Monday, June 17, 2013

Evidence for Faith [Romans 10.1-13] (1 July 2012)

Today we bring to a close our series of messages on Paul’s letter to the Christians at Rome. We are dealing with a portion of chapter 10, which along with chapters 9 and 11 show us Paul’s immense anguish about one overarching issue: Israel’s Messiah had come, but most of the people of Israel were still waiting for their Messiah.

Twenty centuries later, a few Jews still wait for their Messiah to be revealed. But for the most part the Jews have stopped waiting. Not because they believe their Messiah has come. Rather, they have given up any hope of his coming. Paul would be completely distraught today.

But in Paul’s day, they were still waiting. And Paul had to face the burning issue of whether the revelation in Jesus was not enough. Why were only a few Jews convinced that Jesus was and is their Messiah?

We who are separated by twenty centuries of time and thousands of miles need some information that was readily available to the people to whom Paul wrote this letter. 

Romans was probably written around AD 55. In AD 49, the emperor Gaius had the Jews expelled from Rome, as recorded in Acts 18.2 and confirmed by non-biblical sources. Paul spent more than a year at Corinth, during which he came in contact with many Jews who had fled Rome as a consequence of Claudius’ edict. 

When Nero came to power in AD 54, he rescinded the edict and allowed the Jews to return to Rome. Many of the people Paul was writing this letter to were these who had returned. But they were those who had left Rome as Jews, but who had returned as Christians. They knew what had happened to Paul while both they and he were at Corinth.

We need a refresher. In Acts 18.12 and 13 we read that Paul was taken before the proconsul Gallio. The Jews charged him with persuading people to worship God contrary to the Jewish law.

Remembering that they always went first to the Jews as even in Acts 18, we should ask ourselves, “What was so offensive about Paul’s preaching that the Jews hauled him before the proconsul?”

Paul knew the answer. He had been a sworn enemy of the church some years before. He knew the Jews were a zealous people because he himself was zealous. But as he says here, zeal without knowledge is worthless. He looked back at his former worldview and remembered why he had persecuted those who believed Jesus was the Messiah.

Well, for one thing, a dead Messiah is no Messiah. The Messiah was supposed to drive the enemies away from Israel, not end up being crucified by the enemies. A person who ended on a cross could only be cursed by God. And so such a person could never be the Messiah.

He is shaken from such a view on his way to Damascus, when Jesus has an encounter with him. And he has three days of blindness in which he is finally able to see the truth. On the road he asks, “Who are you , Lord?” and he begins to realize that the answer to that question is, “Jesus is Lord.”

Is! Such a small word. Such a powerful word in this context. Not Jesus was Lord. Not Jesus will be Lord. Rather Jesus is Lord. Right then. Right now. Paul realizes that this could only mean that something wholly unanticipated had happened, that in the midst of time, rather than at the end of it, Jesus had been raised from the dead.

Mind you, most Jews of that time believed that God would raise the faithful from the dead at the end of time. The issue that most Jews would have had with the preached gospel was that the Christians said that Jesus had been raised while their mundane lives went on as usual. That was not supposed to happen. 

Resurrection was supposed to be one of the final acts of God when he brought everything to its culmination. But here was this bunch of people who claimed that it had already happened to one person – just one person, and that too in the midst of this era. 

From a conventional Jewish perspective, this was just unintelligible. We can recall the response of the apostle Thomas. We call him doubting Thomas, but really this was the reaction of all the disciples. Even the women who first witnessed the empty tomb did not conclude that Jesus had risen from the dead. Their conclusion was that perhaps someone was playing a cruel joke on them by stealing Jesus’ body.

Most Jews that Paul would have encountered during his preaching of the gospel would have been like Thomas, asking for proof. Some may have said, “If Jesus is really alive, let him come down from heaven and show himself to me, just as he did to you, Paul.” Or “If Jesus is really risen, let me see the place of the dead and confirm that he has been taken from there already.”

People asking for proof of the events of the gospel is nothing new. Paul must have encountered such demands on a daily basis. “Why you? Why not me?” would have been the unsettling question he would have faced.

And Paul knows that proof and faith cannot go hand in hand. Just as he said in chapter 8 that no one hopes for what he already has, so also he could have said here that no one believes what has already been proved to him. Faith and proof are mutually exclusive. Where one exists, the other cannot.

Mind you, I am not saying that we must have blind faith. Far from it. God has given us our minds and our ability to reason. And he expects us to use those abilities. But he also expects us to be humble enough to know when we have reached the end of our abilities.

Here in Romans 10, Paul writes, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The book of Acts records the preaching of the early church. And from Peter and John to Stephen and Paul the preaching centers around two points: Jesus is Lord and Jesus has been raised. The exaltation of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus formed the hinges of their proclamation.

Twenty centuries later, we read these words and are hardly fazed by them. We have accepted these two hinges and so we are unable to appreciate how ground breaking the gospel is.

As we have seen, resurrection was something the Jews believed would happen. But it would happen at the end of time, when God recreated his marred creation. Resurrection was something that belonged not to this fallen order of things, but to the renewed order that God had promised to bring about, when he would finally come and live with his people.

The resurrection of Jesus in the middle of this old order means but one thing: God has decided to allow the new order to press in upon the old. Without doing away with the old order, God has inaugurated his new order.

Christians are caught in the middle of this invasion of the new creation. On the one hand we experience the Holy Spirit indwelling us. But on the other hand, we still are limited by our sinfulness. Paul has written about these aspects of the Christian life earlier in Romans.

Here he is addressing those who had accepted the proclamation of Jesus’ exaltation and resurrection and we can count ourselves in that group.

The Christians at Rome, who had left Rome as Jews and had returned as Christians, would have returned with others who we still not-Christians. And those Jews would have ridiculed the Christian faith, just as Paul once had. They would have demanded proof of Jesus’ exaltation and resurrection.

But what Paul is telling those Christians and us twenty centuries later is to avoid the temptation of thinking that if one is only more fervent in one’s faith or more vocal with one’s words, one will be able to get a glimpse of Jesus.

The Christian faith is not one of flamboyance. There are few, if any, fireworks. God is not some genie, existing to provide blinding proof of Jesus’ exaltation and resurrection by doing this miracle or providing that sign.

We would like God to simply show himself. We are confident that if Jesus simply revealed himself, people would believe the gospel. But the problem is that you cannot believe what you see. Sight precludes faith. The reason God is hidden is that only his hidden-ness leaves space for faith.

Once again, God does not ask for blind faith. Rather, he provides us with evidence, through scripture, through the voice of the Spirit in us and through the voices of other Christians around us. And as these voices rise in a crescendo around us, we confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead.

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