham’s death in Genesis 25, but you get the feeling that everything that remains is gravy, is denoument and the tying off of loose ends. The universe has turned a sharp corner in Abraham and what happened to him on Mount Moriah. We now know some new things about this man but also some new things about God and God’s ways with a wayward world.
The story in Genesis 22 ends more or less happily. In fact, the tale concludes in verse 19 with a reprise of that Rockwell-like image we received in verses 6 and 8: Abraham and Isaac leave the mountain “together” after all. In a sense it’s a “happy ending,” but not unalloyedly so. Laughter is returned to Abraham and Sarah, but now it’s a hard laughter–a laughter tempered by suffering and sacrifice. It’s a hard laughter because now Abraham knows what God seems to have known all along: namely, the faithful fulfillment of the covenant cannot come painlessly. But it does come. God will provide. God does provide.
You can count on it.
Christians do count on it.
Whenever I watch something like the Olympics, I often think that I’m sure glad my whole life doesn’t typically come down to a single make-or-break performance or that the whole goal of my life across the last decade does not come down to one one-thousandth of a second! But that’s the way of it in something like the Olympic Games, and you sense it most keenly in those events that involve a single athlete alone out on the ice. These people have devoted their lives to one thing, have bent all their energy on achieving a single goal. The vast majority of athletes worldwide never come anywhere close to that gold medal goal, but those who do get ever-closer discover that the pressure to pull off that one, single, perfect performance mounts ever higher the nearer they get to the medals platform.
It’s finally almost excruciating to watch. Their whole lives come down to these four and half minutes out on the ice. And so when someone slips, falls, is forced to do a double-flip when it was supposed to be a triple, or when the judges give wrong marks (either by accident or by corrupt design), the world of these athletes crumbles before our very eyes as they weep uncontrollably. The sad thing is that for most of the people at that level, such mistakes really are just hiccups, not the norm. Most every one of them is often good enough to get the high marks. But that doesn’t matter: you’ve got your one test: you either pass or you fail and that’s it.
And so I often think it’s a shame it has to be that way for these talented people and I’m frankly glad my whole life doesn’t hang on so slender a thread of just one big test. Yet in a way, the history of our faith, the things that allow us to call ourselves Christians to this very day, also depend on some singular tests that certain people had to face once upon a time. Genesis 22 is the Bible’s premiere example.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 13’s brevity is perhaps exceeded only by its intensity. In fact, Old Testament scholar James May suggests its brevity emphasizes not just the intense pain and power, but also the promise of this psalm of lament.
It is the shortest of the psalter’s psalms of lament. Yet scholars note all of the essential features of such prayers for help are found in it. Psalm 13 is made up of three parts: a description of trouble, a plea for help and an offering of praise to the Lord. This brief psalm is also composed of the typical “triad” of psalms of lament: you (God), I (the one who prays), and they (the source of the psalmist’s trouble).
However, while the whole psalm is concise, its address is even terser. “How long, Yahweh?” (italics added) the poet immediately asks. In it the poet speaks to God, using the form of address God gave to God’s people so that they could access God’s mercy.
The psalmist alludes to her “enemy” in verse 4. However, that foe isn’t really the source of her misery. The poet doesn’t even bother to explain what the enemy is doing to her. In a very real sense, Yahweh, not the enemy, is the source of the poet’s pain.
This gives worshipers something to really “chew on.” How often, after all, are modern worshipers willing to lay the blame for their pain not at the feet of people or circumstances, but of God? It’s worth exploring why worshipers seem at least publicly reluctant to scold God for what they perceive as God’s unfair treatment of them.
The psalmist certainly isn’t reluctant. “How long?” he asks of Yahweh, not once but four times in just two short verses. This lends, notes Mays, a strong tone of protest to this prayer. The psalmist isn’t pleading for more information; he’s pleading for action. God, after all seems to have forgotten him and hidden God face (1) from the poet.
After verse 1, the poet quits directly blaming God for her misery. Yet the next two verses suggest the poet believes God’s forgetfulness and neglect have directly led to her misery she describes in verses 2 and 3. God, the poet at least implies, has let the poet wrestle with her thoughts and grief (2). God has let the poet’s enemy triumph over her (3).
Even if individual worshipers don’t feel as though God has forgotten and neglected them, they can still pray this psalm. These might, after all, be the words of the neighbor whose spouse is abusing her or whose children are being neglected. These might be the words of Christians who are paying a high price for their faith and faithfulness. These are the words, in other words, of the Body of Christ, the Church universal.
While the exact form the poet’s enemy’s attacks take are unclear, the threat is very clear. The psalmist suggests he’s in real danger of being killed or at least having his enemies rejoice in his destruction. While we might think of death as the worst of those two fates, we need to remember that the poet’s enemy’s rejoicing would also be a rejoicing over the downfall one of God’s own, therefore bringing dishonor on God.
In response to that threat, for what does the psalmist beg? For God to hear and help her, as well as give light to her eyes. Maybe the poet feels as though God has either gone to sleep on her or turned God’s attention away from her. Perhaps she feels as though her prayers aren’t getting past the ceiling of her room. In any case, she begs God to not only hear, but also answer her desperate prayers.
The meaning of the third plea, for God to “give light” to the psalmist’s eyes is less clear. It’s obviously a plea for God’s help. Just what form that helps takes is unclear, though the outcome of failure to help (“I will sleep in death”) suggests that the poet is begging God to somehow save his life.
The progression in the psalmist’s address to God is worth noting. In verse 1 the poet speaks to the “Lord” (Yahweh). In verse 2 the poet addresses the Sovereign as the “Lord my God” (Yahweh Elohim). The psalmist is free to address his God because God has graciously given God’s children the right to join together in calling the Maker and Sustainer of heaven and earth “my God” (italics added).
Psalm 13 ends with a profession of faith (5) and promise to praise (6). It’s striking, however, that the poet introduces those with the word “But” (waw). That suggests that as the poet writes this laments, she believes God has not yet paid attention to and answered her. She may still feel forgotten and ignored by God, as well as threatened by her enemies.
That little preposition “But” is instructive for the life of faith. If, after all, God’s children wait until God has said “yes” to our prayers to profess our faith, we may have to wait a very long time. If we wait until God has fully rescued us, we may never promise to praise the Lord. Professions of faith and vows to praise must often be made while still in the darkness.
The poet offers no explanation for Psalm 13’s end’s dramatic and apparently somewhat abrupt move from lament to faith, from complaint to praise. It can only be, to use an overworked contemporary phrase, a “God thing.” The Spirit seems to have helped the beleaguered poet to remember that God’s love (hesed), while not always obvious, is always “unfailing.” The poet seems again confident, not in his ability to pull himself out of his mess, but in God’s great faithfulness.
The poet reminds us that by God’s amazing grace, protest, profession and praise can live together, however sometimes uneasily, in the human heart. God, summarizes Mays, is so faithful that one can speak of misery as the absence of God. However, God is also so faithful that one can also always speak to and about God even in difficult times as “my God.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a skillful rhetorician in his own right, employed the psalmist’s refrain “How long” to great affect in his March 25, 1965 speech in Montgomery, Alabama. He spoke this speech, sometimes called “Our God Is Marching On!” at the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery.
“Somebody’s asking,” King said, ‘How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?’ How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?”
“It will not be long,” King continued. “Because ‘truth crushed to earth will rise again.’ … How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. How long? Not long, because ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored … His truth is marching on … Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah! … His truth is marching on’.”
The full speech is in some ways striking in its parallels to Psalm 13. There are certainly elements of lament in it.
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
We’re in Ordinary Time in the liturgical calendar, so our focus is not on the celebration of major Christian holy days, but on the ordinary days of Christian living. Some liturgical traditions call this the growing season. That is a particularly apt description of the epistolary readings in the Year A Lectionary cycle. Week after week our focus is on Romans 6-8, where the subject is the problem of lingering sin. Nothing can hinder our spiritual growth more than lingering sin.
What do I mean by lingering sin? Well, the first five chapters of Romans have explained the fundamental Christian doctrines of human sin and divine salvation. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but God has provided for our need by graciously giving us the righteousness of Christ that we receive by faith alone. Our sin has been forgiven; we have been justified; and now we are reconciled to God and held in the arms of his unconditional love. But, there is still sin within us and we commit sin all the time. What are we to do about this lingering sin? That is the subject of Romans 6-8.
Last week we heard the first part of Paul’s answer. In response to the grace abuse that says, “Let’s sin the more that grace may abound,” Paul says, “We have died to sin; how can we go on living in it?” We must live in the new reality of our death and resurrection with Christ; “count yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus (verse 11).” Our reading for today begins with verse 12 which gives some practical, behavioral counsel for conquering the sin that still clings to us. Not only do we have to think clearly about who we are in Christ (“count yourselves…”), but there are some things to do. We must exercise our wills. Make an effort. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin. Do not offer your tongue to swearing. Do not offer your ears to vile music. Do not offer your mind to impure thoughts. Do not offer your hand to strike another person. Do not offer your imagination to shady business deals. Do not offer your genitals to illicit sex. Do not offer your stomach to gluttony. Offer the parts of your body to righteousness.
Then in verse 14 Paul introduces a whole new aspect of combating the sin that clings to us even though we are forgiven and justified—“you are not under law, but under grace.” He is responding to a second form of the “let’s go ahead and sin since we are already forgiven” argument. This form of the argument says something like this. “I know I don’t have to give in to sin anymore, but I want to. I like it. It’s fun. It works. And since I’m not under law, I can do anything I want, can’t I? If I’m under grace and God loves me anyway, why shouldn’t I sin?”
Paul gives what amounts to a one word answer—bondage. When you sin, you come (back) into bondage to sin with all that involves. Conversely, when you obey God, you come into bondage to God with all that involves. Which kind of bondage do you want? Picture a toddler, a little girl between the age of 18 and 24 months, wandering away from mommy at your local shopping mall, a look of gleeful rebellion on her little face. But every tenth step, she turns to see if mommy is coming to get her. In that little human being, we see one of the fundamental issues of life.
We want to be free and we want to be loved.
We want to be ourselves and we want to be held.
Lurking behind these chapters of Romans is the very popular, but deadly idea that the only way you can be truly free is to break away from every form of bondage to God’s love and do whatever you want. In these chapters, Paul preaches the very unpopular, but life-giving Gospel that the only way you can be truly free is to submit to the sweet bondage of God’s love and do what he wants. Indeed, if you toddle away from God in the name of freedom and being able to live your own life, you will find yourself in a bondage that will finally rob you of your very life.
Either way there is bondage. No matter who you are, you are always a slave to something or someone. Though many of our contemporaries don’t want to believe that, the thoughtful ones see it. When the great American novelist, John Updike, was in Grand Rapids a while ago, he said, “Being human is no picnic.” In addition to the fact that we can foresee our own deaths and can discern the absurdities of our existence, “we are enslaved to the need to provide food and shelter for ourselves. We are in the grip of sexual impulses.” The atheistic psychologist, B.F. Skinner, took that idea to its ultimate limit in his book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity. He claimed that we are nothing but slaves to the forces of nature and nurture, our genetic makeup and our societal conditioning. We have no freedom and, thus, no dignity. We are nothing but advanced animals. If you think otherwise, you are simply deceiving yourself.
Anyone who believes in the sovereignty of God won’t agree with Skinner, but there is a different sort of bondage—not physical, but spiritual. Everyone in this world is living in bondage, either to God or to sin. Paul says in verse 16, “Don’t you know that when you offer yourself to someone to obey him as a slave, you are a slave to the one you obey—whether you are a slave to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?”
“Don’t you know?” The answer is “no,” many people don’t know. We should. It’s kind of a no-brainer, but then many of us have lost our minds about this whole business of sin. Here’s the principle we should all know—actions have consequences. What you do today will have repercussions tomorrow. And when it comes to sin, that is terribly true. What you obey today will determine your slavery tomorrow. You can’t just sin a little bit today and not have it affect tomorrow. The idea that just a little bit of sin doesn’t really hurt is a diabolical lie going all the way back to that first bite. Paul is simply echoing the words of Jesus in John 8:34. “Whoever sins is a slave to sin.” That is an unbreakable law of the spiritual realm. That’s why you don’t want to sin. It will make you a slave to sin.
That would be a crying shame, since we have already been freed from sin by the work of Jesus Christ through your faith in him. Verse 17 says it this way: “But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” There’s a terribly important truth in those words—there is no middle ground in this matter. You are either a slave to God or a slave to sin. You can’t avoid living in the house of bondage. The only question is, bondage to what or whom? Will it be the hard but sweet bondage to God’s love or the easy but bitter bondage to sin? We must choose, not whether, but to whom we will be in bondage.
As I was reflecting on this, I recalled a bit of ancient history. Well, not actually ancient, but from several decades ago. In my neck of the woods, there was an organization called Freedom Flight Task Force. It was responsible for bring large numbers of Vietnamese refugees to West Michigan. Part of my memory of those times is a book about Vietnam, entitled A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. The author, Robert Butler, writes, “We’re all immigrants of a sort. We’ve all left something. We’ve all been exiled from somewhere, even if it’s just from our childhood. How do I shape my identity in the present in relationship to what I’ve left behind?”
That was exactly the problem the children of Israel faced again and again as they wandered in the wilderness after God delivered them from the house of bondage in Egypt. They weren’t permanent residents of the Promised Land yet with its milk and honey. They were immigrants and they had to decide over and over again which direction they wanted to go, which bondage they preferred, whose slaves they wanted to be. Would it be the whip-wielding, back-breaking old Pharaoh? Or would it be the water-parting, fire-breathing Yahweh.
How many times didn’t they think about the Good Old Days back in the house of bondage? At least they had tasty food and readily available water and permanent housing back there. Although they were free from Pharaoh, they still lived with the memories and the pleasures and the lure of the house of bondage, because they found that bondage to Yahweh isn’t always easy either. So at the end of their wandering, as they stood at the edge of the Jordan River, Joshua had to challenge them all over again. “Choose you this day whom you will serve.”
That is Paul’s call to us Christian immigrants, journeying in the wilderness somewhere between the gates of hell and the Promised Land. To help us choose, he lays out another simple principle—if obedience determines slavery, then slavery determines destiny. He spells out the consequences of the two kinds of bondage. First, in verse 19, he talks about bondage to sin; “you used to offer the parts of your body to impurity and to ever increasing wickedness….” And says verse 21, “What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death.”
Here’s where bondage to sin leads—to impurity, to uncleanness, from one little sin here and another there to a sense of uncleanness, in other words, to increasing wickedness. You can’t just sin and then quit by moral effort, because sin is progressive and addictive. Sin leads to more sin. It’s enslaving. And finally it results in death—not that God will kill you for sinning, but that sin itself will kill you. Sin looks like so much fun; it feels so good; it seems to work in this old world. But it always results in death.
Here’s where bondage to God leads, according to verse 22. “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness and the result is eternal life.” The more you offer yourself to God as his slave, the more holy you will become. Holiness, like sin, is progressive, addictive, habit forming. Once you start to practice obedience as a life direction, you will see holiness grow. And in the end you will find eternal life—not as a reward for holiness, not as an earned wage for righteous deeds, but as a free gift of God’s grace purchased with the currency of Christ’s precious blood. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (verse 23).”
The toddler in us is faced daily with this choice—do I want to be free or do I want to be loved? Do I want to be true to myself or do I want to be held by God? The devil says you have to choose one or the other, and it is better to be your own master. “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.” The Gospel of Jesus Christ says that’s a false choice. Indeed, it is only when you know you are unconditionally loved by God that you can be yourself. It is only when you are caught in the sweet bondage of God’s love that you are truly free. It is only when you realize that you are under grace, living in the house of gracious bondage, that you will truly enjoy living. It is only when you offer yourself to God as his slave that you will begin to experience the incredible joy of eternal life here and now.
Solomon Northrup tells a terrible tale in his memoir, Twelve Years a Slave. Northrup was a free black man living in New York when he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War south. His book, now an award-winning movie, paints a picture of southern slavery that will make any sensitive soul cringe in pain and shame. For twelve interminable years Northrup lived in the house of bondage, and he wants his readers to know that it was not pleasant.
After he was finally redeemed from his bondage, he wrote his book in part to expose as a diabolical lie the slave owners’ propaganda that slaves were better off under the white man and that they actually enjoyed the slave’s life. As a free man who was literally dragged into slavery, Northrup wanted everyone to know that there was absolutely nothing good about slavery. Living as a free man was infinitely better.
What a message for those who’ve been set free from the house of bondage to sin! No matter what the world’s propaganda tries to tell us, freedom in Christ is infinitely better than being in bondage to our own sinful desires.