Monday, 29 June 2020

Romans 1

We’re doing these studies in a ‘lockdown’ situation, so we’re all more or less confined to our homes. So, I’m expecting you to be doing this in a small ‘home’ group. You can do it on your own, but it’s best if you can talk through the discussion points with at least one other person.

We’re going to start into the text of Romans today, looking briefly at Chapter 1.

I’m going to drop a series of discussion questions. Some of these will have very straightforward answers that you can find in the text. Some of them will be less clear-cut, but it’s very important that you understand what you believe and why you believe it. So talk about these things together.

Verses 1-7 – Paul’s Greeting

Greeting (1-7)

Paul begins the letter by showing his authority and his purpose. He is:
a slave of Christ Jesus, chosen by God to be an apostle and sent out to preach his Good News
We will look in one of the later studies at what an apostle is, but he is clearly saying that he has been specifically sent by God to preach the Good news—the Gospel.

In v.5 he says that through Christ, he—and the other apostles—have been commissioned to tell Gentiles everywhere what God has done for them, so that they will believe and obey him.
  • This letter is addressed to the early Christians in Rome. How do you know that it is relevant to you?
[Pause the video until you’re ready to continue.]

Paul’s Introduction (verses 8-15)

Paul encourages them that they are doing okay! Their faith is being talked about ‘all over the world’—at least in the other Christian churches. He wants to encourage them in person—and to be encouraged by them

He wants to visit them—going to Rome is one of Paul’s ambitions, and he did have the opportunity to go there, though perhaps not in the way he would have wanted.

We might be a bit surprised by the number of times Paul says ‘I’. He writes very much from his own perspective. I think there are a couple of reasons for this.

One, everything Paul writes comes from his own personal sense of calling. He is a scholar, an intellectual, but his call from Jesus is personal. He is passionate about it. Sometimes Paul’s teaching gets deep—but it’s always coming right from his heart. We must remember this.

The other thing is that Paul is a bit different from the other apostles. He wasn’t with Jesus during his ministry, like Peter and John—in fact he was aggressively against the church at first. This is why his conversion and his passion for Jesus is so personal, but he also goes out of his way to stress his authority as an apostle to those who might not be ready accept him as a leader.
  • How does Paul show his leadership qualities in the opening section of this letter?

Verses 16 and 17

For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile. 17 This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.

Here Paul summarises the argument of the whole letter: the Good News—the gospel—has the power of God to save those who believe, both Jews and non-Jews. He links this to a verse in the Old Testament (he does this a lot): Habbakuk 2: 4
Look at the proud!
They trust in themselves, and their lives are crooked.
But the righteous will live by their faithfulness to God.
This idea that faith is linked to righteousness is one of the themes in the first half of the book.

So now we’ll start getting into the meat of Paul’s message. Keep in mind that idea he has planted that righteousness—being ‘right’ with God—comes through faith, that is, through putting a belief into action.

The next few chapters are set out a bit like a court case. First, Paul brings the case for the prosecution. 


(A slight digression: In Greek law courts, the person who brought the case for the Prosecution was called the Diabolos. It means, ‘a person who throws an accusation across someone.’ In English Diabolos becomes ‘Devil’. It is the same word.

What does the Devil do? Well, it’s a job title: he makes accusations. If you find yourself making accusations … be careful.

The Case for the Prosecution (verses 18-32)

It’s a long bit, but we’ll break it down.

Following on from the previous verse…

Verses 17 and 18-20
As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.”…

But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them.  For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.

So, proper ‘righteousness’ before God comes from faith—that is, from believing him and then acting on that belief.

But God is angry with people who ‘suppress the truth by their wickedness’.

If you’re looking at the ESV or the New King James here, it uses the word wrath, which is perhaps a better word than ‘anger’. We’ll look at that in a moment.
  • Why does Paul say that no one has any excuse not to worship God?

Verses 21-23

Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles.

Paul doesn’t beat about the bush here. He wants us to understand why God is angry with sin and what the consequences are for us—and they are severe.

If you want to understand the holiness of God, it’s worth reading the Book of Leviticus. The best way to get into that is probably by looking at the Bible Project’s short videos on the subject.

The Jewish Christians would have been very familiar with these ideas (they probably had Leviticus off by heart)—the non-Jews, not so much. Like us, they had very little idea of what holiness means.

Paul is saying that people knew God, because everything in nature points to him, but refused to worship him. And, in fact, they created false religions—idols and images—deliberately to distract away from God.

Is he talking about the Jews here? Or the Gentiles? In fact, both. This is the sad state of the whole of humankind.

That is a big accusation—but Paul goes ahead and makes it anyway.

  • What was the consequence of people refusing to acknowledge God?

Verses 24-27
So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. 25 They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. 26 That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. 27 And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.

Paul gets really specific about sex here. People did weird stuff back in the day too—and he links this with the people turning away from God. Remember, in the beginning God made men and women in his own likeness; he told them to be fruitful and multiply and to fill the earth (Genesis 1: 27, 28). God isn’t anti-sex, in fact he’s all in favour, but it should be mainly about making babies and populating the beautiful world he has made with beautiful people who reflect him.

When we take our eyes off God and his truth and focus instead on self-gratification—and for most people, most of the time sex is about self-gratification—we get into a mess.

Now, look at what Paul is saying. It’s not so much the behaviour itself that God condemns. He abandons them or ‘gives them up’ to do whatever they want because of their horrible attitude towards him. And this has its own punishment: as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.
  • What is God’s response to people refusing to acknowledge him?

Verses 28-32
Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. 29 Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarrelling, deception, malicious behaviour, and gossip. 30 They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. 31 They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. 32 They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too.

  • What are the five (at least) specific things that follow from this…

… so it isn’t just about sex. The whole world is out of whack.

You might be thinking… ‘Hold on, Paul, you can’t just say these things. I’ve never had a same-sex relationship; I’ve never deliberately hurt anyone—and I don’t go around making up new ways to sin!

That might be true, but take a step back.

I reckon everyone has a pretty good sense of right and wrong. More or less—we might quibble about some things, but broadly, we would agree on a common morality. You—all of us—have a moral code. Yet we break it anyway. We have all done things that we regret and that we’re not proud of. Despite our best intentions, we have hurt people.

And look around. People—lots of people—are living off the suffering and exploitation of others. This is the way the world is and how it has always been.

We can’t cast ourselves as victims, because even before we knew Christ, we went against our own moral code. We ‘knew God’ (in Paul’s words) but rejected his way.

So God abandons the whole of humankind to their foolish thinking (v.28). ‘Stinking thinking’, someone called it.
  • Why does God ‘abandon them’ ?

Paul tells us three times that God ‘abandons’ sinful people who ‘suppress the truth’ (the old version says that he ‘gave them up’). In Hebrew thought, repeating something three times like this magnifies it – for example ‘Holy, holy, holy’ in Isaiah 6: 3 and Revelation 4: 8 means that God is ‘really, really,really’ holy.

In this case, it means that because mankind has rejected him so emphatically and extremely, God has completely rejected them. He has really, really, really rejected them.

Think about that.

What follows is the natural result of people living without care for God and being left to get on with it.

Remember Paul’s own background here. He was a religious Jew by upbringing and education. He really and sincerely wanted to serve God (really, really, really), yet he finished up being responsible for the death of the first Christian martyr.

Paul has no doubt at all that mankind without God is thoroughly evil even where the intentions are sound.
  • In your experience, is it true that people have rejected God?

  • Is God ‘just’?

Thanks for listening and following this study, I look forward to seeing you again next time.


A bit of an encore.

Let’s think for a moment about God’s anger—his wrath.

Think of God’s characteristics, for example, his:
  • Love
  • Holiness
  • Truth
  • Faithfulness
  • Justice = Righteousness
  • Omnipotence (all-power)
  • Onmiscience (all knowing)

His ‘wrath’ comes out of these things. Try not to think of it as anger. We think of anger as an emotion—a barely-controlled emotion—that lashes out and might cause harm or damage.

God’s wrath is the flip-side of his love and his righteousness.

We’ve just made the argument with Paul that people are basically evil. But we can still see wrath working.

Say you have a daughter who you love and someone rapes her. You are filled with rage—a powerful anger that knows almost no limits. If you get your hands on the offender, you will probably kill him

Some of that anger is coming from you feeling hurt. There is a personal offence against you. Let’s put that aside, because God doesn’t respond in self-defence.

Another part of that anger comes because you love your daughter and were unable to keep her from harm. You want to defend her, to fight for her. To restore her.

That is the engine that drives God’s wrath. Because he loves the people he created, he will respond vehemently when they are threatened.

The third part, which is the most powerful part, comes from his righteousness, and therefore his justice,

Where evil has been done and where the innocent have been harmed, God is implacable and it will not stop until his holiness and righteousness are re-established. Therefore God often appears as a fire. Hebrews 12: 29 says Our God is a consuming fire. What does he consume? Unrighteousness.

Romans 1: 18 in the New King James:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.

That, in a nutshell, is the wrath of God.

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Romans Introduction and Overview

This is a study of Paul's Letter to the Romans that we did at Walk on Wednesdays in the summer of 2017.  I reproduced it with some edits for the Walk lads in the spring of 2020 as the houses were going into 'lockdown', and also made it available on the Dove Church YouTube channel.

I'm now making the transcript available for anyone who's interested.

Romans is a big book – both in the sense that it’s long, but it’s also really important. Part of the reason for studying it before was that it gets into the detail of what grace is and how faith works. It also discusses righteousness: God’s righteousness and how we can be righteous too.

So, big, important stuff. But this will only be an overview, really. We could spend a long time studying Romans – so we’ll try to take a chapter per session – maybe two sessions for Chapter 8 because it’s long. 

Always start by praying.

Pray something like this:
Lord, please give us wisdom and understanding as we approach Your word.
May whatever we learn today help us to serve You better.
Please show us something that we’ve never seen before.
May what we see in Your Book help us to see You more clearly, love you more dearly and follow You more nearly today.
  • Read the chapter aloud. These notes are based on the NLT version, but it’s a good idea to have a couple of different versions available – maybe an ESV or an NKJV would be good.
  • Look at the notes. They should help you understand what Paul is saying.
  • Discuss the questions. You can do this on your own, but it’s really intended to fire discussion of the important subjects Paul raises.

Background to Romans

This book was written to the Christian Church at Rome by the apostle Paul, probably around AD 57 or 58.

For context, that’s about 15 years after the Roman invasion of Britain; it’s about 30 years before Vesuvius blew up and destroyed Pompeii, and about 12 years before the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and scattered the Jewish people.

Most of the first Christians were Jewish, which makes sense because Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. But Paul’s special task, given to him by Jesus himself, was to take the Gospel to the Gentiles – that is, the non-Jews.
  • What does the word ‘Messiah’ mean to you? (Note: Christ means the same thing.)
(Everyone who isn’t a Jew is a Gentile, which is most people.)

This led to an interesting and often tense situation in the early churches for two reasons.

  • The non-Jews had a very different understanding of ‘God’ from the Jews. They would have grown up believing in the Greek or Roman gods, with no particular ‘theology’ or religious structure, though some may have belonged to cults of one kind or another.
  • Meanwhile the Jewish Christians had a very clear sense of who God was and what he was like – and also that he was the God of the Jews and not the Gentiles. Most Jews expected that the non-Jews would have to become Jews before they could become Christians. They wanted the men to be circumcised!
There had been a small Christian community in Rome, which had both Jewish and non-Jewish members. Then the Roman Emperor, Claudius, threw all the Jews out of Rome (sometime between AD 41-54) – many of whom finished up in Corinth, but that’s another story.

When the Jews eventually returned, they found that the non-Jewish Christians had been doing quite well without them – so Paul’s primary purpose for writing the letter is to unify the different sections of the church. This is one of Paul’s common themes.

  • What are some of the divisions among Christians today?

Paul does this by giving a thorough explanation of the power of the Gospel, and how, though its origins are in the Jewish faith, it is for everyone and has the power to transform everyone.

The key verse is Romans 1: 16:
For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile.
The Structure of Paul’s Letter to the Romans
This book is a letter, written by the apostle Paul to the Christians in Rome. There are 4 basic sections:

Chapters 1-4

The Gospel (the good news about Jesus Christ) reveals God’s righteousness and his power to save.

Chapters 1 & 2: everyone is trapped in sin, Jews and Gentiles alike – but the Jews ought to know better because of Moses’ Law.

In Chapters 3 & 4 he shows how Jews and Gentiles are both made right with God (‘justified’) by faith in Christ, and this is exactly how Abraham, the founder of the Jewish people, lived, way before Moses’ Law, which partially fulfils God’s promise to Abraham.

Chapters 5-8

The Gospel creates a new kind of human being.

Chapters 5 & 6: We don’t have favour with God because of anything we could do but because of his grace; Adam, the first human, placed the whole human race in slavery to sin, but Jesus takes us all out of slavery and gives us freedom. This is illustrated by baptism – as we take on a new identity in Jesus, we are liberated from Adam’s curse. We are moved from death to life.

In Chapters 7 and 8, Paul explains why God gave the Law to the Jews, which was to identify and define sin: it makes them explicitly guilty. Paul appears to wrestle with the logic of this. Then in Chapter 8, the solution is revealed: as the Law focuses God’s anger against sin on the Jewish people, Jesus’ death and resurrection take away that anger and release God’s Holy Spirit into the hearts of believers.
Chapters 1-8 use a lot of courtroom language – law, righteousness, justice, guilt, condemnation, justification. The language of crime and punishment runs through them: we are condemned in sin; justified by faith; Jesus took the punishment for our sins upon himself. (This language doesn’t always come through in the NLT.) 

Chapters 9-11

So, what about Israel? (The Jewish Christians are obviously very interested in this.) Paul explains how God has always selected certain people and rejected others, and that this is never based on their performance, it’s to do with God’s long-term purpose.
In Chapter 10, he reminds the Jews that acceptance by God is never based on how well they can keep the Law, but only through faith in Christ. In this way, the Jews who believe now become part of God’s wide family of faith.

In Chapter 11 Paul explains that God has not finished with Israel. While most of the Jews have rejected Christ for the time being, in the end they will come back.

Chapters 12-16

Practically, what does this new life look like? Conflict is bound to happen with such a diverse community of believers. In Chapters 12 & 13, he explains that love is the answer. Jesus has given us gifts to enable us to serve on another in humility. This fulfils the Old Testament commands to love God and our neighbours.

In Chapter 14 and 15 he shows how love and mutual respect is the key to healing differences and divisions within the church, and finally, in Chapter 16, Paul greets various brothers and sisters by name. The people’s names seem strange because they are ancient Romans.
Interestingly, the first teaching on the Letter to the Romans may well have been given by a woman – Phoebe.

Thursday, 4 June 2020

The Festival of Shavuot (Pentecost)

Photo: Paz Arando on Unsplash

This Friday/ Saturday is the Jewish Festival of Shavuot - originally a harvest festival also known as the festival of weeks.  For believers in Christ it is also the date of Pentecost which we celebrate in church on Sunday.

It’s very interesting that it is connected to the Passover as they count seven whole weeks (49 days) from the Passover and then the following day, the 50th day is Shavuot, or Pentecost.  ‘Pentecost’ literally means 50.

There's a direct link between the end of one era, counting the 50 days is the transition time into the next era with its beginning being marked at the Feast of Shavuot/ Pentecost.

It's fascinating that it was originally a harvest festival.  It tells us a lot about its purpose.  Harvest time!!

On this date in Moses’ time, 50 days after the exodus, God made a reciprocal covenant with Israel as Moses read out the commandments and the people responded by accepting them.  He gave them these commandments and laws (the Torah) as revelation, as law and guidance, and as study. The word “Torah” means teaching, guidance, instruction, direction.

Around 2000 years later, on the same biblical date after Jesus death, resurrection and ascension, God gave the Holy Spirit, at this time establishing an unconditional covenant to both Jews and gentiles, ‘pouring out his spirit on all flesh’. Immediately afterwards the church was birthed and evangelism swept through the Jewish and gentile communities with multitudes turning to God. Remember it's a harvest festival.

The Exodus from Egypt marked the end of an era of slavery, fifty days of preparation followed.  Moses met with God for 40 of them before the new era began on Shavuot with the giving of the Torah.

In the time of Jesus, his death at Passover also marked the end of an era. In the fifty days that followed he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, with the spirit of God instructing the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the gift the Father had promised them.

Shavuot is one of the three ‘pilgrimage festivals’ which would have caused the Jews to go to Jerusalem, the disciples must have had it in mind to leave for him to tell them to  ‘stay’. They were probably afraid they might suffer the same fate as Jesus.

It was also customary for Jews on the final night to gather; they would stay up all night seeking God and reading aloud the Torah in expectation that God would do something miraculous on the fiftieth day—which is Shavuot. At 9 o’clock in the morning on Shavuot God filled them with The Holy Spirit and baptised them with fire. We call this day Pentecost but it is the anniversary date of God giving the Torah and making Covenant with Israel.

God uses prophetic patterns. On key biblical dates there is precedent so we can be seeking, looking, getting ready and prepared for its coming.

  • Jesus sacrificially gave up his life on the same date as the sacrificial lambs were slaughtered for the Passover.
  • The Holy Spirit was given on the same date as the Law.

It's not always a big shift like this, but God always shifts something at these times, reveals something new to us. When there is a BIG change it is ‘always’ according to his biblical calendar and prophetic pattern. It's partly so we can be preparing ourselves.

We know something new is coming—big or small, it's never insignificant!

I wonder what it will be this year.

I don't know but I want to be ready to receive it. First in line so to speak. And we know it’s ALWAYS connected to harvest.


Joyce Jones (via Rob Bottrill)