July 03, 2017
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Author: Scott Hoezee
I’m sure they had their reasons. I refer to the folks who put together the readings for the Revised Common Lectionary. I’m sure they had their reasons to leap-frog over verses 20-24 but in so doing, they created something of an irony (if not something of an exegetical faux pas).
Granted, Jesus’ rant against various cities in the deleted/skipped verses here are difficult to read. They also seem to come from out of nowhere, nestled in between some nice musings about John the Baptist and some lovely words about rest for the weary. I imagine that if today one of us preachers suddenly interrupted one of our own sermons for a turn-the-air-blue diatribe, our congregations would arch a collective eyebrow and wonder if we’d had a bad burrito the night prior. Most of our congregants would also doubtless do their best to ignore what had just happened (and hope it did not happen again anytime soon!).
So maybe the Lectionary folks thought that, too. This does not fit here. Maybe it’s even a textual mistake, a wrong insertion. Who knows? In any event, it’s easier to skip these judgments than engage them.
But on that point I must hasten to demur. Because the skipped verses are framed by other verses that pretty much tell us we are making a mistake to pretend Jesus did not speak the words he did about Korazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum. In verses 16-19 Jesus pretty much says that it is a theological error to look at who Jesus is and what he does and then choose to deride Jesus for those words and actions.
“The problem with you people,” Jesus says, “is that you want to call all the shots, force every prophet into your own pre-conceived mold. If you don’t like the message, you pick up on some aspect of the messenger as an excuse to reject him entirely. John never eats and you say that’s just nuts. I do enjoy eating and drinking and you say I’m an epicurean liberal. It’s high time you listen to what God’s prophets say and stop looking for excuses for the fingers you keep sticking in your ears to block out God’s truth.”
That’s what Jesus says. So how ironic that the Lectionary then turns right around and edits Jesus by having us ignore something he then went on to say! What’s more, Jesus then goes on to comment in verses 25-27 that everything he says comes straight from the Father and that to know the Father, you need to know and embrace the Son who reveals the Father.
All in all, then, this may not be a good juncture in Scripture to skip over certain words spoken by Jesus! We may not like hearing Jesus in imprecatory mode. We may not enjoy the specter of judgment on those who refused to recognize Jesus through his miracles, but it’s not up to us to edit the divine discourse.
Each preacher can and must make up his/her mind on this issue but my recommendation would be to include Jesus’ tough talk in verses 20-24 and use it as a way to understand this larger passage. In what follows, I will assume that we will not quietly bracket Jesus’ speech on the unrepentant cities.
That said . . . what is there to observe in Matthew 11? First, it is important to remember that all these words flow out of the scandalous and shocking fact that as Matthew 11 opens, no less than the imprisoned John the Baptist has sent some emissaries to Jesus to inquire if Jesus really was The One or if they should go back to waiting for the promised Messiah after all. Can it really be that the one sent to prepare the way for the Christ got to a point so desperate that he began to doubt the identity of Jesus? Or was John still pretty sure that Jesus was The One but had his disciples ask Jesus this question as a subtle rebuke over what John regarded as the too-slow pace of Jesus’ ministry to date? In that case, John’s question would have been almost a cheeky form of the question we sometimes rhetorically ask to motivate someone to greater courage and action: “Are you a man or a mouse!?”
That was the set up for Jesus not only to send word back to John that more was going on than he maybe knew but also to point out that as it turned out, neither John nor Jesus was exactly what anyone expected. Both were easily caricatured by opponents looking to impugn their characters. John was an abstemious sort who dressed weirdly, talked weirdly, and was given to many a rhetorical excess. So those who wanted to dismiss John as being of no importance in God’s grand scheme of things said, “He’s nuts. He’s got a demon in him. He’s a few garbanzo beans short of a good hummus.”
Jesus, on the other hand, appears to have been anything but abstemious. When people threw weddings, they wanted Jesus at the party (and according to John’s gospel, Jesus was even good at providing a whole winery’s worth of vino for folks who were already three sheets to the wind). When people threw dinner parties, they invited Jesus and at those gatherings, Jesus was not averse to asking for a second helping of the lamb stew. So those who wanted to dismiss Jesus as being a good non-candidate for Messiah said, “That wine-bibbing and cheeseburger-consuming fellow doesn’t look a thing like God and so can’t possibly be God’s Christ.”
In other words, “We’ll know God’s servants when we see them and these two ain’t it.”
But the God of Scripture is consistent in his ability to surprise and to startle. Indeed, a good bit of divine revelation happens precisely through just those surprises. We learn the most about God’s nature and plans not when God puts in some appearance that accords pretty much with what we expect of a deity in the first place but when God shows up in the least likely of guises and in the least likely of places.
Who would have guessed that God would have decided to start a mighty nation by approaching a wrinkled old couple in the retirement home—two people who had not managed to generate children even when they were young and virile? Who would have guessed that God’s favorites would always been the less likely of the possible candidates: crafty and wily old Jacob is favored over his more staid brother Esau; the young braggart Joseph is chosen over his more stable and hard-working brothers; Moses the stutterer becomes God’s mouthpiece instead of his more golden-tongued brother Aaron; the family runt David gets elevated over all the other sons of Jesse.
God always chooses the less likely of the options. And he shows up in other surprising places. The Israelite spies who visit Jericho make a beeline for a brothel. Who knows why they went there first but at the end of the day, God preached a sermon to them from the lips of no less than the establishment’s madam, Rahab herself. God delivers the Ninevites from certain doom by pressing into service the reluctant and truculent figure of Jonah (a man whose personality could have curdled milk, as Frederick Buechner once put it). God frees the Israelites from their long captivity by turning the Persian (and pagan) King Cyrus into a messiah.
And lest we think that these surprises were limited to the Old Testament, God starts out the New Testament with its own surprise BANG by implanting his Son into the uterus of an unsuspecting virgin named Mary and having him delivered into a donkey’s feed bunk.
John the Baptist looked at the shape and content of Jesus’ ministry and said, “This can’t be. He can’t be the one.” But John should have just looked in the mirror. Because if God could use the zany son of Zechariah and Elizabeth . . . well, there was just no telling what God might do next! Small wonder that Jesus ends up saying in verse 25 that praise is to be given to God for revealing the deep truths of salvation not to the wise and learned but to “little children.”
Children, after all, have a vast capacity to be surprised!
Jesus’ words in Matthew 11 about his “easy” yoke and his “light” burden are among the best-known in the New Testament. The word usually translated as “light” is accurately rendered as meaning something that is light in terms of weight. But the other word associated with Jesus’ yoke—the Greek word chrestos—means something more than “easy.” Chrestos carries with it more of a ring of “kindness” and of “pleasantness.” Apparently, Jesus’ yoke is the opposite of what we’d usually associate with yokes. A yoke seems like something you’d impose, something you’d just as soon not have laid over your shoulders at all. Yet Jesus’ yoke is a kind and pleasant phenomenon. It is not a despised thing but is as gentle and kind as when someone you love lays his or her hand on you to encourage you, to love you, to lead you gently and lovingly where you should go and to that place where you can flourish.
One of the more pernicious examples of sin is on display when a clever person finds a devious way to turn another person’s virtue into a liability. The idea is that you zero in on a good character trait that someone clearly and undeniably has and then turn it into something that will get that person into trouble.
For example, during the 1948 Texas campaign for the U.S. Senate, Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson ran against a highly popular former governor of Texas, Coke Stevenson. Johnson knew that Stevenson had a high respect for people’s intelligence. Stevenson believed that people would recognize a blatant lie when they saw one such that there was no need to refute such a lie publicly. The good folks of Texas would figure this out for themselves. So Johnson put out a blatant lie about Stevenson’s stance on a trade issue. Johnson knew Stevenson would not lower himself to attempt to refute this charge. People would know the truth.
Except that after Johnson hammered away at the lie long enough, folks did start to believe it. By the time Stevenson realized this and finally spoke up publicly, it was too late. Johnson pounced on Stevenson for his way-too-late feeble defense. “Sure, NOW he speaks up . . .”
Stevenson was a man of integrity and he believed in the integrity of others. Johnson took this virtuous trait and made it a liability for Stevenson. This is not unlike the people in Jesus’ and John the Baptist’s day who took what was good and virtuous about both men and turned it into an accusation, turning virtue into a liability by twisting the words and actions of John and Jesus. They took good things and made them bad. And that is a pretty evil thing to do.
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Author: Doug Bratt
Sometimes God only seems to keep part of God’s promises. To see their complete fulfillment, we may need to squint pretty hard.
Earlier in Genesis, God promised Abraham the land of Canaan, many descendants and a worldwide blessing through him. In their old age, Abraham and Sarah saw God initially fulfill that promise through Isaac’s miraculous birth.
As the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday opens, however, that promise seems to have hit a dead end. Sarah is dead. Abraham is “well advanced in years” (1). What’s more, and perhaps most importantly to God’s promise, Abraham’s only son, the son of the Promise, Isaac, remains a bachelor.
So unless aging Abraham can find a wife for Isaac, there will be no more descendants. There will be no Israel and no Messiah through whom God will bless the earth’s families. So Genesis 24’s teachers, preachers and those who hear us wonder how God will fulfill God’s promise to Abraham.
Abraham seems to wonder the same thing. After all, his last recorded words concern his bachelor son’s future spouse. Yet while the patriarch is desperate to find a wife for Isaac, she may not just be any woman who comes from any place. The old patriarch makes his servant promise “not [to] get a wife for [his] son from the daughters of the Canaanites … but go back to my father’s family and to my own clan, and get a wife for my son Isaac” (37-38).
Not marrying a Canaanite also clearly became important for the descendants God eventually gave Abraham. Later, after all, Isaac also sends his son Jacob back to Rebekah’s family to marry one of his cousins. Even later, in fact, God’s law will specifically forbid Israelite marriage to Gentiles.
However, Abraham’s servant immediately spots a flaw in his master’s request. What, he asks, if Isaac’s future wife doesn’t want to return with me to this land? Should he, then, take Isaac back to the land from where his dad came? After all, what young woman wants to leave her parents, family and friends to follow a stranger to a faraway land to marry an unknown man?
Abraham, however, remains adamant. His servant may not under any circumstance take Isaac back to his homeland. God’s gift of the land, after all, is at stake here. Isaac must raise his family in the land of promise.
Abraham gives his servant what seems like an impossible job.
However, Scott Hoezee suggests the difficult nature of this assignment suggests that old Abraham remains confident that God will help his son marry the right woman. So Abraham confidently tells his servant that “The Lord . . . will send his angel with you and make your journey a success” (40).
With Abraham’s assurance of God’s leading, his servant travels to his master’s homeland. There he stops by a spring. Since it’s already evening, the servant knows that the town’s women will soon come out to it to draw water like they always do.
However, Abraham’s servant spots another problem: how will he know just which woman is Isaac’s future wife? His response to this dilemma reveals the depth of his faith. Before Abraham’s servant does anything but prepare his camels to drink, he asks God to give him a clear sign of Isaac’s future wife’s identity.
However, that sign turns out to be a hard test. Isaac’s future wife must be hardworking, kind and hospitable. She must, in fact, offer to go down the steps to the spring and then haul back up enough water to feed the thirsty ten camels and Abraham’s servant.
Yet before Abraham’s servant can even finish praying for God’s help, Rebekah appears. The narrator, Sidney Greidanus notes, clearly raises our hopes that this is Isaac’s future wife. He, after all, reports that Rebekah is both beautiful and unmarried. But will she offer to water both ten thirsty camels and a thirsty man?
Verse 46 answers our question by noting that Rebekah offers to do precisely that. However, the servant still can’t tell if Rebekah is somehow related to Abraham. So when she implies that she’s one of Abraham’s nieces, he gratefully worships the Lord. He later reports, “I praised the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has led me on the right road to get the granddaughter of my master’s brother for his son” (48).
Yet as Greidanus also notes, beautiful, unmarried Rachel must still leap some very high hurdles. Will she leave her family to go on a long trip with a stranger in order to marry yet another stranger, albeit a distant relative? And will her family willingly let her go?
When Rebekah’s brother Laban hears about this mysterious stranger, he hustles out to the well to check him out. There he sees the gold ring and bracelets that suggest this servant’s master is wealthy. Later the Bible implies that Laban has a pretty good “business sense.” So we’re not surprised when he warmly welcomes Abraham’s servant, takes him home, unloads his camels for him and offers him a warm meal.
Yet before he eats, Jacob’s servant insists on telling Rebekah’s family about his improbable errand. When he concludes, Rebekah’s brother and dad both profess that “This is from the Lord . . . Here is Rebekah; take her and go, and let her become the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has directed” (50-51).
Yet Rebekah’s family’s subsequent actions seem to contradict its words. After all, the next morning it begs for a ten-day reprieve. Jacob’s servant, however, insists on leaving immediately. To break the impasse, Rebekah’s family asks her if she wants to leave right away for a foreign land and an unknown husband. Or does she want to stay with her family for another ten days?
Much like Abraham went when God called him to go, so, in verse 58, Rebekah faithfully answers, “I will go.” Rebekah’s reluctant family honors her wishes. It even sends her away with a blessing, praying, in verse 60, “Our sister, may you increase to thousands upon thousands; may your offspring possess the gates of their enemies.”
When Rebekah, her maids and Abraham’s servant finally arrive back in Canaan, they notice a man approaching them. When Rebekah hears he’s Isaac, she dismounts her camel and covers herself with her veil. When his father’s servant tells Isaac all that has happened, Isaac recognizes his future wife. After all, verse 67 reports that “Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.”
So when his wife’s tent was empty, Abraham sends his servant on a basically impossible mission. That servant goes straight to Rebekah. Rebekah says, “I will go.” Rebekah’s family eventually lets her go with its blessing. Isaac and Rebekah fall in love.
So is this a story that’s full of “good luck”? Or is there something, or more accurately, Someone at work here? Interestingly enough, as Walter Brueggemann, to whose commentary Genesis (John Knox Press, 1982) I owe much for the following insights, notes, Genesis’ narrator says little about God’s direct action in it.
Yet he reports four times in our text that the Lord made Abraham’s servant’s journey successful. This invites Genesis’ 24’s preachers, teachers and those who hear us to hear this story the way its main characters understand it. In answer to prayer, God sends Abraham’s servant straight to Rebekah. The Lord also moves Rebekah to say, “I will go.” The Lord even moves Rebekah’s family’s hearts to let her go with their blessing. God then brings Rebekah into Sarah’s tent where God unites Isaac and her in love.
However, as Brueggemann points out, God doesn’t just provide in a general way. Think of how Israel must have heard this wonderful story. It reminded her that God doesn’t just work mighty miracles like God did in Egypt. God also fulfills God’s plans by quietly shaping peoples’ hearts and wills.
In this case God graciously provides a mother for Israel. Israel will continue to exist – because God miraculously provides a wife for Isaac from a distant land.
But, of course, when the time is right, as Greidanus notes, God also provides more than an ancestress to accomplish God’s plan of salvation. In John 3:16 we read that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” So just as God graciously provided a wife for Isaac, God also provided a Son for God’s church.
In fact, we might say that if God hadn’t led Abraham’s servant to find Rebekah for Isaac, we wouldn’t have had their descendant, Jesus Christ. And if Jesus hadn’t come into the world, there would be no New Testament church and we wouldn’t be Christians.
Yet by sending not just Rebekah, but also her descendant Jesus Christ, God opened the gates of salvation, not just to Israel, but also to all the nations of the world. By God’s amazing grace, we’re part of the fulfillment of God’s promise to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham.
However, in the Lord’s great providence, the Lord also continues to guide the Lord’s people. As God provided for Abraham, his servant and Isaac, God also continues to provide for God’s church’s ongoing existence. The Lord makes our own various “journeys” “successful” until Christ returns to bring his kingdom in perfection.
Of course even Genesis 24’s preachers and teachers don’t always recognize that. We don’t even always recognize those gifts as God has graciously giving them to us. Yet God generously provides us with everything we need – and often so much more – anyway.
Last summer my wife and I drove nearly 10,000 miles from the United States’ east coast to its west and back. Yet who needs God to lead us on such journeys when we have reliable cars, mechanics and road maps? Who really needs God to grant success to twenty-first century North Americans’ trips, unless we run into some kind of emergency?
In a remote part of northern California we developed car trouble. Yet we were able to nurse the car along until we reached a larger city where mechanics could fix it. We saw that as part of God’s gracious provision for our travels.
However, only on faithful reflection did we see God’s movement behind all the events we hadn’t noticed or assigned to other causes. We had to carefully study things to see God’s gracious provision. We saw God’s leading and success – but only with the eyes of faith. Even then we didn’t always see God’s gracious provision. Thankfully, however, God provided anyway.
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 145 is an exuberant, but hardly extemporaneous Psalm. Indeed, it is a carefully crafted Psalm of praise. The superscription explicitly identifies it as that, using a word for praise found only here in the entire Psalter. We might call it the quintessential Psalm of Praise, for it uses all the traditional language of praise we find scattered throughout the Psalter. If we want to learn how to praise God, here is our teacher. Indeed, its structure suggests that pedagogy was part of its purpose. I’ll say more about that structural clue in a moment.
The basic skeletal structure is very simple: a two verse introduction in which David tells his audience what he intends to do with this Psalm, namely, praise “my God the King.” The body of the Psalm (verses 3-20) sings the praiseworthiness of God; here’s why I want to praise him and why you should too. And the last verse is a pledge to continue praising God and an invitation to the whole world to join in that praise.
That body of praise can be roughly broken down into 4 stanzas, each of which sings of a different attribute of God demonstrated in his actions. Verses 3-7 are about God’s greatness. Verses 8-13a focus on his goodness. Verses 13b- 16 cover his faithfulness. And verses 17-20 revolve around his righteousness. A more careful look at each of those stanzas will reveal that they are not that simple. Those dominant ideas run into each other, appear repeatedly, and combine variously.
That lack of consistency is due to the hidden structural framework of the Psalm—hidden to the English reader but not to the reader of Hebrew. Psalm 145 is an alphabetic acrostic. Each subsequent verse begins with the letter of the Hebrew that comes after the one that began the previous verse. Thus the thoughts are arranged alphabetically, not thematically. This accounts for the apparently random occurrences of the various themes.
This poetic device makes the Psalm appear sloppy to us, but studied to the original readers. The use of an alphabetic acrostic was designed to express comprehensive praise, everything from A to Z. Or as Brueggemann puts it, the acrostic was designed to remind the audience that life is well arranged and ordered. There is no slippage, no tension, no incongruity. All is well, because God is in his heaven and he is in charge on earth in all his greatness, goodness, faithfulness, and righteousness.
That, indeed, is the theme of Psalm 145. Yahweh is the great King over all the earth, so let all the earth—not just his covenant people Israel, but all the earth, “every creature”—“praise his holy name (verse 21).” If the order of the Psalms is intentional, even theological, rather than a random collection of assorted poems, then there is a sense in which Psalm 145 is a summary of the message of the Psalter. Here is David the greatest King of Israel leading Israel and all flesh in a celebration of the Kingship of Yahweh– not only Israel’s true King, but the King of all the earth.
We could praise God for many things or, better, for his many roles in our lives. He is our creator, provider, protector, redeemer, shepherd, father, rock, and refuge. God is all of that and more. But Psalm 145 focuses on this one role that sums up all that God is to his people—our King. The rest of the Psalm is designed to help his subjects see the greatness of the King and sing his praise.
Our reading for today (verses 8-14) is cut out of the middle of the Psalm, probably because it highlights the central features of the Kingship of Yahweh. Verses 8 and 9 emphasize the benevolent goodness of the King. In the ancient Middle East, kings had absolute power and could become incredibly cruel. But Yahweh is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.”
These words, of course, echo those famous words of Exodus 34:6, which reverberate throughout the Old Testament as the fundamental revelation of God’s character. No wonder Calvin said that Exodus 34 is “as clear and satisfactory a description of God… as can be found anywhere.” These are God’s own words. This is not general, popular theology. It is the language of personal, relational, covenantal life. So it is a surprise to hear in verse 9 that the covenant God of Israel is good not only to his own people, but also “to all: he has compassion on all he has made.” No wonder David says in verse 10, “All you have made will praise you, O Yahweh.”
At the linguistic and theological center of this acrostic poem are verses 11-13. Within these verses the word for Kingdom, malkut, is found 4 times, emphasizing the theme of the Psalm. Some enterprising scholars even point out that verse 11 begins with the Hebrew letter kaph, verse 12 begins with lamed, and verse 13 with mem. If we reverse those Hebrew letters, we have melek, the Hebrew word for King. In overt and covert ways, Psalm 145 wants to remind us that Yahweh and his Kingdom are at the epicenter of everything. And, unlike the kings and kingdoms of earth that all pass away eventually, ‘Your Kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations.” For that everlasting reign, we praise our King.
And even as Yahweh’s reign is never ending, so it is universal. He is “loving toward all he has made (verse 13b).” While much of what follows outside of our reading is focused on his own people (those who “call on him… in truth,” who “fear him,” who “love him”), there are a couple of notes emphasizing his care for those on the margins. In addition to his general providential care of all (you “satisfy the desires of every living thing”), God pays special attention to “all who fall” and “are bowed down.” This is language familiar to all who know about God’s concern for the poor in the Torah and his condemnation of those who take advantage of them in the Prophets. Our great King pays attention to the least, the last, and the lost. For that tender care, we praise our King.
But we shouldn’t miss the single negative note in this Psalm. There is one group of people for whom Yahweh has no sympathy. “He watches over those who love him (and those who are unloved in the world), but all the wicked he will destroy.” The great King who is gracious and good is also righteous in all his ways. And those who rebel against his rule, who set themselves up as god-like rulers, and live in persistent wicked rebellion will discover the hard side of the King. In the end, for the good of his Kingdom and its subjects, he will get rid of the Rebellion. If he doesn’t, things will never be right in the world. There will never be peace. And though the words may stick in our throat at this thought, Psalm 145 reminds us to praise our King for that aspect of his reign too. Don’t we confess this very thing every time we say the words of the Apostles’ Creed? Jesus “will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
So the Psalter ends. Or at least some scholars think that the Psalter once ended with Psalm 145. Only later were the 5 Hallelujah Psalms, the original “Hallelujah Chorus,” added. We can’t be sure about such issues, but it is certain that Psalm 145 is the overture to those last Psalms that all begin and end with “Hallelujah,” “Praise the Lord.” All five of them echo the features and language of 145. It ends with “My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord. Let every creature praise his holy name forever and ever.” The five that follow respond to that invitation. Psalm 145:21 and Psalm 150:6 stand as an inclusio around the paean of praise the ends the Psalter. (James Luther Mays)
What a fitting conclusion to the songbook of God’s people. We’ve been singing about our life under God. We’ve lifted up our praise and our problems, voiced our love and our lament, uttered our intercession and our imprecations, confessed our faith and expressed our doubts, pouring out our broken hearts and our grateful hymns to the Lord. Life is so hard and insecure. But here at the end of all our songs, we are reminded of the one solid thing in life. Yahweh, my God, is the King of my life and the world in which I live. When the mountains shake into the heart of the sea and my faith follows, there is an equilibrium, a coherence and reliability that stands at the center of things. “I will extol you, my God the King.”
Here is a Psalm for our times. On this Sunday after the great Fourth of July celebration of freedom in the United States, many are wondering where our country and the world is headed. The new administration in the U.S. promised to shake things up and has kept that promise in ways no one could have anticipated. While some rejoice in that, many others are terrified at this shaking of the foundations. Where can we find security in our world, when a new Tweet every morning brings some new crisis? Well, our security rests in Yahweh the King, whose Kingdom is everlasting. Trust him and the Son of his love who sits on the throne at the center of the universe, ruling all things for the church (Ephesians 1).
The Talmud called upon all Jews to recite Psalm 145 three times every day. It said that all who faithfully followed that practice could be sure that they are part of the world to come. That’s not bad advice. While merely reciting a Psalm will not guarantee us a place in that world, reciting this Psalm regularly will remind us that there is a world beyond this one. Through Jesus and by faith in him, we are part of it. So, as you struggle to sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land, remember to praise the King of it all, who is your God in Christ Jesus.
One way to help people live into this ancient Jewish song is to remind them an old Christian hymn, “This is My Father’s World.” I’ll combine two stanzas to make the point.
This is our Father’s world: O let us not forget
That though the wrong is great and strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world:
Why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King, let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let the earth be glad.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Very few, if any, Christians in history have ever claimed that by virtue of being a Christian, they had become sinless. Very few, if any, have ever gone through the “Confession and Assurance” portion of the weekly liturgy merely twiddling their thumbs in that they believed that part of the service did not apply seeing as they had no sins to confess anyway. So it is perhaps unsurprising to discover that many people have looked at Romans 7 and seen in it a kind of mirror. Paul here goes on and on, in ever greater spirals of snarled rhetoric, about a spiritual battle being waged within his body. He repeatedly expresses a kind of bafflement as to the whys and wherefores of his own actions. In just seven verses (vss. 15-21) Paul employs some form of the verb “do” no fewer than twenty-one times! That’s three times per verse! It makes for difficult reading but the interpretation of this prolix language is no cinch, either.
The original Greek of this passage features three different verbs meaning “to do” or “to perform.” It is an ongoing discussion among commentators as to whether or not there are any significant differences of meaning among those three verbs. Most translations simply leave that question to one side by translating all three Greek words as simply “to do.” Paul appears to be agonizing over the ways by which human actions routinely fail to line up with God’s expectations as expressed in the law.
In the end, what many people have taken away from this passage is that when it comes to explaining any Christian person’s actions, there is a certain level of powerlessness behind our sinful deeds. We don’t want to do bad things, but sin is at work within us to lure us to them anyway. We do certain things or say certain things and we know they are wrong and we pray it will never happen again, but then it does anyway and we decry our own weakness even as we search for an explanation as to what motivates us again and again to go against even our own best intentions.
Hence, many Christians have looked at Paul’s rhetoric in Romans 7 and have concluded, “Yep, that’s me, too. When Paul talks about not doing the good he wants to do but instead doing the very thing he hates to do, all I can say is ‘Been there, done that.'”
The problem with this line of thinking is that it is by no means clear in Romans 7 that Paul is speaking as a Christian. In fact, a careful look at not just these verses but the ones on either side of this passage seems to indicate that the struggles Paul details in chapter 7 do not describe a Christian person’s battles but rather what life is like before a person becomes filled with the Holy Spirit of God. And if that is the case, then it is wrong to think that Romans 7 can be used to describe a Christian person’s life. So then the question becomes, “What does this passage describe? Furthermore, if this is not the explanation for the sins that Christians commit, then what is the explanation?”
We will take these questions in order, beginning with what Romans 7 is actually talking about. The broad outline of the Book of Romans (later adopted as the outline for also the key Reformed confession of The Heidelberg Catechism) is “Sin, Salvation, Service.” In Romans Paul spends quite a few early chapters going into great detail about the common human predicament of sin. In Romans 1-7 Paul tells the Romans why they, like everyone, are in trouble. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God. What’s more, we cannot get out of this predicament on our own–like someone caught in quicksand, the more we on our own struggle to get out, the deeper we sink.
But then beginning in Romans 8 Paul turns the corner with the good news of how God in Christ has gotten us out of sin’s quagmire. If the first part of the book tells us what the problem is, chapter 8 begins to tell us what God’s solution is: a perfect sacrifice made by Jesus. After he tells the Romans about this great gift of grace–a gift so incredible that Paul is able to say eventually that there is now nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus the Lord–Paul concludes the book with the implications this has for the rest of our lives (roughly Romans 12-16). The gift may be free, but still there are fitting ways to respond to it.
So that is the outline and the logical progression of this book: humanity is mired in sin, God has come with a mighty salvation, and so we now dedicate ourselves to serving this God because of how his saving grace has changed us forever. To be honest, the subject divisions in Romans are not quite that neat and tidy but as a way to sum up the overall movement of Paul’s writing here, this sin-salvation-service scheme works pretty well.
But if so, then Romans 7 appears still to be in the sin part, not the salvation portion that begins definitively in chapter 8. It looks as though in chapter 7 Paul is describing what his life was like (and so what anyone’s life would be like) before the grace of God comes. Paul talks a lot about the law in verses 7-14. In and through this sometimes confusing language what Paul seems to be saying is that if you are looking to the law to make you right with God, you are looking in the wrong place. Grabbing hold of the law to save you is like offering a drowning man a glass of water: it just makes matters worse.
Paul seems to have two main reasons for saying this. One, the law has a tendency not only to tell you what you should do in the future but to remind you of what you have already failed to do in the past. It’s the old “carrot and the stick” approach. On the one hand, if you dangle the law before someone, you give him or her something to shoot for. But on the other hand and at the same time, a list of rules clobbers you over the head with the fact that you regularly break those same rules. It’s like a 55 MPH speed limit sign on the highway: you can look to that sign to tell you how to drive but then again, that same sign is what the state trooper will point to when issuing you a speeding ticket. In short, Paul says that the law is mostly bad news, not good news. The law not only challenges, it chastens.
Secondly, however, Paul says something a bit more surprising here: not only does the law reveal to you your failures, it actually (and mysteriously) causes you to sin more! If I tell you, “Now listen up: I order you not to think about a pink elephant,” you are going to find it impossible to resist picturing a pink elephant in your mind. How many children have gotten into trouble in history because their mothers have said things like, “You are absolutely forbidden to look in the top drawer of mommy’s bureau!” No sooner does the average child hear that and he simply has got to take a look! Curiously enough, that seems to be what Paul says here: once a person encounters the law, not only does this person discover what “covetousness” is, he or she finds covetous desires popping up all over the place like mushrooms after a torrential rainfall!
All of that is the immediate backdrop to the better-known words that begin in verse 15. So long as it is just you and the law, you and the rules, the sin that is also already within you will wage an unholy war inside your heart. You can keep on saying to yourself, “Don’t look in that top drawer! Don’t think about that pink elephant! Don’t say that naughty word!” but over and again you will find this desire to be good competing with, and very often being edged out by, a counter-desire to do the opposite anyway. This is, to put it mildly, a most unhappy picture that Paul sketches. The picture keeps getting darker and more dismal verse by verse until finally you encounter the heart-rending cry of verse 24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?!”
Body of death. That terrible phrase alone should clue all of us into the fact that Paul is not talking about the Christian life here. By the end of Romans 8, when Paul’s language crescendos into the glorious cry that “nothing can separate us from the love of God” as well as the joyful words that “we are more than conquerors,” by then it’s pretty clear that this is not a “body of death” that is in view anymore.
Romans 7, all of it, is clearly a description of what life is like before the Spirit of God comes to us, thus making us alive in Christ, making us more than conquerors, making us joyful in the knowledge that even the darkest of all our sins have long since been put away forever. Romans 7 ends with a wretched body of death. Romans 8 ends with the glorious life of victory. What makes the difference is the coming of the Holy Spirit who places us “in Christ” where we are not dead but alive, not guilty but forgiven, not wretched but joyful.
As noted above, the Greek of Romans 7 uses several different verbs meaning “to do.” The one most commonly used here means not just to “do” something but carries with it the ring of “achieving” or “accomplishing” something. When we make salvation into a kind of contest, the outcome of which depends on our own moral achievements, then frustration, a feeling of wretched unworthiness, will result. It’s not the law’s fault, as Paul makes clear here–the law is simply God’s owner’s manual for life in this creation. The law is the reliable, God-given guide for getting along well in this world. The law by itself leads to life and happiness, but when the law collides with sin, it gets twisted.
Did you notice in Romans 7 that “sin” is not so much a description of bad things we do as much as “sin” is treated like an independent power? The way Paul talks about “sin” in this passage, he may as well have been describing something like genetics. Each one of us has his or her own unique DNA sequence. DNA is an entity, a substance inside our bodies and it determines what color eyes we have, whether or not we will tend to be thin or more plump, and maybe even whether or not we are likely to develop certain forms of cancer. Our DNA calls the shots. And here Paul says that there is also something inside people called sin, and it is just as real as DNA and just as capable of calling some shots. And when this reality called “sin” hooks up with the law, sin will turn the law from a source of life into a source of death by making us resist and thwart the divine intentions in the law.
But according to the next chapter that sinful power inside of us gets replaced with the Spirit of God when we become Christians. So to use Romans 7 as an explanation (much less as an excuse) for sinful behavior in the Christian life could be seen as a most dreadful denial of the better Spirit of life that is now within us. Yes, we Christians still struggle with temptation and yes, we still yield to that temptation all-too-often. But the wretched, body-of-death portrait of Romans 7 must not be the Christian’s bottom line.
We are not powerless anymore. We cannot say that we sin inevitably because this powerful reality of sin is calling the shots within our hearts and so, hey, what can we do?! We dare not deny the power of the Spirit within us or the fact that our spiritual address is now “in Christ.” What’s more, if we know and really accept the fact of our being in Christ (where we are forever secure and more than conquerors), then an undue focus on our depravity, our unworthiness, or the guilt we feel short-circuits the joy of Christian living even as it brushes past the wonder of grace. To go around in life beating our breasts and saying to all who will listen, “Wretched person that I am!” denies the glory of Romans 8:1 that there is now no condemnation for us. And if God does not dare to condemn us or any longer see us as wretched, who are we to call ourselves wretched!?
The Christian life is about joy, liberation, willing service, and freedom from every kind of wretchedness and death. The Spirit of Pentecost sets us free from what we read in Romans 7. Let’s not retreat back to this chapter but move forward in the glorious freedom of being children of God!
In John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, we early on meet Jim Casy, a one-time revivalist preacher who eventually gave up his ministry because he could no longer stand the hypocrisy within his own soul. When Casy meets up with Tom Joad, he swiftly unburdens himself by making a serious confession. “Tell you what–I used ta git the people jumpin’ an’ talkin’ in tongues, an’ glory-shoutin’ till they just fell down an’ passed out. An’ I’d baptize to bring ’em to. An’ then–you know what I’d do? I’d take one of them girls out in the grass an’ I’d lay with her. Done it ever’ time. Then I’d feel bad, an’ I’d pray an’ pray, but it didn’t do no good. Come the nex’ time, them an’ me was full of the sperit, I’d do it again. It worried me till I couldn’t get no sleep. Here I’d go to preachin’ and I’d say, ‘By gum, this time I ain’t gonna do it.’ And right while I said it, I knowed I was.”
Who knows whether Steinbeck knew about Romans 7, much less had it in mind, when he wrote this scene. But as this famous New Testament passage has trickled down to the popular level over the centuries, the line “The good that I would do I do not,” has become a kind of slogan for all kinds of Christian folk who reach for a biblical explanation for the sins they commit. But is Pastor Casy an example of what we find in Romans 7 or more the Christian’s ongoing struggle with sin even after he has converted to Christ? If Pastor Casy really is a Christian—and the novel indicates he is—then it is the latter, much though people could read this as an illustration of the pop (but incorrect) understanding of Romans 7.