We begin our commentary into the Epistle to the church in Rome not starting off the bat with fleshing out entirety verse one:
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,
If you know your Bible and understand just who Paul was and what he was in the sight of God before penning this letter. So I wanted to start this commentary by focusing on only the apostle himself, Paul.
And even starting this commentary with focusing on Paul doesn’t make sense. But we have got to see the importance of connecting Paul’s old life with God’s grace and mercy.
Turn back to Acts 7:51-60. Some of you guys know the story, but it bears repeating.
This was a time in the church where there was just a little growth. I say that jokingly. Thousands upon thousands were added to the church daily. These Christians were giving up their time, resources, hospitality, food, and money just to love one another and to make sure that more could be included in their fellowship.
This outpouring of love did two things. One, people knew who Christ is because the church loved one another. That’s a promise from Christ himself back in the Gospels.
The second thing that happens that when you add to the church by the thousands and you have people who are seeking to live life under the lordship of Christ who is King of kings and Lord of lords and God himself has asked each of us to obey him and believe in him and listen to him. When we do that, we are going to be at odds with the world. The world is not going to understand people who do that. The world would go as far as hate those who would call themselves Christians — also, a promise of Christ himself.
But when you are adding people who have their old hearts ripped out of their flesh, replaced with a new heart that is like God the Father’s, and subsequently a changing of their minds before God–repentance of their sins–that tends to disrupt world’s social order of things. This what we historically called revivals.
The world does not know what to do with a people group who has not made issues like politics, race, and sex secondarily and not make it not their ultimate focus. The world does not know what to do with a people group that has chosen to make Christ know and make Him grand.
Some of you may have in your heads, “Oh, he’s just talking about the world–their focus on gender issues or sexual immorality”. That is true. But what Christ preached against and yet we have been so inoculated against is those who are religious–not true religions which James spoke of but rather the religious spirit of “do these good things, and God will bless you” or “if your life is a mess, it must be because you did the wrong thing.” I am not talking about sin and the consequences thereof. I am just talking about listening to the right music, books, podcasts–in other words, just kept your nose clean. “Oh, you know Jim? He smokes. He must not be a real Christian.” You laugh, but some of you still will try to say to me, “Well, actually…” for which I don’t have time to argue.
When someone who once only knew the backbreaking yoke of false religion, idolatry, and legalism, and experiences and takes hold of the grace and love that can only be found in Jesus Christ, it tends to mess up a few people close to them. Paul will know this for a fact because he says in his letter to the church in Corinth, “everywhere we go we carry the aroma of Christ– the stench of death to those who are perishing and the fragrance of life to those who are living.” Paul knew this is because, for most of his life, when he saw or stood near a Christian, all he smelled was death and disease to him.
He spent his entire life training for one thing: maintain the church of God. And he was not about to let some man from Nazareth who lived a perfect life, died the death by which we should have died and rose again to sit at the right hand of God disrupt his way of life. And he was willing to do whatever it took to hold on to that way of life.
Let us see how far he takes it:
Stephen, a newly-appointed deacon, gives a sermon that is just on fire. For three chapters in Acts, he boldly, aggressively, loudly (perhaps) and more so than that, Spirit-empowered preaches a sermon to enemies of God. Peter not much earlier before preaches an equal fire sermon and see hundreds converted to God.
Here’s how Stephen ends his sermon:
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
Listen, if you know the Bible. At all familiar with the Gospels, this sermon sounds familiar because it has the same Spirit-empowerment and the same weight as the teachings of Jesus Christ as one who has taught with authority.
Remembered what happened to Jesus? Let’s find out what happens to Stephen when you preach what you believe:
Now when they heard these things, they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And falling to his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, Lord, do not hold this sin against them. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
A few of you would say, “That’s absolutely metal!” and you would be absolutely correct. The rest of you all would shuddered and feared at such a thought and rightfully so.
There is a newcomer in the Acts of the Apostles, a Pharisee named Saul. He was so approving of the death of any Christian that would allow he was sitting idly by while his brothers would take their cloaks off to throw stones harder at the man who preached the truth.
Saul didn’t change his mind. He just doubled down. Let’s see how that turns out.
Acts 9:1-8 But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? And he said, Who are you, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do. The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.
Who are you, Lord?
Consider that question.
Saul, filled with anger and madness, was in an instant overwhelmed with the grace and love that are in Christ Jesus, our Lord. It happened to Noah. Just as wicked as the rest of the world, but “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.”
The Lord calls out, and we stop dead in our tracks.
The Lord speaks, and we end up answering our questions.
This is what I mean: we are going to get into the rest of Romans 1 where this same Paul vehemently declares that all know the power of God because God has made it plain to us–we choose to suppress that knowledge.
Paul, then Saul, knew exactly who Jesus was. Paul saw him with his own eyes when Christ was here on earth. He chose to murder and crucified the Son of Man and kill those who would be brave and stupid enough to believe in Him.
Saul always knew who Jesus was. He chose to take the truth of God and suppress it so that he can do his own thing and protect his way of living. Saul’s self-righteousness was way better than anything that you or I can do on our own. But Christ said, you are are going to need a righteousness that is better than Saul’s. Yep. You are going to have to do better than memorize the Bible. You are going to have to do better than pray all the time. You are going to have to obey the law perfectly. You are going to have to be born a Jew. You are going to have to tithe even out your kitchen pantry and spice rack.
Saul was and did all of those things exceedingly well. But the very moment he caught a glimpse of the glory and grace of God, he declares this:
Philippians 3:4–11 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
He was completely undone. Just like Isaiah. Just like Mary. Just like the tax collector in the back of the church.
If it was really up to the way you and I did things in the world and generally in church, there would be no pickin' way we would pick Paul to teach others, become an apostle, missionary, and a church planter–let alone, an author of several books of the Bible. With us, that would be impossible.
It is only possible because God is rich in mercy, abounding in steadfast love, might one to save and delights and rejoices in seeing his little one come home.
I hope you are reading this, and you consider putting down your sinful ways. I hope you are reading this, and you consider putting down your religious and legalistic ideas. I hope you know that it is not our own doing but by God who alone redeems and saves.